Why the Dubai Film Fest Is Poised to Make a Major Comeback

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As the Abu Dhabi fest disappears, the Middle East's most prominent film event is once again taking center stage, as 'Room,' 'Concussion' and other Oscar contenders highlight this year's schedule.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

If ever there was a stutter in the Dubai International Film Festival's steady 12-year history, it was the 2014 fest. Amid reports of significant cuts, the event was scaled back considerably: Its thriving co-production platform was removed, as were the Asia/Africa awards program and the Interchange lab and fund.

Those visiting for the first time might not have noticed — the festival nonetheless managed to attract such A-list Hollywood talent as Cate Blanchett and Emily Blunt — but regular attendees remarked on the relative quiet surrounding the usually bustling Madinat Arena, the event's near-beachside hub. One critic described it as the "weakest in recent memory."

But one year later, the tide appears to have turned.

In May, it was announced that the Abu Dhabi Film Festival would be shuttered after eight years. The event never hit the same heights as Dubai, but its October date — less than two months before that of its neighbor — and similar quest to lure big-name films and talent from around the world put the two fests in clear competition with each other.

However, with Abu Dhabi off the film calendar (with many saying its demise was caused by this perceived competition), things seem easier for DIFF's programming team.

"There might have been a couple of films that would have screened at other festivals that are now premiering with us," says DIFF managing director Shivani Pandya, adding that her event's new status as the United Arab Emirates' sole major film festival places more responsibility on its shoulders.

On the schedule this year is a strong sampling of awards hopefuls. Lenny Abrahamson's Oscar-tipped Toronto fest winner Room kicks things off, followed by screenings of Concussion, Spotlight, Suffragette, Truth and closing film The Big Short.

Elsewhere, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos will offer one of the more interesting industry events, an "In Conversation With" via video link-up. Netflix's DIFF debut comes at a key moment, with the streaming video giant expected to launch in the Middle East by the end of 2016 as part of its expansion plans. Reports have the company already hiring for the rollout.

An Arab Netflix would enter a relatively quiet yet fertile streaming marketplace (many in the region have Netflix accounts they access via VPN) but could, says Pandya, further DIFF's major ambition of getting regional films seen by audiences without relying on theatrical releases.

Whether DIFF returns to the heights of 2011, when it welcomed Tom Cruise and the world premiere of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, remains to be seen. But the city's recent hosting duties for the shoot of Star Trek Beyond and Abu Dhabi's soon-to-be-impossible-to-miss starring role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens certainly help put the UAE back on Hollywood execs' radar.

Says Pandya, "It's going to be an interesting year."


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