Jamal Al Sharif, the man behind much of what’s happening in film production in Dubai.
Jamal Al Sharif is Chairman of the Dubai Film & TV Commission. He is also Managing Director of Dubai Studio City, part of the Media Cluster at TECOM Group, a member of Dubai Holding.
In his current role, Al Sharif is responsible for driving the strategic and financial objectives of Dubai Studio City, and ensuring the development of the city’s technical infrastructure and product offerings, including the recently launched state of the art soundstage complex. Al Sharif is highly regarded in the industry for his performance-driven experience as a media industry and real estate specialist, his project management expertise, and for his ability to generate business in fiercely competitive markets. Al Sharif was instrumental in bringing Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to Dubai, which showcased Dubai’s extensive production capabilities to the global production community, resulting in a sharp increase in productions from around the world choosing to film in the emirate.
Al Sharif has devoted his entire career to establishing Dubai as a global leader in media and technology. He began his career with the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority now known as Dubai Creative Cluster Authority in April 2002. He was quickly appointed Director of Dubai Studio City and was pivotal in creating key offerings such as the Location Approval Services (LAS) department, which is now part of the Dubai Film and TV Commission, and is the sole entity authorized to grant shooting permits in Dubai.
As Chairman of the Dubai Film & TV Commission, Al Sharif partners with Government of Dubai and private entities to increase media production in Dubai by developing filming incentives, nurturing growth of the local media talent pool, and marketing the emirate to regional and international producers.
launched in 2005 as a dynamic business environment to support the growth of the broadcast, media production, music, and entertainment sector in the middle east and north africa region, Dubai Studio City continues to cement Dubai’s standing as a leading media hub. Spread across 2 million sq.m (21,527,820 sq.ft), Dubai Studio City features all the necessary production and post-production facilities required to ensure your project is made to the highest standards. DSC’s full range of offerings includes: soundstages, pre-built studios, warehouses, dressing rooms, workshops, office spaces, indoor water tanks, a 278,709 sq.m (3 million sq.ft) backlot, the latest in satellite communication facilities, recording studios and a variety of supporting ancillary services. Just 15 minutes from Dubai international airport and the city centre, Dubai Studio City is easily accessible from all areas of Dubai. by basing your production in Dubai Studio City, you can benefit from 100% business ownership and tax-free income, as well as excellent networking opportunities, venue management services, industry building programmes and support services.
Mr. Jamal, what is the story being the setting up of Dubai Studio City?
15 years back when Dubai really started to diversify it’s economy and started to establish a whole new way of income for the Dubai government, Dubai Internet City was the first initial project where H.H. Sheikh Mohammed announced. When they initiated the Dubai Media City in 2000, it was to basically open a new door for foreign investment that could lead the media and entertainment business in this part of the world. Media has always been a topic of Taboo anywhere you would go in the Middle East. People would like to keep things conservative because of the culture, although there was TV’s and Movies. Dubai was entering a whole new era of investment and a new source of revenue and income for the country. Dubai Media City started with only 3 buildings, which are now known as CNN and MBC. At that time the idea was to attract media companies to come and set up in Dubai, to make Dubai as a branch or as their second home to their mother company and to make Dubai a gateway. It grew so fast and by 2005 we realized that demand was growing and that’s when we started to look at the needs of these media companies. A lot of people demanded more space, more parking, more studios, and more production facilities, to bring some of their work here. However, Dubai was still a location for them but not a hub to produce.
So the next step was “What to we do to grow their business”. That’s how the idea for the Dubai Studio City came about. In 2005 we looked at everyone’s needs and we realized that their needs do require a new city that is much bigger, more spacious, upgraded infrastructure that could support the business of these media companies. However Dubai’s infra did not much support this. In 2006, we identified this plot and Tecom started to reinvest in a new city called the Dubai Studio City. Dubai Studio City was redesigned to compliment Media City but in a much bigger scale. So we started master planning and the first thing in the master plan was to understand how much fiber we need, how much power we need, how big the studio should be, and so on. We introduced the first project called Boutique Studios, which consists of 18 studios that are all currently sold out to different small to medium sized enterprises.
Eventually we grew and were convinced that we should have sound stages in Dubai. In 2005 we held our first initial press conference where they asked if we are sure that people will be interested to film in Dubai because Dubai is not even a film destination. The question was challenging at that time. We took that challenge as a push for us to go and find a solution. So we started building a sound stage, we have one of the largest sound stage facilities in the MENA region. What is being built is not just for locals or regionals but is also being built for international, as it’s international standard in terms of size, capacity, etc. When Star Trek came to Dubai they were debating between Dubai, Seoul, Singapore and Malaysia. At the end they found that Dubai could lead in that area because of the size of the studios, the quality of the studios, and the capacity they wanted in terms of hanging and structure from the ceiling and a 20 meter height studio, which they couldn’t find anywhere else.
How far would you say have you gone in terms of positioning Dubai as a place for filmmaking? What is the potential that you see going forward?
