New facility boosts Dubai's production sector

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Dubai's fast-paced conversion into a global entertainment hub will take a great leap forward with the development of Dubai Studio City, the first phase of which was inaugurated Wednesday at an on-site launch ceremony attended by DSC heads, local dignitaries and the media.

The event heralded the first wave of DSC's business partners moving into the complex; 18 boutique studios are now functional while the remainder have already been pre-reserved by regional and international broadcasters.

Once complete, the DSC promises to be the biggest and most high-tech film and TV production facility in the Middle East.

The complex, located in the vast Dubailand leisure development, will eventually comprise no fewer than 14 sound stages, a 3.5 million-square-foot backlot, on-site hotels, workshops and warehousing, serviced office space and a business center, plus a range of retail outlets, food courts and a cinema complex.

But all of that is not for another five years. For the meantime, DSC is celebrating the completion of phase one, the so-called boutique studios, which comprise 1,000-3,000 square feet of office space attached to a small studio. "We have 100% occupancy, we were all sold out in a month," DSC director Jamal Al Sharif says.

About 40 companies have signed up for space, including NBC Universal, Dutch format specialist Endemol and Spanish production giant Mediapro. Many intend to make offices in Dubai Studio City their regional headquarters.

There also has been interest from neighboring Egypt -- even the Hollywood of the Middle East wants a piece of the action. "They realize Dubai is a good solution for them," Al Sharif says.

Together with the companies that will move on site, DSC will offer all the services involved in filmed entertainment, from set construction to costume design to dubbing. And DSC's fiscal status means visiting companies are 100% exempt from taxes and can repatriate 100% of profits. The first sound stage is due for completion towards the end of next year. Two more, each at 25,000 square feet, can be connected by elephant doors creating the biggest sound stage in the region. This should be ready in the first quarter of 2009 -- slightly later than previously planned due to modifications, notably the addition of a deep indoor water tank.

The DSC site's infrastructure, including roads, a fiber-optic network for the advanced IT services, and a low-energy district cooling systems, is now all but complete. A giant business center with screening facilities is under construction, due to end in early 2009. The site also will feature an entertainment zone called the Village Center, which includes a 7,500-seater auditorium and an even larger outdoor arena. Two luxury hotels are due to commence construction at the end of 2008.

Once on stream, DSC aims to combine with several local factors to make Dubai a first-choice place for production companies. The weather is one: "360 days a year with no rain, blue skies all the time, that makes Dubai attractive," Al Sharif says.

The range of locations offered by the region -- including desert, beach and the waterfront of the creek -- is another. And the ease of access facilitated by Dubai's one-stop Location Approval Service is the trump card designed to attract outside shoots. LAS is the exclusive authority for approvals, which claims it can obtain a green light for shoots in a matter of days.

"If you ask me you want to shoot here next week, I guarantee you can shoot anywhere you want," Al Sharif says. LAS also handles travel, accommodation and visas, on which there are no restrictions for shoots.

But perhaps above all, Dubai Studio City will offer an opportunity to work in the Middle Eastern in a very secure, safe environment with an unrivaled level of comfort.

Despite having hosted about 700 shoots of all types this year, local expertise is one area where Dubai has some ground to make up.

"Labor costs are feasible right now. There are no unions so you can find a pretty good deal. But we've had some problems finding (filmmaking) talent in Dubai," Al Sharif admits. "We're really keen to look at the areas where we're missing something, and to develop the local talent base." To this end, DSC is supporting short filmmaking courses to develop the local talent pool in areas such as acting and scriptwriting.

In addition, DSC has aligned itself as a supporter of Dubai's newest film event, the Gulf Film Festival, created specifically to help encourage the hard-to-find talent of which Al Sharif speaks. To be launched in 2009, GFF is open to filmmakers from the Gulf region. It's another facet of Dubai's grand plan to create it's own flourishing film scene.

"GFF falls in line with DSC's strategy to provide a foundation for a strong film industry in Dubai," says Amina al Rustamani, executive director of media at TECOM Investments. TECOM is the government-owned company behind Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City and now Dubai Studio City -- all part of Dubai's long term vision for a post-oil economy.

"This region is a viable setting for quality cinema," adds deputy director of TECOM, Abdul- hamid Juma. "Dubai Studio City is the perfect partner for this initiative. Their support has been integral for other successful TECOM Authority events, such as the Dubai International Film Festival."

Al Sharif has knocked on doors from Bollywood to Hollywood to find out what producers seek, and says he sees no direct rivalry with other potential sun-and-sand locations such as Morocco and Egypt. "We're putting something on the table that was missing," he says. "I don't think we're competing. Dubai is a different box of chocolates. We're stretching the cultural bridge," he says.

In addition to asking producers what they want, Sharif has been busy drawing on their experiences to benefit the fledgling industry. In November, a partnership between DCS and the Manhattan Film Academy was announced, with workshops planned to encourage a pool of homegrown film professionals. It's all part of Dubai's double-pronged approach to lure filmmakers to invest in the region while making the most of their experience and industry know-how.

Sharif adds that the Dubai International Film Festival is an important beacon for the region. "It attracts lots of talent, producers and filmmakers. It shows that Dubai is a city willing to host films and a place capable of handling such international activity. In a few years, we'll not only have developed our own industry, but we'll also be attracting shoots and acting as a bridge between East and West," Al Sharif says.
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