Raising the Game

Digital Studio hears from Dubai Studio City MD Jamal Al Sharif.
Jamal Al Sharif, MD, Dubai Studio City
Jamal Al Sharif, MD, Dubai Studio City


Dubai burst onto international screens with some aplomb a couple of years ago with the release of Mission Impossible IV: Ghost Protocol. This wasn’t the first time the city had been seen on big screens.

Movies like Syriana, The Kingdom and local production City of Life had already shot here. MI IV, however, was certainly the first time Dubai had featured so prominently in a bona fide, multi-million-budget, A-list vehicle that would go on to take box offices around the world by storm and etch the city in people’s minds as Tom Cruise precariously hung from the Burj Khalifa or chased through the streets of Bur Dubai in a sandstorm.

After such a dramatic high point in terms of bringing major international productions to these shores, it would be easy to think local production had fallen into a comparative lull in MI IV’s wake.

As regular readers will know, however, the local production industry has been far from quiet since then, whether facilitated by broadcasters or the wealth of less-renowned features that have been produced in the region.

With the recent launch of the Dubai Film and TV Commission, the process of seeking locations, permits and assistance with production in the emirate has been simplified further, and the commission’s close ties with Dubai Studio City (DSC) ensure that would-be film makers have a one-stop-shop for all their Dubai filming needs.

Studio City itself, meanwhile, has just launched the first phase of its hotly-anticipated redevelopment, in partnership with the Middle East’s leading broadcaster, MBC.

This first phase has seen the opening of the first of what could ultimately be as many as 15 new sound stage studios at DSC. The studio officially opened at a glittering ceremony attended by ruler of Dubai HH Sheikh Mohammed and a host of dignitaries, and will be put to use by MBC for the shooting of a new drama from September 1st.

As part of the partnership with MBC, the broadcaster will exclusively lease the sound stage for five years, with a guarantee of making at least four series a year in the facility. When MBC is not using the facility it will be able to rent it out for third-party productions.

Through this arrangement, DSC will provide MBC with facilities and infrastructure, while for its part, MBC will continue to ensure a regular flow of high quality, local production takes place on site, as well as use local crew and increase the local knowledge pool through its work.

MBC has also brought the first Stargate lot to the region, meaning that Dubai is now up there with the world’s leading production hubs in terms of virtual reality studio technology.

Jamal Al Sharif, MD of DSC and also chair of the Film and TV Commission, adds: “We’re really excited about launching Phase 1. This is one of the biggest partnerships in the industry that’s ever happened, especially with MBC bringing in the Stargate technology.

There are a few other Stargate locations around the world – LA, Toronto, Germany – but this one will now serve the whole of the Middle East and North Africa. The new development at DSC on the whole is going very well.

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We have a further sound stage almost complete, which is the biggest in the region at 50,000 sq ft and can also be divided into two 25,000 sq ft separate studios. We expect to add one or two more studios next year, eventually reaching a total of 15.

Expansion is not an issue for us here as the land is available, and we currently have around three million sq ft of backlot available for outdoor shooting too, as well as the water tanks in the new sound stages which are also the biggest in the Middle East, both 20x8 metres.”

With such rapid and cutting edge development, it’s no surprise to learn that Sharif is encountering interest from producers near and far, and the host of incentives that are now offered and managed by the Film and TV Commission are making Dubai even more popular with potential international film makers and TV producers: “We’re already seeing interest from all around the world.

I’m currently in talks with producers from Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, India, Saudi and Lebanon as well as from the UAE.

“Hollywood has had an eye on the UAE and especially Dubai for at least the past five years too. Mission Impossible whetted the appetite of many Hollywood studios and we’ll continue hearing about that in future. Hollywood is definitely scouting in Dubai.

It’s already an attractive location, and now we’re improving the studios and facilities too I can assure you talks are going on. There’s nothing I can mention right now, but I’m proud to say we are very much on the map and Hollywood is looking at us as a possibility for more big shoots.

Previously they had to cross the Middle East and go to Asia. If they had to shoot in the Middle East they would go to Jordan or Morocco, which was difficult distance-wise, logistically and in terms of safety and security. Now they find Dubai attractive as we can supply them with what they need. Previously couldn’t do that except for small films.

Mission Impossible has shown we can now handle the very biggest, and the entire production world is moving to where the facilities are.”

Dubai also has the advantage of already being a major transport hub, and easily accessible from literally anywhere in the world, and although the airport and transport links may have overshadowed the city’s other advantages in the past, Al Sharif is convinced those days are behind us: “For a long time Dubai was perhaps seen as little more than an airport and a big shopping mall for the ladies, but it’s a major player in the TV and film industry now too, and we want film and TV companies to come and build their platform here.

