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The Dubai Film Market: Interview with the Director Ziad Yaghi

As noted in our February 4th write up, setting up the first regional film market is part of a comprehensive strategy by the Emirate of Dubai to create a sophisticated media infrastructure. It includes dating Dubai media city for electronic and print media with 1300 mostly foreign companies; Dubai Internet City; the International Media Production Zone; Dubai Studio City housing the biggest and technologically most advanced studio facility in the Middle East; and the five year old Dubai International Film Festival to which the film market is attached. As distinct from Abu Dhabi’s oil, Dubai has few natural resources and is thus forced to develop alternatives. Thus the great emphasis on upscale tourism and the provision of services through free enterprises zones. The current economic malaise, a real estate slump of 40% in property values and the $70 billion debt load of Dubai’s state affiliated companies of which $15 billion need to be refinanced now seem to hamper Dubai’s continued rapid development unless, as widely suspected, Abu Dhabi comes to the rescue.

Claus Mueller: What was the biggest challenge you faced setting up a new Film Market
Ziad Yaghi: Our first challenge was to set up the CineTech, a unit designed in France [and also used in Rotterdam which provides via multiple viewing stations instant access to hundreds of film productions, data about these productions and other relevant information, electronic interaction with sales companies, etc]
CM: The way the market is organized is that participants do not have to pay a fee. Do you aim to become financially self-sufficient by eventually charging companies?
ZY: What we are trying to find out this year is which direction the [film] industry wants to take. Thus we provide now a service to all the film makers in the region and to those who are in the Dubai Film Festival. If you look at the Dubai Film Festival it is becoming a cycle. You have the Dubai Film Connection which helps people to get their funding to make a film.
CM: What is the exact relationship between the market and the Film Connection?
ZY: We are in the same team, the Dubai Film Festival team; you also have the industry office, the market, the marketing department. At the Dubai Film Connection level they try to get funding but also assist in writing appropriate scripts. It can be understood as a teaching process for phase one whereas phase two covers marketing and distribution. Once you finish he first phase and have completed the film project you want it placed on the big screen but you also want to sell your movie. If successful you are able to start your next film.
CM: Looking at the individuals and companies who participate in the market, how many have paid their own way and how many are guests of your government and its agencies?
ZY: We have been inviting numerous companies and individuals to screen and acquire movies. But to our surprise there are a lot of people, from countries such as Thailand, the US or Bermuda, who have come at their own cost to attend the festival and the market.
CM: What about the different films you carry in your CineTech library?
ZY: There are three types. The first group covers 137 films which are also in the Dubai Film Festival, including some which had been sold already, then there are 50 productions that we recommend and the remainder is Gulf films.
CM: What are your criteria for selecting a film for the market?
ZY: It depends on the submissions. This year we had around 70 submissions of which we selected about 50. Basically these are films with sales potential in our judgment.
CM: According to the trade press the most popular films in the market originated in Arab countries. Does this reflect the positioning of the Dubai Film Market as a regional market?
ZY: Well I would like to position [the Dubai Film Market] as a world cinema market.
We are pushing Arab, Asian and African films but we are also trying to provide a window for film makers from other areas.
CM: Thus developing this market will you be placing a greater international emphasis going beyond the regional focus?
ZY: Our team is distributing questionnaires all the time [to market participants]. Thus we gather feed back as to what they consider to be successful at this market and what should be changed to meet the industry demands. Any changes would be based first on the data we derive from the CineTech system, the second source is our ongoing survey, and the third will be the follow up survey we are sending out in January or February of 2009. Once we have gathered all the information we are in a much better position to ascertain what the industry wants and which way to go, that is more Arab, Asian, African films or more world cinema or more American and European productions.
CM: Evidently you also have to take into account which areas the other film markets are serving since you do not operate in isolation. But moving to a larger issue, how does the economic down turn affect the Dubai Film Market? Do you have an open ended commitment by the government to support the film market and its expansion? I was advised that the Chairman of your Board wants to transform the Dubai Film Festival by 2015 into the fifth biggest international film festival.
ZY: Well the current economic crisis affects everybody except the fact that people still want to go to the cinema, watch TV or DVDs. Thus I would suggest that the film industry is the least affected economic sector. The cinemas in Dubai are packed more than ever before.
CM: You have several film festivals in this region. There is Abu Dhabi, then in November 2009 the new Tribeca Film Festival Doha will open in Qatar, there is the Gulf Film Festival, and so on. So how do you position your festival?
ZY: That is a question you should ask the people organizing the Dubai festival. I am organizing the market and it is still the only one in this region.
CM: What about the idea of making the Dubai Film Festival one of the most prominent international film festivals? After all, you have Cannes, Berlin, Venice to name but a few.
ZY: Everybody has to have a goal
CM: To shift to a different issue. I was surprised to find very few productions from the Emirates which could be shown to an international audience. What is the cause?
ZY: Correct, but [he number of productions] is growing. If you look at the trades, several Emirate film projects are discussed. I have faith that both the quality and quantity of Emirate productions will increase.
CM: Well, I talked about the current state. For New York we planned a sample screening of productions from the Emirates including the ARABIAN SANDS film by Majid Abdulrazak and I was a bit puzzled not finding more suitable material.
ZY: This will change, given the increased number of festivals in this area and greater competition
CM: Possibly, but having a large number of new film makers as trained by NYU and the New York Film Institute in Abu Dhabi and producing more films does not ensure jumps in quality or economic success.
ZY: You have a point, but we will provide the infrastructure and thus opportunities to film makers from this region.
CM: On that positive note, let me thank you for the interview.

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent


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