Interview: Maryam AlMheiri
How successful is the cash-back rebate system?
MARYAM ALMHEIRI: The rebate has been tremendously successful as a tool to evolve all aspects of the industry. It has made Abu Dhabi a transparent production destination that allows producers internationally to benchmark it against other territories. It has also enabled us to build strong relationships with key decision-makers across the sectors. From an economic view, we know from analysis by PwC that for every dirham invested in the rebate since 2008, 3.1 dirhams have been returned to local GDP. With our mandate of growing a sustainable industry as a source of economic diversification in mind, that is a very powerful indicator of success.
The rebate is what puts Abu Dhabi on the shortlist of possible filming locations for new projects. It has helped us to attract films that propelled our reputation even further. Two of the six highest grossing films of all time – Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Fast and Furious 7 – were filmed in Abu Dhabi. Add those to the Netflix film, War Machine with Brad Pitt; international TV shows such as Top Gear, The Bold and the Beautiful, and The Today Show; three Bollywood films; and a huge increase in regional drama productions and you start to see the impact of the rebate as an initial engagement tool. The rest has to be there – crew, facilities, equipment – but the rebate starts the story and has given Abu Dhabi some of the world’s best productions.
What are the challenges in funding new ventures?
ALMHEIRI: Analysis of the industry gives a general indication of the challenges of funding media ventures: print advertising is declining, television is still one of the biggest outlets and is stable, and digital is the fastest growing sector. All markets are different but there are usually some commonalities or lessons to be learned from trends outside the MENA market.
When it comes to film and television spending, the model in the region is currently advertising-led, which effectively puts a ceiling on the money that networks have available to commission programmes here. The amount you have to spend determines the quality you are able to produce. A particular challenge for the region is that around 75% of annual spend for Arabic content targets the Ramadan season, rather than supporting content for viewing throughout the year.
Other parts of the world, like Scandinavia and Korea, have been very successful in exporting their content internationally and this is a phenomenon that Abu Dhabi has ambitions to replicate. It reinforces the power of high production values combined with quality at every level, mixed with some cultural intrigue. Productions made in Abu Dhabi are the most powerful tool we have for influencing international awareness of the UAE in a soft way that is not news-led. Content made here helps to change perceptions and that in itself can help to break down barriers to funding challenges.
What steps are being taken to encourage local employment interest in creative arts and media?
ALMHEIRI: twofour54 is committed to the development of media talent needed to grow a sustainable sector that contributes to the economic vision of Abu Dhabi. Our outreach programmes target school-age students thinking about career options, to university graduates ready to enter the workforce. The main vehicle is our creative lab initiative that nurtures a community of more than 4000 young people with an interest in the creative industries, helping them with internships, networking and learning opportunities.
Increasingly, we are able to thread talent development efforts through our commercial operations so that the two are completely aligned. The 30% rebate administered by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission helps with talent, too, as it is a requirement to have UAE nationals on set in order to secure the rebate. Now, a number of those young Emiratis who gained experience on the sets of Star Wars, Fast and Furious 7 and various Arabic dramas are employed full-time in the industry.
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