Baby Steps to Arabwood

The Arab region’s film industry is beginning its evolution into a formidable player on the global stage, writes Gulf Business reporter Aarti Nagraj.

This December, a host of Hollywood and Bollywood stars will land in Dubai for the emirate’s glitzy annual film festival (DIFF). Much to the delight of international and local paparazzi, Tom Cruise and Shahrukh Khan walked the red carpet last year, along with a host of other celebrities.

However, despite top marks for its publicity skills during the film festival, Dubai’s local cinema industry remains in its nascent stages. Commercial successes are few, and funding is limited.

But the industry is rapidly transforming, insist experts.

Sitting at a roundtable today with Shivani Pandya, DIFF’s managing director; Jane Williams, director of Film Connections and Film Forum; and Samr Al Marzooqi, Dubai Film Market manager, I was surprised at the underlying level of activity in Arabia’s budding film world.

Let me start with one of the changes they highlighted.

Dubai Film Connection (DFC), a part of DIFF’s industry office, is a co-production platform set up in 2006 that showcases 15 specially selected Arab film projects to local and international industry professionals to stimulate collaborations.

“The biggest change in the last six years is that the quality of applications has really improved,” explains Williams.

When filmmakers apply for DFC, they are expected to send in a synopsis, write a treatment and compile a budget for finance and strategy. But Williams says getting this information was extremely difficult in the initial years.

“When you are asking for millions of dollars for a film, you have got to be able to write it down on a piece of paper. You have got to be able to present a budget and financial forecast about how you are going to raise that money.

“You can’t just say ‘I have got this really great idea and you should fund it’,” she says. Potential investors/collaborators need detailed information to make an evaluation of the project.

“But now there’s been a real change in the whole region because there is more money available even if it’s mostly in terms of development or post-production funds.

“There is a growing confidence among filmmakers that they can get the films made and also that there is place in the world – not just in Dubai but in the whole region – where those films are the centre feature of the festivals and not the side bar.”

Thanks to these changes, filmmakers better understand why they have to organise themselves in a particular kind of way, she says.

So now they know what a synopsis look like and they are equally quick to provide a financial budget.

Well, it’s not enough for a cinematic revolution, you might say, which is precisely what I said.

But DIFF’s Pandya assured me that it’s all happening.

In previous years, the Toronto Film Festival would showcase an average of three Arab movies. In 2011, the event included 30 Arab films.

DIFF decided to introduce 80 exhibitor stands at the event this year and all are sold out. It’s too early to know the names, but they are mostly international entities, says Pandya.

Dubai Film Mart, which is DIFF’s digital sales and acquisition platform, welcomed 1,500 delegates late year including 241 companies and around 100 official meetings were held.

Through its various initiatives, DIFF has supported over 146 film projects to date, and a few of them have also gone on to become commercial hits.

Today’s signs all point towards an evolving market. So am I convinced that a new ‘Arabwood’ is going to emerge within the next 10 years? Probably not. But the industry is certainly taking some handsome baby steps.