So in fact the transport and logistics infrastructure has proved a great help to us. I’ve had positive comments from both American and Indian film makers who have come here to scout, and even from Master Chef which was shooting in Dubai from Australia last week.

They all say ‘you know what the great thing is about Dubai? Yes the studios are great and everything is neat and easy, but the best thing is the distance between the airport, the city and the studios.’ Here, you can literally come in, shoot for three days shoot and leave, Try that in other production hubs – in LA, London or Prague you’re looking at over an hour just to get from one to the other.”

The ease of travel is doubtless one factor that has made Dubai a longstanding favourite location for Bollywood film makers. The world’s second biggest production market has brought a host of shoots, stars and premieres to the city over the years, and the incentives that are now on offer should ensure the regular train of Bollywood business shows no sign of abating as Dubai’s status as a film making destination grows on the global stage.

Al Sharif says: “There’s always been a close link between the Bollywood industry and Dubai, with the films being avidly watched here too. Bollywood producers sometimes goes to Australia, the UK or South Africa, but if they come here they can save serious money.

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A recent Bollywood production spent 12 days shooting here, with action scenes in Zabeel and Creek Parks, and saved 15 per cent through our incentive scheme. If they’d gone to Europe they’d probably have spent 15 per cent more before the incentives, plus it’s so easy to get here.

A lot of Indians have family here and there are five flights a day on Emirates just to Bombay, more than 50 a day to India generally, and that’s just one airline. We help with visas and accommodation – a film called Dollar is coming to shoot from India soon, and through the commission we arranged 62 visas for cast and crew in 24 hours.

You don’t get that in Europe. We have a whole department to help with visas and can arrange fast track multiple entry through our direct government links, and we also work with the equivalent teams at twofour54 Abu Dhabi when shoots are visiting both emirates. We very much see the Abu Dhabi team as working in synergy with us, rather than competition.”

It all sounds rosy, but it’s woth remembering that as recently as January this year Al Sharif, speaking at the ITP Broadcast Conference, expressed his frustration at the lack of local production taking place.

Al Sharif seems convinced now that this was a temporary blip, however: “There was definitely a slow down post-recession,” he admits.

“Companies cut budgets and that affected the sector, but the Middle East is changing itself. Most of our content historically came from Latin America or India and was dubbed, then that moved into dubbed Turkish.

Now big players like MBC are driving the strategy to produce local content. The costs are cheaper, they know what local people want and they understand what the local community is driven by.

“Eight years ago when we started this project we made a promise to the industry that we’d build studios and bring international companies here. Now we have this and we need to up production, so the partnership with MBC was perfect. They’re a big fish and will draw other companies in. Workshop space in DSC is going really quickly because everyone wants to be close to MBC and provide services.”

To illustrate his point, Al Sharif has some impressive figures to hand: In 2012, 12 TV series and 19 films shot at DSC, with a total budget of around $24M. To July this year this year 10 films and six TV series with a budget of $27M had already shot.

Things are looking good for the future too, with shots already committed to the new 50,000 sq foot studio next door to Phase 1: “We have two projects coming up in the second soundstage,” says Al Sharif.

“A big TV show will be shooting for 100 days, followed by 10 days rest, then a Bollywood film’s coming in for 90 days. Other negotiations are underway too and we have six more TV series already in the pipeline as well as nine feature films – a mix of UAE, Kuwaiti and Bollywood productions. These range from shooting a few scenes here to full location shoots.”

Sharif concludes: “We’re now looking to strategise for 2015-20, bringing more films to Dubai and expanding our local talent pool. We’ll be publishing an annual guide in December, which will be a big A-Z of the entire industry and will be distributed to embassies around the world, as well as being heavily pushed at Dubai International Film Festival.

It will list all the production and associated support staff in the area so potential investors know exactly who to contact. We’re also looking towards Phase 2 of our Boutique Studios as Phase 1 has sold out, and a few existing companies are looking to expand too.

“One great thing we’ve found recently is that land sales direct to media companies have picked up. Media companies themselves, not real estate companies, are buying their own plots at DSC which is a sign both of an improving economy and the good work we’re doing.

I really believe Studio City is going to be right at the heart of the future of Dubai. Global Village nearby is expanding, and there’s more development planned in the area. We have the space, we have the talent, and right now we’re in just the right place to move with the city well into the 21st century.”

Studio City In Figures
- 15-50 Per cent soft incentives available for foreign productions shooting in Dubai
- 09 Feature films already committed to shoot at new DSC studios
- $27m Spend by productions at DSC in first half of 2013
- 50,000 Sq ft of sound stage, the biggest in the Middle East

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