It says something about Abu Dhabi’s appeal that the emirate could attract two of the biggest franchises in film history to the Middle East at a time when the region is undergoing unprecedented upheaval. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Furious 7 both filmed significant, and vastly different, sequences in the UAE’s capital. For Star Wars, the desert landscape of Jakku found a home among Abu Dhabi’s undulating sand dunes. For Furious 7, the focus was the towering skyscrapers and sparkling corniche.
“In terms of PR value alone, the investment that something like Star Wars brings in for Abu Dhabi is almost $100 million,” says twofour54 chief exec Noura Al-Kaabi. “Star Wars is a creative project that has put Abu Dhabi on the map, globally. The first teaser released a year ago had 55 million views in the first 24 hours alone. It’s very low-hanging fruit for the region.”
Not that convincing a Hollywood studio to come and film in the Arab world was the easiest conversation to have. While Abu Dhabi itself, along with its glam neighbor Dubai, have been havens of stability, the perception of the region on American news channels is one of out-and-out fire and brimstone. Just ask Donald Trump.
“There were sleepless nights,” confirms Al-Kaabi. “There were questions that you wouldn’t imagine they would ask you. There were so many guarantees we had to give. We never even had room for an hour delay in responding to their questions. For example, we literally had to build a road in the middle of the desert. It wasn’t easy. We had to talk to our friends in the government, we had to bring in the best set builders from Bollywood — in fact I think it’s the first time Bollywood set builders have been connected with Hollywood — but in the end we got it done and we actually finished all the construction two weeks ahead of schedule.”
For Abu Dhabi, however, the real prize is far more than simply becoming a go-to place for Hollywood blockbusters. The real game is to develop a local infrastructure and media biz that could one day produce its own global tentpole, relevant to audiences at home and abroad.
“We’re trying to make films that people want to see around the world, that attract audiences around the world that are made by local creators and local talent,” says Image Nation Abu Dhabi chief exec Michael Garin. “We’re witnessing the epitome of the realisation of our strategy. The knock-on effect of these big projects shooting here is the less sexy, but important, part of our business. We had somebody in a really important position, who was an intern on Star Wars while it was shooting here. She did so well they brought her back to London. Now she’s head of one of the key departments at Quest Arabia.”
Quest Arabia is a new free-to-air Arabic-language channel aimed primarily at Arab men aged 16-44 that Image Nation launched last year in partnership with Discovery Communications. The move into TV by Image Nation is crucial to their long-term goals. Late last year, the company started production on Justice, a big-budget Arabic-language legal series developed by Image Nation partner Walter Parkes and Emmy Award-winning writer Billy Finkelstein (Law & Order). Ahmed Khaled directs with exec producer Marc Lorber (Beyond Borders) overseeing for Image Nation.
“Television is so important because it’s a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year business,” says Garin. “In terms of building a sustainable industry, the financial hierarchy and economic development will be commercials, TV and film. Some advertisers here spend as much money on a commercial as people do on films. With Justice, we spent so long on the development, because we wanted it to be as good as anything shot in the U.S. or the UK. We aspire to have the same quality as HBO and Netflix.”
Those ambitions are also being translated into Abu Dhabi’s film plans. Balancing local language with international projects — Image Nation financed The Circle starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and John Boyega just like it also financed Majid Al-Ansari’s Arabic-language Zinzana — there are the beginnings of a real groundswell of momentum in terms of building a sustainable film biz. Al-Ansari’s well-received thriller, aka Rattle The Cage, saw the Emirati filmmaker, who was once an Image Nation intern, get signed up by UTA.
Next up is Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa’s third feature The Worthy, currently in post. Set in a dystopian future which has been plunged into chaos due to a chronic water shortage, the story follows a small group of survivors seeking refuge with the only clean remaining water source in the area. Genre experts Peter Safran (The Conjuring) and Steven Schneider (Paranormal Activity) produce alongside Rami Yasin in a mixture of Eastern talent and Western expertise that is a bold precedent for the region and says a lot about how Abu Dhabi is helping to fuse East and West with fascinating creative results.
“When you being in those big, big productions like Star Wars, it does bring so much attention to your country, as well as money, and more importantly creates jobs, facilitates crews, it helps in so many ways,” says Ali Mostafa. “Then, to have American producers like Steven Schneider and Peter Safran working with an Emirati director, it’s such a great experience, especially when you’re working on this type of genre film. Just the idea of it is great, bringing these two cultures together.”