Launched in 2008, Image Nation has rapidly become one of the world’s leading TV and film producers and biggest production company in the Middle East. The company’s mission to build the foundations of a strong local production industry in the UAE is now expanding to the larger GCC region, especially Saudi Arabia.
CEO Michael Garin stresses that Image Nation is not a normal production company because they are not just in the business of creating profitable content. As part of its strategy to build a sustainable TV and film industry, Image Nation sees itself involved in the larger picture of bringing about positive changes in civil society through the development of a vibrant media and entertainment sector.
Garin stresses that Image Nation’s biggest contribution to the industry would be to help improve the quality of regional productions to an international level. That involves not just investing in quality productions but also developing skills and talent in a region that has not traditionally had a culture of producing world class films and TV shows.
While the initial focus of Image Nation Abu Dhabi was investment in producing international and regional feature films, the company has in recent years shifted its focus to Television. Garin understood that simply producing maybe three of four films in a year will not create a lasting impact for the local production sector. “With television, you can work on productions 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and if we wanted to create a self-sustaining industry, it had to be much more television-centric than films,” says Garin.
This is in line with the vision that the emirate’s leaders had for Image Nation - to help diversify the economy. The main outcome they want from their investment is more jobs for local Emiratis, Garin says. Garin says Image Nation’s reason for being is really to create more career options for Emiratis rather than just entering the government or other traditional sectors. Only when there are enough productions hitting the floor, will there be enough opportunities for young Emiratis to build a career in the film and television industry in the UAE. “We’re participating in the growth of the civil society.”
Another problem with regional films is the lack of a natural audience for such films. Garin says the possibility for homegrown productions to find an audience in television is much higher. With TV there are a lot more possibilities for making content that can cater to different audiences. “When people go to watch a movie they have to decide if they want to spend their money on a Hollywood blockbuster or a locally produced Emirati film,” he explains. “With TV series if you don’t like what you’re watching you can just choose to change the channel.”
Traditionally Middle East broadcasters have focused on producing shows for the Ramadan period with very little happening outside of that. The Holy Month is “where the vast majority of programme expenses are spent today”, he says. “There are eleven other months in the year and without broadcasters investing in original programming for those periods, we’re never going to have a sustainable industry,” says Garin. It became clear that Image Nation had to be in television.
Image Nation made the transition from production to broadcasting with the launch of its pan-Arabic TV channel Quest Arabiya in 2015. In co-operation with the Discovery Network, the channel broadcasts free of charge to 22 countries in the region and Garin says his efforts are to ensure that the channel is truly pan-Arab, celebrating not just the UAE, but all the key markets in the Middle East.
Garin says launching Quest Arabiya has supported the goal of building a strong television industry in the UAE. “It has been a critical success, measured by audience. We’re already the 17th highest rated channel out of 500.” When they started producing programs for Quest Arabiya, Garin had set a target of developing up to 30-40% of the content locally. He thinks they are well on the way to accomplishing that goal. Investing in locally produced TV series is difficult, and from experience in Western and Central Europe, he knew that it was very often the case that broadcasters have to be directed by the government regulators who set rules for a minimum amount of local content. “It’s much easier and cheaper to just buy an international TV show and earn ad profits.”
But he says, in most countries once broadcasters start producing regional shows, they soon realize just how profitable it can be and how much audiences want to watch local content. “They have to be dragged kicking and screaming, but when they do invest in local content they find there is a much larger audience for local TV shows than they thought, and that is can be very profitable,” explains Garin.
The question of profitability and monetisation for regional broadcasters is a problematic issue. “That’s mainly because there’s a very immature television advertising marketplace,” he says.
“First of all we need a good rating system but also the TV advertising market needs to become more transparent. Because at the moment most of the revenues are not ending up going to the actual broadcasters.” Asked if the situation is changing, he says change is happening gradually and a more transparent regional market still looks some years away. This is also because he adds, “The regulators are often regulating themselves.”
However despite the challenges, Garin is excited about the contributions to the regional industry Quest Arabiya is making, as he details some of the excellent locally produced shows that have done very well. One the first shows on the channel had TV cameras following six Emirati teenagers in the Philippines and the footage was produced into a critically acclaimed 13-part television show, Beyond Borders. “It really amazed people by its quality because the expectations of what this region was capable of producing at that point were so low,” Garin says.
Mission Saudi Arabia
Garin says Image Nation will not be doing much of investing in international film productions going forward. The Abu Dhabi based company plans instead to play a significant role in helping Saudi Arabia develop its own TV and film industry. The announcement of a General Authority for Entertainment as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan and the recent lifting of the ban on cinemas has created a huge new market in the Middle East to build a cinema and entertainment sector.
Garins explains the significance of the Saudi market: “With the UAE we only have an audience of maybe 3-4 million people. With Saudi Arabia we now have a potential market of 30-40 million people, so there is an opportunity to really build a self-sustaining film and TV industry.”
He has spent much of the last year working with Saudi officials to establish a broad agreement of what needs to be done to develop a TV and film industry in the kingdom. Official co-operation agreements have been signed with Saudi authorities, and Garin says he now travels once every month to Saudi Arabia to work on an ever-growing list of Image Nation projects in the Kingdom.
But to sustain such ambitious plans to essentially build an industry from scratch, will require a huge supply of talent and skills that cannot be just parachuted in. The focus is very much on developing production skills and creative talent in the local population. A thriving media and entertainment sector can only exist when there is a culture dedicated to producing high-quality content.
