The movie business in the Gulf – what’s changing and where are the opportunities?

The movie business in the Gulf

It’s often stated that Dubai is at the crossroads of the world – easy access to Europe, Africa and Asia, and a non-stop flight to the US east coast. For an industry such as film-making, which relies on locations and talent from every part of the world, the Middle East is a central hub, and the recent surge in the regional movie industry should come as no surprise.

This success is underlined by Grand View Research, which recently noted that the film and entertainment market in the Middle East was worth USD 1.86bn in 2020 and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 8.5% from 2021 to 2028.

This growth is mirrored by the huge increase in the number of cinema screens in the region. Research company Omdia notes that the UAE and Saudi Arabia both feature in the global top ten for the number of premium cinema screens.

Even more interesting is the steady growth of film production in The Gulf, as this is where opportunities lie for entrepreneurs. “Production” is not just limited to Hollywood fare such as Star Wars (shot partially in Abu Dhabi) and Mission Impossible (shot partially in Dubai), but also about home-grown talent creating stories about the region and reaching an international audience.

According to AGBI, Oscar-nominated Shekhar Kapur – one of the most famous names in Indian cinema – noted at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah that there was a huge opportunity to use film to change the narrative about the Arab world. For his part, Kapur is moving his attention to Dubai and the Gulf region for future projects.

So, let’s look at the cultural and financial impact this burgeoning movie industry could have on the region, how it might change the way the Gulf is perceived abroad, and what this means for entrepreneurs interested in working in the local film industry.

The traditional centres of cinema

Movies are not just about Hollywood. There are major film industries in India (Bollywood), Pakistan (Lollywood), and Nigeria (Nollywood), all of which can easily access the UAE to take advantage of the unparalleled locations, ease of setting up a business, and financial incentives.

Arab cinema itself has a long history. Egypt’s film industry dates back to the invention of cinema itself and has produced numerous classics, particularly during its golden era of the 1940s – 1960s. Lebanon also has a strong showing and has produced hundreds of films over the years. Both countries produce moves and shows enjoyed across the region.

Historically, film production has not been a major focus for the Gulf region, but the situation is changing rapidly. This is good news for home-grown talent, as well as for those forward-thinking creatives (like Shekhar Kapur), technicians and other professionals looking to position themselves in a growing production hub.

What is driving the movie industry growth in the Gulf?

According to the META Cinema Forum, the Middle East has been the fastest-growing cinema industry globally over the last four years. This growth was attributed to the sizable investments in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The CEO of the Dubai Film and TV Commission, Jamal al Sharif, notes that alongside the incredible scenery – from skyscrapers to natural wonders – Dubai is renowned for its business-friendly regulations.

In addition to the kind of infrastructure that can accommodate productions of all sizes, several UAE-based institutions have been established to encourage and assist film production, including the Emirates Short Film Festival (for home-grown film-makers), the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), and the Dubai Studio City production hub.

Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia offer cash rebates on productions. Encouraging and facilitating home-grown talent is also a priority, with the film wing of Majid Al Futtaim recently committing to produce 25 Arabic films over five years with film-makers from the UAE, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

According to Screen Daily, the Saudi government has invested USD 234m through its Film Sector Financing Programme to strengthen the country’s film infrastructure, as well as supporting productions through grants.

What impact will this growth have?

When implemented carefully and strategically, nation branding through cinema and television can have a substantial impact on how a country or region is viewed, as well as encouraging tourism and investment. If you visit certain English villages that have been used in TV shows and movies, miles from the nearest airport, you’ll find the streets and ships full of British and international tourists. This demonstrates the impact of British period dramas on the world’s imagination. It’s widely accepted now that ‘cinema tourism’ is a legitimate source of growth in the travel industry.

But beyond visitors coming to see the Burj Khalifa that they saw Tom Cruise climbing on the big screen, cinema can act as a powerful way of regaining control of a country’s narrative. For too long, content about the Middle East has emanated from outside the region. A home-grown industry will be a vital step in redressing this imbalance, creating local stories that can be seen worldwide. This will have numerous positive effects, not least showcasing the UAE and wider region to potential investors. This kind of ‘soft power’ should not be underestimated.

What are the opportunities for entrepreneurs?

Perhaps you are already established in your own country in a specialist area of film production and now want to take advantage of the work opportunities in the Gulf. In that case, opening a local branch in Dubai means you’re in the centre of the regional hub, able to benefit from the UAE industry and easy movement around the region for other on-location work.

You may have specific skills as an on-set electrician, carpenter, grip, gaffer, set builder, costume designer or one of the many other areas involved in production. When it comes to post-production, technical know-how around special effects, editing and sound can also be attractive to producers building their teams.

But it’s worth noting that you don’t need to be a film specialist to benefit from these growing opportunities. Film production is like setting up a temporary city – and that ‘city’ requires the same goods and services that a real one needs. This includes doctors or nurses to provide on-set medical support, accountants, caterers, drivers, translators and ‘fixers’.

From pre-production to shooting the film on location and ending with post-production, there are opportunities for entrepreneurs from a wide range of backgrounds.

Let’s go to the movies

It’s exciting to imagine where the UAE and the Gulf region will be in terms of film production over the coming years. It feels as though we’re at the start of a major push, but this is only the beginning. The eventual outcome will be determined by how the UAE and other Gulf countries continue to encourage investment, create incentives, elevate home-grown talent, and leverage the region’s attractiveness to foreign creatives and technicians. Placing more Arab voices on the world stage is vital to taking control of the narrative and showcasing the region to the world.

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