The 'Star Wars' Effect: Why Hollywood Is Hot on Abu Dhabi

Rick Lawrence

After swooping in at the 11th hour to steal the coveted 'Star Wars: Episode VII' shoot from nearby Jordan, the Emirati capital now is poised to become Hollywood’s go-to locale in the Middle East

This story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

When rumors first surfaced earlier in the year that Star Wars: Episode VII would be shooting in the Middle East, most eyes in the region turned to Jordan. After all, the country had provided the sand-strewn backdrop for a slew of major titles dating back to 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, most recently including PrometheusZero Dark ThirtyTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings. Also, unlike Tunisia, which famously stood in for the Skywalkers' dusty home planet of Tatooine in the previous installments, Jordan was a country that hadn't been subjected to the instability of the Arab Spring.

As it happens, Disney had been looking into Jordan and was about to put pen to paper. But at the 11th hour, J.J. Abrams' space opera was lured about 1,200 miles to the east to Abu Dhabi, even bringing some Jordanian crew along for the ride.

"It was last-minute, but that's the nature of the business; you can't win them all," admits George David, head of Jordan's Royal Film Commission, who contends that the originally intended shooting location of Wadi Rum -- his country's famed UNESCO-endorsed desert valley that has been a go-to spot for numerous major productions -- would have been "amazing."

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"To be honest, it was our understanding that they were going to Jordan, and I thought that was that," says Paul Baker, the head of Intaj, the production services arm of Abu Dhabi's government-backed media powerhouse Twofour54, which became Disney's local partner. "But then a couple of weeks later, we had their guys come in and do the first scout. Then once they'd taken a look at the locations and the infrastructure we had on offer, things quickly developed from there."

The news that the United Arab Emirates capital had landed one of the biggest franchises in film wasn't just a huge publicity coup for the gas-rich state and its fledgling film production industry -- it also was a clear sign to Jordan that its half-century reign as Hollywood's Middle Eastern destination of choice was under threat.

"If you can hold Star Wars in your country, the sky's the limit," says Emirati filmmaker Ali F. Mostafa, whose feature From A to B -- shot in both Abu Dhabi and Wadi Rum -- is opening the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which runs Oct. 23 to Nov. 1. "It's definitely a huge boost. It was important that they walked away with smiles on their faces, which they did."

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Baker, who prior to joining Intaj oversaw Pinewood Studios' operations in Los Angeles, says the "primary driver" in enticing the production over was Abu Dhabi's new 30 percent tax rebate system, which, worth up to $5 million, was a "significant contribution to their budget."

Abu Dhabi has for years used its deep pockets to attract big names to its shores, and there have been rumors that the Emirates offered perks that went above and beyond its rebate to tempt Star Wars producers. Says Jordan's David: "We all hear different things, but I can't comment because it's then all based on hearsay."

Baker, however, concedes that Abu Dhabi did in fact offer "added support," such as significantly reduced hotel prices. "We're getting four-star hotels for about $50 per night," he says. "You compare that to anywhere else in the region and we are way ahead of the curve."

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