Abu Dhabi Close to Approving First Two Projects Using 30 Percent Incentive

David James/Paramount Pictures

The Emirate hopes local filmmakers will learn from visiting Hollywood productions, but other regional initiatives appear to be stalling.

Abu Dhabi - Abu Dhabi is close to approving the first two projects to access its new 30 percent production inward investment incentive. Another five projects are in the mix waiting to access the incentive, which went live on September 1.

Wayne Borg, Deputy CEO of local media authority TwoFour54 -- which lobbied for the incentive — would not elaborate about whether the bulk of applications are from movies or TV shows. “We’re not trying to engineer a particular mix,” he said.

Neither would he say how much cash has been earmarked to attract Hollywood productions. Studio movies that have shot in the United Arab Emirates recently include Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Bourne Legacy.

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Abu Dhabi’s 30 percent inward investment incentive was first announced at Festival de Cannes in May. The aim is to attract international film and TV productions, as well as advertising and music video shoots. Filmmakers can claim back up to 30 percent of qualifying production expenditure in Abu Dhabi. That includes goods and services sourced from Abu Dhabi and spending on location and studio filming as well as post-production. Hotel costs and flights booked on state airline Etihad Airways are also included.

TwoFour54 expects between 10 and 25 projects to use the production incentive over the next two years.

“Given the level of interest we’ve been getting, I expect we will at least reach the bottom threshold,” said Borg.

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Some argue that any inward investment incentive is undermined by how expensive everything is in the Emirate. Borg counters that according to independent analysis, the cost of shooting in Abu Dhabi – with its wealth of space-age locations and futuristic skyline – is only double that of filming in India. Director Nicholas Jarecki, whose debut feature Arbitrage opened Abu Dhabi Film Festival, has talked about shooting his next project, the science-fiction thriller Fuel, in Abu Dhabi next year.

TwoFour54 sees the production incentive as the next stage in its plan to nourish local talent.

“The more that we can connect the region with international talent, the better," said Borg. "It’s about leveraging the infrastructure we have here.”

TwoFour54 operates a 10-studio broadcast facility with 40 post-production suites and editing facilities. It plans to increase the number of studios to between 13 and 18 over the next few years. TwoFour54 also wants to build four soundstages – a first for the Emirate.

Local filmmakers complain that while TwoFour54 talks up prospects for young filmmakers, there are no screens for showing their own features. Shopping mall multiplexes only show mainstream Hollywood and Bollywood movies, they say. Borg is more upbeat, however, adding that local filmmakers need to think beyond theatrical since the Middle East and North Africa have a captive audience 340 million people -- 60 percent of whom are under the age of 25 -- and they want Arabic content. “The potential market is extensive, the size of North America,” he said.

The production incentive comes at a time when other initiatives appear to be stalling. Talent Casting Agency, the Emirates’ only talent agency, has gone out of business.

And Image Nation, the Abu Dhabi-based production fund whose U.S. partners include Participant Media, Hyde Park Entertainment and Parkes/Macdonald, has gone quiet since new CEO Michael Garin took over in February 2011. (Image Nation was unavailable for comment.)

Nawaf Al-Janahi, an Abu Dhabi director whose debut feature Sea Shadow plays at the Chicago International Film Festival next week, said: “I get just as impatient as everybody else as to how long things take to get going, but importing U.S. business models into the UAE doesn’t work. Everything takes longer here. Feature filmmaking is a new field in UAE and needs time to develop. I see a lot of positive things happening.”

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