A Productive Period

Digital Studio catches up with intaj executive director Paul Baker.
Paul Baker
Paul Baker

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Digital Studio catches up with twofour54 intaj executive director Paul Baker and head of sales Jamal Al Awadhi for the lastest from the media production zone.

It’s hard to believe it’s been well over a year since Paul Baker took up his role as executive director at intaj, the production services arm of Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 media zone.

In that time there have been a number of changes at twofour54, including the appointment of Noura Al Kaabi as CEO, the arrival of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission under the twofour54 umbrella, the launch of Tropfest Arabia, and of course the ongoing expansion of twofour54’s partner base, which currently stands around the 200 mark.

Of course, not all of this sits within intaj’s remit, but with so many changes taking place, it can be hard to keep up, so Digital Studio was pleased to get the opportunity to catch up with Baker, as well as intaj’s recently appointed head of sales Jamal Al Awadhi to get the very latest on what’s going on at intaj.

Baker has clearly had time to begin shaping his vision of intaj, and this is something he set to work on soon after his arrival: “Shortly after I arrived in post last year we undertook a strategic review and identified four key business areas that should be our prime focus,” he says.

“Ultimately our role is fairly straightforward. We’re a production facilitator for our partners in the twofour54 zone, as well as other regional or international companies looking for production facilities in the region, and we’ve split that fourfold into studios, post production, broadcast services and production services for film and TV.

Going forward, we’ll be very much focused on those key areas and working with partners to deliver the highest quality to the region.

“Our vision is to create world-class content, particularly for the Arabic market, and with Arabic staff who understand that culture and how stories are told here. That said, we want to be the facilitator of choice for everybody who’s making content in the region. And we want everything that leaves our doors to be world class.”

To this end, twofour54 has already invested in some top class facilities with which many readers will already be familiar. It currently operates eight commercial studios, and an extensive post production facility, while for broadcasters setting up in the zone it can offer a complete end-to-end service with studios, MCR, editing suites, playout and even uplink to Samacom for broadcast.

The most recent customer for this service was Iraqi channel Al Madar TV, which is based at twofour54’s Studio B. twofour54 intaj provided Al Madar with a full range of services including fully soundproofed studios, fully equipped control room with 5 Sony HD cameras (INEWS System), full playout system, two dedicated edit suites, graphics services, and uplink/downlink.

Crucially, all the facilities are in one place, a situation which Baker says is proving very positive for channel parent Tigris Media, and which will doubtless prove a major draw for other broadcasters seeking a base in the region.

“We’re in negotiations, two of them advanced, with a number of other channels about offering a similar end-to-end service, so we’ll be looking at building more studios in future as our current eight are fully booked.

We put this directly down to the success of Tigris since they set up.In the long term we’re looking at relocation of the whole mediazone to a new site, but that’s some way off yet, so we expect to expand on our current facilities with additional studios in the meantime.”

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For film or documentary makers, meanwhile, intaj’s enviable post production facilities include the region’s only full Baselight colour correction system, which could shortly become the region’s only two systems as a major renovation is planned: “Our post facility is doing really well, and we’re going to stay ahead of the game with a major revamp,” says Baker.

In terms of equipment, the facility is already well-supplied with Baselight, two ProTools suites, numerous FCP and Avid suites plus suites for Smoke and graphics, but a key driver in the refurb is creating the right environment to work: “We’ve brought all our post facilities into the Khalifa Park Campus and we’re converting one studio into a screening room/second Baselight suite.

Partners will be able to use that for events and screenings too. We’re seeking to nurture a proper ‘post house environment’ where you want to spend all day around creative people. The new post facilities should open after Ramadan.”

Clearly intaj’s technical facilities and services are a big attraction for partners – as Baker sums it up “If a production company sets up here and needs to do post, there is an existing post facility they can come and access.

If a TV channel needs to broadcast its content, there are facilities for that, and our main priority is simply to make life easier for our partners to create and broadcast great content.”

However, the technical side is not the only thing that brings an ever rising number of partners to intaj. Another major draw lies in partners’ ability to access the government sector through government-owned twofour54, and this is an area Baker’s team have recently been strengthening: “Towards the end of last year we launched The Briefing Room,” he explains.

