Having been involved with the UAE’s filmmaking industry for about 15 years, Ammar Al Khrisat knows a thing or two about organising film projects, and keeping them on a trajectory for success.
Al Khrisat became familiar with the specific needs of filmmakers in the region while working as a freelance media consultant and in other roles, including a four year stint as head of location and production support at Abu Dhabi Film Commission.
He decided to establish his own company, Alkatraz Productions in 2013, to serve producers with everything they need, from casting and location services to specialist equipment and expertise for aerial shoots.
“I saw a lack in the market for the services. There was no one company based in Dubai that had all the services under one umbrella – that is where it all came from, we decided to do all the services under one umbrella and work hand in hand with the government,” Al Khrisat says.
Al Khrisat set up the company in Dubai Studio City with his colleague Ramy Hamdar, who is now business development manager at Alkatraz Production. Al Khrisat says the pair received significant support from Dubai Film Commission, and with major demand from the market the company grew from its two-man founding team to have 23 members of staff today.
“There was a hunger in the market for this kind of service. As soon as we started there was a very big demand so I had to increase the number of people,” Al Khrisat says.
The company is split into four units: casting, locations, units and aerials. Al Khrisat says that casting and locations currently form the bulk of the company’s work. The casting division has developed a broad database of actors, actresses and performers for projects ranging from films to TV commercials.
“We have access to actors and theatre associations in the UAE, Lebanon, Egypt - any actors or actresses in these countries, we have access to them. We also have a casting office in Saudi Arabia,” Al Khrisat says, adding that the company also has access to a broad base of talent in Egypt and Syria.
But far from just tapping into an existing database of performers, Alkatraz is also attempting to increase the pool of talent available by holding free acting classes.
“We hold acting classes with a lot of people who come as cast or extras, we see the talent and we try to bring them up,” Al Khrisat says.
Ramy Hamdar, who oversees the casting division, also runs the training sessions, Al Khrisat says. One young actor to benefit from this training initiative was Ahmed Mohammed Ali Al Dhuhoori, who starred in the UAE short film The Turtle, which was produced by Filmworks in 2012. Alkatraz spotted Al Dhuhoori in a school and helped train him up for the film. “We introduced him to the director, and he did the job amazingly,” Al Khrisat says.
Meanwhile, Alkatraz Production’s locations division resolves another headache often faced by filmmakers: gaining access to the best or most suitable locations, and also arranging the necessary approvals. And with Dubai fast gaining a reputation as a prime location for international productions in recent years, Al Khrisat says that the type of challenges filmmakers face when trying to find locations is changing.
Indeed, Al Khrisat says that this side of the business has, in some respects, become more difficult over the years, particularly when talking about privately-owned locations. Just five to 10 years ago, it was cheaper to arrange locations for filming because “people didn’t really know about the film industry much” he says.
“Now the challenge we are facing is that when we go to a location they are charging very high prices because now they know the prices or they ask for more, it keeps increasing,” Al Khrisat says. Worse still, some previously popular locations have banned crews from filming completely, he adds.
However, when looking to film on government owned land, the situation is easier, in large part thanks to the UAE’s film commissions for Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
“When it’s government owned land it’s easy and that’s because of the film commission. That used to be difficult in the past because we had to get a police permit separately and go to the Municipality to get the permits. We had to go to different divisions, but now the film commission has taken care of all that,” Al Khrisat says, referring to projects in Dubai.
In terms of turnaround time to arrange permits for filming, it takes about five days to get a pass for Dubai and Sharjah from their respective film commissions. Al Khrisat says that Alkatraz secured an annual pass for Abu Dhabi, which eliminates the need to secure a new pass each time. This pass covers Al Ain and the Northern Emirates excluding Dubai and Sharjah, but Al Khrisat says he still has to report to the police before shooting.
More recently, Alkatraz Production established its ‘units’ division. The units division, which was established about a year ago, handles mundane but essential tasks such as setting up and dismantling film sets, liaising with the location management departments to arrange areas for parking equipment trucks, crew vehicles, caravans and toilet facilities. The unit has seen solid demand and is growing rapidly according to Al Khrisat.
