In the windswept desert plains on the fringes of Dubai, a crop of buildings resembling war bunkers sit surrounded by a vast sweep of nothingness.
Unremarkable in appearance, they give the landscape a post-apocalyptic feel. That is apt, considering their purpose is a futuristic one, encapsulating the UAE’s hopes of creating a world-class film industry with breathtaking facilities to rival those found in Hollywood.
Incredibly, those bunkers house one of the world’s largest sound stages built to give both local and international filmmakers the latest state-of-the-art technology to help them create movies – even while its managers admit the filmmaking industry in the Emirates is but a fledgling one.
Dubai Studio City’s two newly-opened sound stages (official production terminology for a filming studio with high-tech acoustics), which come complete with two vast tanks for underwater filming, aim to reverse that.
Only a handful of feature films have been made by Emiratis and three Hollywood blockbusters have used Dubai as a backdrop, including Syriana, The Bourne Legacy and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, with talks underway to film a fourth. None of them have been filmed in the 22 million-square-foot sprawl of the Dh1.4 billion Dubai Studio City (DSC).
But Jamal Al Sharif, DSC’s managing director, believes if you build it, more will come.
“We did not want to stop the media business at just offices, so we had to take it to the next level,” he declares, sitting behind his desk in the heart of Dubai’s own version of Paramount Studios.
“We want to show that Dubai can be a destination for film, television and commercial-making and that you do not have to come to Dubai just for its malls or property.
“If you look at the growth of the Dubai economy in the past 10 years, the city has proven to be a media hub, but we did not want that to mean just bringing companies and putting them in offices behind closed doors. We want action and production in Dubai.”
Visiting Hollywood producers, he adds, have been “amazed” by the quality of the new studios: “In terms of design, they are built to international standards and designed to take any type of film or television show. You can find all the equipment you need here in Dubai.”
The California-based architects from Bastien and Associates, who designed studios for shows including Ally McBeal, CSI: Miami, Caroline in the City and Melrose Place, were brought in at a cost of “hundreds of millions of dirhams” – an exact figure has not been revealed – to draw up plans for the sound stages, which were fully operational by September.
The largest, at 50,000 square feet, outstrips many of those found in the biggest and most successful movie production companies in the world. Only the Babelsberg film studios in Germany and Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom, at 78,954 square feet and 59,000 square feet, respectively, are bigger.
It dwarfs similar sound stages owned by Disney and Sony Pictures in the United States and Cinecitta in Italy and features tanks for filming underwater scenes and high-tech soundproofing, broadcasting, telecommunications and recording equipment.
The smaller of the two sound stages comes in at a respectable 15,000 square feet. Astonishingly, both are fully booked until mid-March, as are 18 boutique studios built as part of the same complex.
It begs the question of whom they are for: is it realistic to expect that Hollywood producers will turn their backs on facilities on their own doorsteps to fly themselves, their crews and their leading actors to Dubai? And how will the studios benefit the local industry – or will they simply involve transient crews who simply use Dubai’s facilities while leaving no legacy in their wake?
“We are not after just Hollywood,” says Al Sharif. “Bollywood and Europe play a big role in our industry.
“Of course, Hollywood brings with it fame and experience, but let’s not forget the other markets.
“The people we appointed to design our studios were world-renowned, but they were built by local production companies.
“It is a chicken and egg situation – the more work there is, the more that will attract other people and production firms.” The knock-on impact, he says, is that crews drafted into Dubai for months at a time will pour millions of dirhams into the economy.
In the past year, 19 films and 24 dramas for TV have been made in DSC, with crews coming from as far as Russia, Europe, India, China and Egypt. The majority of those – 14 in total – were Bollywood films. Official DSC figures showed the crew for Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming movie Happy New Year spent more than Dh5 million.
“The day after filming finished, nearly every star was in Dubai Mall,” says Al Sharif.
“They paid for catering, rented cars and shopped. That has an overall impact on Dubai’s economy.”
And leaving aside the artistic merit of having international directors and producers basing themselves locally, albeit temporarily, and sharing their expertise, Al Sharif is ultimately all about the figures.
He wears two hats: in his role within DSC, part of Tecom – itself a subsidiary of the privately-run Dubai Holding – he has to ensure the checks and balances add up.
But as chairman of the government-run Dubai Film and TV Commission, which operates under the motto “limitless possibilities” and has seven partners, including Emirates Airline and the Jumeirah hotel group, his mission is to sell Dubai around the world as a dream destination in which to film.
It is intriguing that Al Sharif has no background in film or the arts; instead, with a degree in business administration and a master’s in international marketing, he is driven by making film and TV production in Dubai a profitable industry; effectively, he is putting the business back in showbusiness.
“Let’s not make a movie about your cat, let’s see how we can sell the cat,” he says. “This is a commercial business after all. The state of California contributes billions of dollars to the United States’ economy and I believe that is possible here.”
Last year, the contribution to the UAE’s economy by production crews was Dh160m. Pre-recession, it was closer to Dh190m, but it has been rising again in the last couple of years.
Part of Al Sharif and the commission’s role is to make the process of filming in Dubai as seamless as possible.
That means providing visas for up to six months, offering discounts of up to 30 per cent on hotels, flights and locations and reducing the cost of equipment.
He admits they still have some way to go. At a panel held as part of Dubai International Film Festival earlier this week, directors from the Gulf region complained of a lack of local talent, from producers to gaffers and key grips, and exorbitant fees for filming at locations around the city.
Indeed, when the foundations were laid for DSC in 2005, it was partly to rectify mistakes made when its parent, Dubai Media City, was first created. Roads were made wider to accommodate outside broadcasting vans and equipment trucks, better infrastructure was included and space was allocated for workshops, warehouses and backlots for outdoor shooting.
Future plans include building hotels within the site and there is even a plot etched out for a film school if the right investor comes along.
“These things had to be redesigned,” says Al Sharif.
It might take several years, but what it will do, he says, is provide a hub in which local filmmakers will learn and flourish: “To grow a nation’s film industry, you have to have local people in it. You need to believe in it, be passionate about it – and you need to make money.”
Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The National.