“This is an online database of government contracts that our partners have access to. Our business development team go out to government agencies and let them know that we have 200 partners here who can meet their media needs without even needing to look outside Abu Dhabi.

“Likewise, if a government agency approaches intaj, we go straight to our partners via The Briefing Room which means the right creative people can address its needs.

It makes sense for them to deal directly with the government entity and start to build relationships. Although we only launched the site towards the end of last year, by the end of 2012 over 100 briefs had gone live and a significant amount of business had been done.”

The government has helped to make production at intaj financially attractive too, with a 30 per cent rebate available on the costs of crew and on the ground spend from hotels to airfare to cameras. This has proved a big draw for bringing international production to Abu Dhabi.

Recent global beneficiaries of the rebate include a Lebanese production company filming a Saudi Kleenex commercial, the Hollywood producers of The Bourne Legacy (the UAE doubled for the film’s Karachi-set scenes) and the Syrian producers of likely Ramadan hit Hammam Shami.

Baker explains: “The rebate is a big attraction and it applies to everything from commercials to documentaries to features. It’s a win-win, because it brings international production here, which in turn grows the infrastructure here, which in turn brings more production.

The first question people ask when they’re looking for somewhere to shoot is ‘what crew have you got?’ We now have over 200 people on our freelance scheme, and it’s growing by the day because of the amount of work coming in.

“In the past it was definitely seen as expensive to shoot in Abu Dhabi, but with the rebate that’s changing. The Syrian team shooting Hammam Shami are evidence of that.

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Syrian dramas usually have fairly low budgets, but they’ve taken over 1,000sq m of Studio B and they’re making it work. In the last year we’ve had new partners from Syria, Kuwait, Germany, Egypt and the UK set up to access both the infrastructure and the rebate available in Abu Dhabi.”

So far, it’s all sounding tempting, but what about the UAE’s labyrinthine and sometimes impenetrable bureaucracy? Surely that could act as a deterrent to those trying to bring a large-scale film shoot here.

Not at intaj, it appears: “We have great business support services – they’re IATA travel agents, they take care of all the visas. They just got 100 Syrians in for the Hammam shoot. A production company can literally turn up and we’ll take care of accommodation, visas, travel, studio, post production facilities, graphics, playout, everything. We’re a genuine one stop shop for content producers coming in.

We’re currently in advance negotiations with three major European and US projects to bring them over, and I think Hamam Shami has sent a big message to the regional industry that you can bring a big production here and it makes financial and practical sense.”

Baker and his team are not only concerned with bringing new production to the UAE – they are also seeking to change the way the existing industry operates, not least through making Adstream the preferred mode of delivering advertising content to broadcasters across the whole region.

Adstream and twofour54 became partners around a year ago, and after a period of adjustment to the new digital delivery platform, Al Awadhi feels the time is right to roll it out fully: “Digital delivery of ads is already the norm across Europe, and we want to move this region in that direction through our work with Adstream.

The number of sends is already going up hugely, and we’ve just signed a deal with the biggest regional player in the industry which will drive that further. It’s a great product – it saves the money and effort of physical delivery and it’s environmentally sound.

We have a number of regional broadcasters signed up already, but with this new deal we’ll be looking to make it all of them. It’s a really simple process, just a case of downloading Adstream’s software.”

There’s little value in bringing a host of foreign production to the UAE if it has no lasting legacy when the cameras have been packed up, and Baker notes: “Part of intaj’s mission is attracting UAE nationals to the industry,” he says.

“Within intaj there are schemes for the development of national talent. Intaji has a link with the BBC whereby it takes graduates out of university to take courses covering various roles within the industry.” Further, while no deal as such is in place with twofour54’s partners to employ twofour54’s Emirati alumni, they’re certainly an accessible and visible potential labour force for partners who may be seeking to hire.

Baker leaves us with a dream of what he hopes to play a part in achieving during his time at twofour54: “I want to see OB vans on corner of every street in the UAE, so kids see them and are inspired to work in the sector.” Every street corner may be a little too hopeful, but that’s certainly one way to build a sustainable local media sector. We’ll be watching closely.

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