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Gemal Seede has written the script for a two-part fantasy adventure feature called Legend of Hal, based on Halloween. Ravindranath K / The National
Gemal Seede has written the script for a two-part fantasy adventure feature called Legend of Hal, based on Halloween. Ravindranath K / The National

For reel success, cash is key for UAE filmmakers

The Life: In the Emirates aspiring filmmakers, such as Gemal Seede, need to know the funding and networking channels to turn their projects into reality.

Gemal Seede is an information technology director at the Petroleum Institute but he has a visually creative side, too.

He financed and co-wrote a 30-minute science fiction movie called Alliance with US$130,000 (Dh477,366) from his own pocket in 2005 while working in Los Angeles.

"I did not have a film background," Mr Seede, 53, said. "This was my business card."

After he moved to the UAE three years ago, he encountered challenges different from those in Los Angeles, where a high number of competent people are competing for the same resources.

Whereas California presented the problems of plenty, the Emirates has presented the problems of scarcity.

"Funding is the first challenge and next, finding the right talent," Mr Seede, a Lebanese Canadian, says of the UAE film industry.

Aspiring filmmakers such as Mr Seede regularly hit these shoals.

The key to turning projects into reality is a script involving the Emirati life or region - and knowing the local financing and networking channels.

"It is a nascent industry [here] and it will take time to get the infrastructure, talent, and support from the marketing, production and distribution sides," says Mohammed Al Otaiba, the head of Image Nation Abu Dhabi.

"Talent-wise we have not got the critical mass to take charge of the industry."

That said, the fund also helps develop local talent through internships at international film sets and works with filmmakers to develop their projects. It is owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also publishes and owns The National, and is the only agency in the country to fund the local feature film industry. So far, it has produced two local feature films - Djinn, by the US director Tobe Hooper and now in the post-production stage, and Sea Shadow, by the Emirati director Nawaf Al Janahi - since its inception in 2008.

A script that resonates in the UAE helps. But except for the second part of a fantasy adventure feature called Legend of Hal based on Halloween, none of Mr Seede's stories has a local angle.

"I want to produce the first five minutes of the sequel, which is set completely in the Middle East," said Mr Seede, who hopes that will attract investors for his other projects.

Filmmaking is a risky business and investors are mindful of the returns a project might, or might not, bring.

Mr Al Otaiba says Image Nation manages risk by scrutinising the plot and whether the potential distribution market is pan-Arab or global. For emerging filmmakers, Image Nation can start with funding of $300,000 to $450,000 for a short project, he says. Short films fall under its Arab Film Studio programme.

There are a few local funding sources for documentaries. The Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf) is one of them.

"Admaf is partly funding our social documentary on autism where we give music therapy to the children for three months," says the Yemeni filmmaker Hana Makki. "We are launching a crowdsourcing video on www.aflamnah.com next week and aim to raise Dh200,000." The whole project is to cost Dh300,000.

Awards money for feature films and feature documentaries from film festivals such as those in Dubai, Doha and New York's Tribeca is another way.

Ms Makki has also received funding from the Screen Institute Beirut for earlier projects.

As elsewhere, there is no one way to court financiers in the Emirates.

One can approach them with scripts or even concepts.

The Dubai and Abu Dhabi film commissions, along with international film events such as the Abu Dhabi Film Festival starting on October 11, are the best places for networking with producers and investors, says Tim Smythe, the chief executive and executive producer of Filmworks, which helps facilitate the shooting of foreign films here such as Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

Still, it is difficult to meet people on a more informal level here, Mr Seede says. So, three months ago he started hosting like-minded people at home to discuss scriptwriting and project plans.

"It is hard to find the right talent even searching on the internet," he says. "So I thought, won't it be cool to have a network of people, where we can not only take from each other's expertise but also add to it."

 

ssahoo@thenational.ae

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