Meet Jamal Al Sharif, the man behind Dubai's movies

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Meet Jamal Al Sharif, the man behind Dubais movies
Dubai Film and TV Commission Chairman, Jamal Al Sharif

Published: Tue 21 May 2019, 6:03 PM

Last updated: Wed 22 May 2019, 11:23 AM

IT TOOK ALMOST thirty years for Hollywood to go from one-horse town to the world's financially dominant film powerhouse and in true Dubai style, we're hot on their heels in record time. Today it appears almost de rigueur to expect the likes of Tom Cruise or the star ship Enterprise to pitch their tents in our city and begin filming their adventures, but it hasn't always been the case. Before the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) was launched in 2012, the Emirates' cinema and television landscape was a little more low-key.
Fast-forward to the present and the local entertainment expansion has been exponential through the Commission's concerted efforts in facilitating on-screen endeavours in coordination with Dubai Studio City's ability to attract talent with its ground-breaking facilities and resident production companies. Sat at the top of the tree of the Dubai Film and TV Commission is Chairman, Jamal Al Sharif.
His vision of making the organisation a 'one-stop shop' for filmmaking - consolidating all branches of the process from location permit applications and providing sound stages and technical expertise, all the way down to the smallest procedural cog - has led to an influx of major show business players.
In the beginning
Sitting down with Al Sharif in the plush Studio City main offices, the overwhelming sense of pride in all he and his team have achieved was palpable. Al Sharif's personal journey into the world of film production began in 2005, shortly after a new media park set to be constructed in a vast vacant plot just on from Motor City was given the green light. At the time a key player in the success that is Dubai Media City, he was tasked with establishing what became known as Dubai Studio City from scratch.
"It was purely sand and desert. The road ended at Arabian Ranches," Al Sharif said about the first time he set eyes on his new mission. "Now it is the biggest studio space in the MENA region. We have a studio that is 50,000 sq. ft. and that is just a part of our facility."
An initial exploration of various motion picture capitals provided the research for what now must be the world's best-planned studio area.
"We went to Bollywood, Egypt, the US and further. We went all over learning.
"Everyone was so helpful. They didn't think of the competition. The industry is so beautiful, everyone wanted to offer support to help us grow our project. For example, the guys in Berlin gave us pointers in what not to do - in terms of size and power - to avoid future problems."
What resulted, Al Sharif told us, was a city which steadily expanded over the years: starting with boutique offices and resulting in acres of land hosting studios, work spaces and even living areas, boasting up to 90 per cent occupancy across the board.
Elements including the aforementioned massive filming hangar, which can be cooled to 15 degrees Celsius when it is over 50 outside and possesses soundproofing so advanced you could fly a fighter jet over and not hear it from inside; not to mention hotels purpose built for visiting production crews, led Al Sharif's journey onto its following stage: the Dubai Film & Television Commission.
Becoming the Chairman
"With the success of Studio City, we launched DFTC. I was appointed by decree to overlook the Film and TV Commission as Chairman," Al Sharif said. "Our priority was to automate our services. We are actually the only online film permitting entity, I believe, worldwide. It is totally paperless."
This strategy, Al Sharif said, was the first in a peerless multi-pronged effort to cater to filmmakers' most pressing needs and thus transform Dubai into the most attractive movie location.
"In the film business time really is money. You are dealing with stars and a timeline to deliver content.
We make it quick and easy. You apply and that goes through a sophisticated system connected with all your stakeholders and you get your permission within a day or two for anywhere in Dubai. This is important because producers normally require multiple locations. We have over 100 locations included in our database where you just have to click, choose and send - it goes to the location owner and you get an approval. That is just one element."
Hooking the first big fish
With these state-of-the-art methods in place it was time to bring in the industry's bigwigs. Al Sharif narrowed his sights on Paramount Pictures and the most recognisable movie star in the world, Tom Cruise.
"My first big project with them (Paramount) was Mission: Impossible to bring them to Dubai. It took me a year to convince them."
The effort paid off.
"They spent somewhere between $25-26 million during their time in Dubai. And then later they came back with Star Trek; the same team: Paramount, with the same executive producer, and said: 'we are back because we know Dubai. We can do a lot here.'"
Dubai Studio City had evolved in the interim period between M:I Ghost Protocol and 2016's Star Trek Beyond. Now the park had the infrastructure not only to deal with one of the world's largest franchises, it could and did simultaneously host the filming of two other movies.
"We had Jackie Chan's first (Kung Fu Yoga) here and we also had a week of Gerard Butler's Geostorm at the same time Star Trek was here," said Al Sharif. "Three at once showed what we can do.  
"Following the success of bringing these films, we had over 980 applications last year. You can tell the appetite of filmmakers is strong for the UAE."
Cause and effect
The increased attention a film shooting in your backyard attracts and the financial benefits may seem obvious, but it is the trickle-down economic value many do not take into account. As Al Sharif explained: "Star Trek spent a little over $30 million in Dubai in three months. This cash spent has a multiplier effect into different industries: catering, makeup, property, all sorts! The economy evolves in film production in a very short period of time. No other business could give you that. When a film is in your town - the consuming and producing - it's like a circus. It moves and creates."
So the only way is up? What does the future hold?
"We want to attract more blockbuster films from Hollywood and Bollywood. Bollywood plays a big part in Dubai and we love them. China is very good too. Jackie Chan has been a good friend to us.
"Recently, Jackie shot a film here. The fact he was here came from the artist himself. He feels Dubai was more ready for his film this time compared to even the first time he shot here. He brought 150-200 people with him. The rest were hired locally. That shows the improvement because the first time there were 300+ people brought from China.
"I see more local content creators going global. We have a young talented population, a mixture of 200 nationalities; that in itself is content. There are many stories to be told." 

By David Light

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