Building the structure was easy for us. The next challenge was how to bring it all together. Studio City was mandated to build the structure, facilities, services, studios, etc. Then it was the idea of the services that they want, how to reduce the cost, how to make it a one stop shop. Through this the idea of the film commission came in. This was following the Mission Impossible shoot in Dubai. Before Mission Impossible we didn’t have Film & Commission but Studio City played a big role as a film commission by facilitating everything together. At that time the studios were just coming up so the studio was not reading so they had to shoot everything outside. To enable that we had to put a whole team together to be a one-stop shop in order to facilitate the filming of Mission Impossible in Dubai. After that we recommended the government to have a film commission in Dubai. The Dubai Film & TV Commission came in 2012 to put regulations, stream line the process, and to make it easier. 5 years ago when you had to shoot in Dubai, it would have taken you 10 to 15 days to just get a permit on one location. Today you can get a permit on multiple locations in 72 hours. So the film commission came in really to reduce cost in hotels, locations, airlines, accommodation, transportation, visas, etc. That’s how we worked out the deal with not just Star Trek but Mission Impossible, Bourne Legacy and other Bollywood and Arab productions. We provided them with soft incentives. We take the budget, we break it down, we look where the budget is being allocated and then we work our networks and our MoU’s that has been signed with different sectors of Dubai government to our board members. Currently we have 7 board members and these board members play a big role in helping the commission to achieve its goal by reducing the cost of filming in Dubai.
Certain cities or countries around us have basically established themselves further by providing rebate systems. Since we are a tax free city and Tecom being a tax free zone, you are exempted from these taxes. So we tailor our cash rebate that supports these filmmakers and we tailor our soft incentives to these filmmakers. It depends on how much value they add in Dubai. The impact should be on people and how many jobs they can get, how many facilities they can use, how much they are going to expose Dubai in the movie and how much they are going to bring to the economy.
Do you see more films coming up in 2016 and 2017?
We don’t put all our focus on film. We also focus on long term TV formats that uses Dubai as a platform such as Masterchef Arabia. The TV formats are playing a big role in the Dubai’s industry. It helps the economy; it adds lots of value to the freelance market, as well as being the bread and butter for studios. Also, the region has a big thirst for fresh content and TV formats are changing into film standards for example, production and distributers such as Dubai TV, Abu Dhabi TV, OSN, MBC, whom are major players in the market in terms of content. We are also one of the first people that invited Netflix to Dubai, when they came to open doors for Arab and local filmmakers in the region to pitch to them the perfect product so that they cam use it, film it and distribute it over Netflix platform.
You went from clearly dealing with real estate, plots, land and office to a lot more of a softer approach when it comes to dealing with the Dubai Film & TV Commission. Which side of the business do you enjoy the most?
It’s not my choice. It’s based on Dubai’s economy and Dubai’s vision. The whole focus was to build the real estate, build the structure, prepare it as fast as possible because eventually down the road you will have to build the people, build the industry, build the knowledge and this is what’s happening. The approach is to change them, to build the future. The Dubai Creative Cluster was built to fund, support and develop the local industry, which is going to drive the real estate. The real estate is done. Now its time for us to fill up the studios, make more films, more TV, nurture our local filmmakers. That’s why we brought in Netflix; to see how much interest they have in the local markets and its content so that they can produce it here for the future market.
Entertainment is also a big element of this whole equation. How are you incorporating the entertainment business into this?
The whole media sector has many sides. We are focusing on entertainment and not the political and various diplomatic agendas. This entertainment business has been an economy for many cities around the world for example, Los Angeles. Entertainment could eventually become one of the main pillars for Dubai’s GDP if its driven the right way with the right programs, incentives and attractive models. Not everything is a blue sky for us. We still face challenges. My challenge is having freelance and having local crew. I don’t have Emirati crews and have to import. Although during the making of Start Trek I was very impressed with the fact that about 60 percent to 70 percent were local residence, not exactly national Emirati’s but I had Colombians, South Africans, etc. This is compared to 5 years ago where it was the opposite. 70 percent to 80 percent of the crew was imported the rest were local crews. Today we have over 400 different types of production companies. I think these companies see the future of this market because of the regional situation and the connectivity. Tecom has other umbrellas like Global Village, the radio channels that we have and so on.
How optimistic are you about the future of this organization going forward and what are the things that you would like to focus on in 2016?
I believe that you have to be optimistic wherever you are. Even if you are selling lemonade on the street you have to be optimistic about it. Dubai’s vision is very clear. Our leaders are the main support of this country so that gives you a clear light at the end of the tunnel. The establishment of TECOM and TECOM itself has put a very strong pillar into the ground by jump-starting the industry. The challenge would be to grow the local industry so through collaborating with local film makers, collaborating with other entities with whom we have a good network with such as twofour54 and so on. I believe that we do have a potential for growing. We have a few really local talented names out there that we are investing on and will eventually I believe that they will be leading this sector in media. We lack Emarati writers, there are only a few that I could count in my hand but I believe that in due time you are going to see more. There is a lot of history to be talked about. It hasn’t been discovered yet so that should slowly come up. However there are some areas that we need to work on. We not only need to work on attracting international but also build the local industry.