“Units is going very well,” he says. “We started it about 10 months ago with one truck and we broke even in the first five months, instead of the 12 month we had expected. There is a big demand for it because the type of equipment and the gear we put in there really is the best you can find.”
The unit now has two trucks and three pick-up trucks. These trucks allow Alkatraz to cater to “all the requirements” the cast and crew might have on set such as cooler boxes, ice, cables, generators, tools and “anything that is related to making a film happen”.
Unit can help with unforeseen situations that could threaten to delay or stall a shoot, such as vehicles stuck in the sand, first aid and other events.
While the units division deals with situations on the ground, the newest division, Aerial, has its sights firmly above ground. The aerial division organises everything a filmmaker might need for aerial shoots, such as helicopters and drones, and this is an area that Al Khrisat is particularly excited about. “That company is responsible for doing all the bookings for helicopters, all the rigs that go in the helicopters, all types of drones, operators – you name it, anything related to aerial filming,” Al Khrisat says.
Alkatraz had already been doing a significant amount of work in this area, and recently decided to form it into its own separate division. In an indication of the level of projects Alkatraz works on, it organised the aerial filming for Fast & Furious 7 in 2013. “We were responsible for all the booking of the helicopters and rigs, the cameras that go on the helicopters, everything was done by us,” Al Khrisat says.
With drones fast moving into the mainstream of aerial production, this is another area that Alkatraz is keen to develop. The company has already made major inroads with drones and works in partnership with companies in the US and Sweden. Indeed, while a growing number of hobbyists fly drones, Al Khrisat points out that in film production, it is vital to use professional grade drones and also have properly trained people to control them.
“We do have a good access to all this type of gear internationally, in the US and Sweden,” he says. “We own two drones, octocopters that we only fly with the proper operators. We bring them in from a Swedish company called Dedicam, which is very professional. They build their own drones and manufactured these for us. Drones can be dangerous – that’s why we fly them in, along with the operators to control them.”
Alkatraz also has a partnership with a US company for work involving helicopters and components such as camera mounts required for aerial filming. “The deal with them is that any project that happens in the UAE we call them for,” Al Khrisat says.
But Al Khrisat admits that there are some challenges when it comes to using drones. With the technology still in its infancy, regulation in the region and around the world is rudimentary.
Part of the problem is that regulations for drones have to take into account individual non-professional users, and this can affect professional users and specific applications such as aerial shooting.
“People who use drones as a hobby are sometimes using them in the wrong way and it can affect us when trying to get permits. Aerial filming helps the industry a lot and drones are very powerful tool for filming and we wouldn’t want that to go away,” Al Khrisat says.
In terms of regulations for drones in the UAE, Al Khrisat says that a system is in place although he adds that there are a “lot of restrictions” and a lot of paperwork is required to get permits. He adds that Alkatraz is happy to discuss regulations with representatives from the government to help create a system that works well for all parties.
However, the main challenge that Al Khrisat sees in Dubai’s film industry is the current lack of a rebate system. While Abu Dhabi offers a 30% rebate on international productions to lure big budget productions to the emirate, Dubai has yet to implement such a scheme. For Al Khrisat and other industry insiders, a rebate system would make a huge impact on Dubai’s film industry.
“We would like to see a rebate system in Dubai come in fast. The rebate system in Abu Dhabi helped get them Fast & Furious and Star Wars and a lot of other big Hollywood projects in no time. I know the rebate system is not exactly what everyone is looking for in Abu Dhabi but it is still there, there is something to work with.
“We are getting a lot of requests for feature films. If we cannot give them rebates, we cannot give them the support they require,” he adds. However, there are signs that a rebate system will be introduced soon. Al Khrisat says that he is aware that the authorities are working on plans for a rebate scheme. Indeed, Jamal Al Sharif, head of Dubai Film & TV Commission, confirmed to Digital Studio last month that a plan had been drawn up and was being reviewed by the authorities.