Four UAE projects head for the Hills

Mark, Peter Hill at work in an 'emerging market'

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DUBAI -- A day after the first full-fledged Emirati feature film was unveiled at the Dubai International Film Festival, a number of local productions have come out of the woodwork. They all have one thing in common -- brothers Mark and Peter Hill -- the go-to guys for all things media in Dubai.

While the festival made much ballyhoo Sunday about the production of "City of Life," the first film to be written, directed, produced and financed by an Emirati, several Dubai-based filmmakers could be found quietly pitching what amounts to the first wave of international productions coming out of Dubai.

Craig Johnson's first feature, "Expats," is one such project. The Kiwi director's film tells the story of six expatriates who, like Johnson, live in Dubai.

"It used to be that people would go West to improve their lives, but these days they are coming East," he said. "I wanted to tell a story about people who leave their families and friends to start a life in Dubai."

Johnson raised financing from Dubai-based investors from the West by selling 10 shares of AED300,000 ($81,700) each to raise the AED3 million ($817,000) budget. The film is expected to go into production in the first half of 2009.

With its multicultural storyline, Johnson hopes the film will appeal to Arabic, Indian and Western audiences, which are all well represented in Dubai's melting-pot community of nearly 200 nationalities.

"I am really glad that films are starting to get made here, but I hope that local exhibition chains are willing to give local films a shot alongside the blockbusters," he said. "We need an opportunity to show local films on local screens around the Middle East and they have not had much local content until now."

Hot on Johnson's tail is the Dubai-based Canadian director Shina Ahmad, who is at the festival raising money for her historical epic "Once Upon a Time in Arabia."

The story is set in sixth century Arabia and follows the son of a slain tribal king who returns to his homeland to avenge his father's death.

Ahmad is looking to part-finance the film in the West then shoot in the Middle East. "The entire film could be shot in the United Arab Emirates," she said. "But to grow the industry, we need a system here with funding, incentives and co-production treaties."

A third Dubai-based feature in the works is German-American director Karl Haupt's "The Coast of Pearls." The film is a high-adventure odyssey of a desert tribesman who lives on what was once known as the Pirate Coast, now the UAE.

Both Ahmad and Haupt are entering into a co-production treaty with Mark Hill's Dubai-based TheRightsLawyers/TheRightsManagement, whose other claims to fame include completing the legal work on the two Hollywood features to have shot in Dubai -- "Syriana" and "The Kingdom"

Indeed, from Hollywood movies to local productions, if it is happening in Dubai, the British brothers are likely to be involved.

Initially a law practice, The RightsLawyers responded to a demand for help here in all things filmmaking by launching a separate division of the company, TheRightsManagement, two years ago. TRM is dedicated to providing a wider range of services to produce, finance and distribute films.

"There isn't much we aren't involved in here," Mark Hill said. "People started coming to us for so much more than just legal services because there is a lack of knowledge about how to make content here. We can do anything from taking on a movie that hasn't got financing down."

Mark Hill was first exposed to the region when he lead a media team in London dealing with the MENA region, or the Middle East and North Africa.

"I came here initially because I am passionate about the region," he said. "I picked Dubai 12-13 years ago because I thought it would be an emerging market and I like to be where it is happening."

Now fully integrated into Arabic culture, Hill is keen to promote the many positive aspects of Arabic life and culture he sees here everyday.

"It is about time we started to sing and dance about the Middle East," he said. "I have an Arabic wife. I am part of an Arabic family. I have two daughters born in the Middle East. I see amazing things all around me here every day. I feel people should be telling these stories."

Hill is reviving previous attempts to launch a financing fund to produce a slate of films.

"Now is the time," he said. "Real estate has taken a certain kicking over the past six weeks. We have been trying to convince people for the past two years to see film as a viable investment model. It is a slow-burning media market which will take a while to get right."