Dubai building towards film-industry hub

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SURVIVAL GUIDE: Dealing in Dubai

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Dubai is a city that has undertaken the mother of all reinventions.

Just 40 years ago, the small fishing and pearling village discovered something far more valuable beneath its waters and in the ensuing decades has mushroomed into a gleaming, crowded, frenetic metropolis, with skyscrapers and cranes where palm trees and dunes once lay. Tourism, a booming market economy and an audacious construction industry have been slotted into place by Dubai's savvy rulers, who are determined to ensure that Dubai the empire continues long after dwindling oil supplies have run dry.

The next stage in the relentless Project Dubai is well under way: making the city a global hub for culture and the arts. Harnessing the power behind the Dubai marketing machine, one facet of this push -- the Dubai International Film Festival -- is muscling its way onto the international film scene.

Several initiatives are being run by fest organizers in a bid to fulfill the fest's mandate of "bridging cultures, meeting minds." The Dubai Film Connection, for example, premiering this year, is the first feature-film project market in the UAE committed to bridging cultures by bringing international film professionals into contact with the Arab filmmaking community.

"The Dubai Film Connection offers a focused platform that allows us to further our mandate of promoting an Arab cinema," DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya said.

Ten projects at an advanced stage of development will be selected by an international panel of filmmakers. The selections will be based on recommendations by leading film organizations that include Royal Film Commission of Jordan, the Sundance Institute in the U.S., World Cinema Fund and the Producers Network at Cannes. The producers of the three winning projects will be awarded $15,000 and flown to the networking event in 2008.

The fourth edition of DIFF is set for Dec. 9-16.

Another program in the mix is the DIFF Industry Office, designed to be a platform for Arab filmmakers and the international filmmaking community to exchange dialogue.

"In the second year of operations, the Industry Office has widened its base. These initiatives make the networking that takes place more exclusive and purposeful," said associate director Jane Williams, who is overseeing the office. "Moreover, we have instituted a structure for grooming up-and-coming talent -- the essence of DIFF's project of stimulating Arab filmmaking."

Last year's participants included executives from the Sundance Film Festival, the Festival de Cannes and the Weinstein Co.

Attracting films, talent and executives to the region is another tenet of the festival. DIFF officials most recently attended the Toronto International Film Festival, promoting the event by hosting an industry reception.

Said Pandya: "The event was a valuable networking opportunity; the reception helped us further our mandate of showcasing the best of Arab cinema from around the world to a global audience by fostering relations with relevant festivals and key industry executives in North America and Europe."

While events like the festival put the spotlight on the city, the logistical backbone of ensuring that production facilities are brought to international clients falls to another organization.

"Location Approval Services are the organization that provides the services and support to producers," Dubai Studio City head Jamal Al Sharif said. Previously a government department, the group is the operational arm of Studio City and oversees permits procedure.

Dubai Media City, which now boast a wealth of international and local industry talent, also is a key part of the growing infrastructure.

"Today we are looking at Hollywood and Bollywood," Al Sharif said. "Those are the biggest markets that we want to capture."

The foundation is now in place, he believes, and Dubai comes with a price tag as attractive as its natural and urban landscape. Dubai Media City boasts competitive hotels, and the group works on behalf of clients to secure discounts for location shoots.

"We had representatives at Cannes this year," Al Sharif said. "Also, we have been to many other international festivals to promote our services."
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