The Saudi government may have the monetary resources to plough into the industry but building the entire ecosystem of knowledge, capital, and infrastructure takes time – the one thing that’s in short supply. “We’ve spent eight years and over $200m to get to where we are today. In our business, in this part of the world, time and money are not substitutes for one another. While Saudi can afford $200m, they can’t afford to spend eight years.” “[Saudi officials] are realising as part of their own 2030 plan the need to engage young people and build this [film] industry,” Garin says.
And it is not just about and building studios and developing production zones, says Garin. “Image Nation is planning to do basically everything in Saudi that we’re doing here — training, production and development — and helping to build an industry that will ultimately be populated by people from the Gulf.” Garin says the vision has to be creation of a regional industry so that ultimately: “It won’t be a Saudi industry, or a UAE industry, instead there will be one regional industry. Because when you look at the Middle East it is basically one huge pan-Arab region and market.”
A Culture of Excellence
Garin emphasizes the importance of building a culture comparable with the best films and TV industries around the world. For that to happen he says, people need to understand that quality is not just about technology and physical infrastructure but also learning how the world class production industries operate.
“Places like Hollywood or the Indian film industry took almost a 100 years to create a culture of storytelling and build a deep pool of talent. We are trying to do it here much faster.” “In Hollywood even if you are a Spielberg nobody is going to give you $100 million just like that. There is a process for financing and producing big budget films that everybody follows. The rules are set by the studios and writers and filmmakers. The rules of the game are respected because that is how you get a world class industry.”
“Here there is maybe a little bit of a sense of entitlement creeping in for local filmmakers who are able to finance and produce whatever they want,” Garin points out. “People create videos on YouTube and get 1 million followers and they think they are Spielberg. But creating a 5 minute video for YouTube is very different from producing a TV series or a film.”
Image Nation oversees a number of programs designed to encourage the growth of local production talent. The Arab Film Studio, has been the most successful inititative in terms of transferring production skills, agrees Garin. The film school now has four components: narrative filmmaking, documentaries, script writing, and a summer programme for high school students. Garin says some participants have gone on to build professional careers and Arab Film Studio recently celebrated 200 film screenings by its graduates at film festivals.
Above: Arab Film Studio recently celebrated 200 film screenings by its graduates at film festivals.
Some of the graduates worked on Image Nation’s courtroom drama TV series, ‘Justice’. Garin describes the 20-episode series as an important milestone in regional production development.
Set in Abu Dhabi and shot in Arabic, the show brought in an Emmy award-winning writer and Academy award-winning producer to help create one of the region’s most expensive TV dramas ever produced. “That’s why the ‘Justice’ experience was so important because it showed that locally produced shows can be made to international quality standards and it set a standard for local productions,” he adds.
Thanks to its reputation for high quality productions, Image Nation now acts as a magnet for Western filmmakers who want to work in the region, and for global production companies interested in entering the Middle East to cater to the huge pan-Arab audience of over 400 million people.
Recent partnerships were announced with Futurism, Stuart Ford’s AGC studios and also with Dreamscape. The reason such partnerships with major companies are key to developing the regional industry says Garin, is because these partnerships create a relationship that is ongoing.
It helps Image Nation identify and team up with the right international talent who can really contribute to the long term evolution and development in the Middle East. “Because there might some international talent that might be brilliant but they are not necessarily suited to our region or their skills might not be right for our region.”
Garin thinks there will be more productions for global streaming platforms like Netflix, because it creates have an additional revenue stream, giving producers a better chance of recouping the investment. Based on the success of dubbed Chinese shows on Quest Arabiya, there have recently been involved in govt level talks for a 24 hour Chinese channel. Image Nation are quite keen, but governments “tend to decide things at their own pace,” Garin says.
Building a Nation
Garin knows Image Nation has a significant role to play in helping build the industry. Garin want to ensure more and more production houses benefit from Image Nation, citing the example of Justice co-producer Beelink Productions. “They have gone off to make their own productions. In some industries that could be considered as a betrayal, but we are happy for them because our mission is to develop more companies capable of international quality production. We can’t have an industry with one company; we need hundreds of companies.” “In fact, if ten years from now we can help build an industry that doesn’t need us, we’ve done our job! As I say all the time, I’m not here to build Image Nation; I’m here to build the nation,” he concludes.
Saudi Arabia’s First Sci-Fi Film
Earlier this at during the Cannes film festival’s Saudi pavilion O3 Productions, part of Saudi based broadcast giant MBC Group, announced a partnership with UAE firm Image Nation Abu Dhabi to co-finance and co-produce four films. The first project under the partnership will be the adaptation of author Ibraheem Abbas’ best-selling novel sci-fi HWJN into an Arabic-language feature film, which will be co-produced and co-financed by the two companies.
HWJN is the highest selling novel ever in Saudi Arabia and Garin is excited about the partnership with 03 Productions/MBC because it is another opportunity to produce a regional film with higher production values.
“As 03, this project is a landmark one for us as we are embarking on an exciting journey into an innovative and fresh genre of Saudi drama based on a best seller novel and its exciting world created by the pioneer work of Yatakhayaloon team,” said Fadi Ismail, group director of 03 Productions.
“We are happy that we are not alone in such a venture but joined forces with Image Nation working closely with its team to produce what we hope will lead to a higher quality of captivating storytelling and production values in film and TV drama in this project and beyond,” continued Ismail.
The four titles will be filmed in Saudi Arabia using local talent, with casting search is currently underway in Saudi Arabia for the film’s lead roles.
Above: Director Ali Mostafa's 'The Worthy' produced by Image Nation was bought by Netflix