Film and television production in the UAE is still considered to be in its nascence phase, at least in comparison to the traditional Arab powerhouses of Egypt and Jordan.
But the landscape is changing, more production houses are bucking the trend and are creating meaningful cinema that is knocking on the doors of being ranked with the Arab world’s elite content.
Art Format Lab (AFL), a Dubai-founded production company which is no stranger to Digital Studio Middle East’s readers, is one of those companies responsible for creating a high quality content that is being consumed across the Arab world.
Coronavirus and content commitments
The company’s slate of productions is extensive despite the many challenges that Covid-19 posed for the young production house. At the helm is Khulud Abu Homos, AFL’s chief executive officer, who has spent her days during lockdown coming up with different story ideas, and complete a tricky movie production that stalled twice due to lockdown in the UAE.
AFL was in the midst of filming an Emirati film 218 which “was a challenging project” because production was “stopped twice” as the coronavirus became a global pandemic. The film, which tells a story of two Emirati girls tackles the double-sided nature of social media, is a thriller-drama which will have a theatrical release, Homos tells Digital Studio.
She adds: “We incurred a lot of extra costs and we went over our budget. We stopped... and restarted in June. We had to honour all our obligations and pay one of the DOPs who had flown in from Poland. Production costs swelled above our forecasts. However, we cannot put a price on the commitment and creativity we got from the cast and crew.”
The story of AFL’s sustenance can well be about the many projects that the team continues to work on, but a special mention needs to be made about Homos’ commitment to keeping the company alive and refusing to accept defeat.
“Our company, like others across different sectors, are financially stressed. It’s not a lack of projects for us but more a case of cash flow and payment delays. The endeavour is to keep hold of our people, which is our strongest asset, who have contributed to our successes to get us to where we are today. At the end of the day, we are a small company and letting go of our staff means we are letting go of AFL. I’m passionate about this company and all our staff, I’ll never fire anyone unless the financial situation becomes unmanageable,” Homos reveals.
To offset some of the burden and stress caused due to Covid-19, Homos and the AFL board decided to strategically diversify its operations. AFL partnered with Gorilla, a production and post-production studio based in Egypt and KSA, which enables all facets of the process to be completed out in-house, allowing AFL to take up new work.
Covid-19 has led to a general widespread uptick of e-commerce and through its partnership with Gorilla, AFL has managed to service companies looking to produce commercials.
Along with the long feature 218, which is currently in post-production, AFL is also working on Tranquilla (a remake of Indian sitcom Hum Paanch), Atyaaf (a magazine show), Bat’s Nest (a thriller feature film), My Grandma’s Recipe (A cooking show for Ramadan 2021), Bursa (comedy film), The Hackers (A crime mini-series), and The Good Doctor to name a few.
Atyaaf follows a group of seven young Emirati / Saudi locals with emerging creative talents such as writers, innovators, musicians and entrepreneurs, as well as focusing on the importance of nutrition and sport as a necessary lifestyle. The show is currently in production as well.
“I’ve also written my first movie called Bat’s Nest. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, I did a fair bit of research on bats and realised that trading of bats nests is a huge industry across Egypt, North Africa, South Europe and Texas in the U.S. People don’t realise that bats play an important role in maintaining the ecological balance around the world,” Homos says.
The movie is a thriller based on five biologist who worked in a lab 15 years ago conducting research on bats. A few of them get involved in trading bats nests, and the story progresses from there.
“We have three clients looking into it, and we will go into production post Ramadan in May 2021. We are filming in the US at the Bat Bridge in Texas, and around the Middle East as well. We are also producing a mini-series documentary of three episodes on the same subject. Bat’s Nest is based on real facts and we have unearthed so much information through our research that we have enough content to produce both a documentary mini-series and a feature film on the subject,” Homos says.
Homos says the company’s ever-growing production slate is a result of the creativity unearthed thanks to the writers’ rooms’ projects that the company has invested in. These have not only opened up the door for new talent to come in and showcase their talent, “but helps also keeps costs in check for us. At the same time we are taking the risk on new talent,” she adds.
“However, we don’t go into a new project without assessing the risks. We have an internal process where either a recent sale covers the cost of a new project so we break even, even before we start. Or we ensure we have solid demand for a concept before we go into production.”
Having said that Homos says “It goes beyond monetary involvement,” as she adds that creative collaborations with the right people are key.
“We have managed to collaborate with big names in the industry, who are specialists at what they do, to shoot a pilot or two episodes. These are creatively driven individuals at heart who share the same passion as us for television and cinema.”
Rising from the east
It is well-known that Middle Eastern audiences are big fans of Hollywood-style productions, the success of StarzPlay original’s Bhagdad Central is a good case in point. Homos believes, however, Arab productions can draw plenty of inspiration from the East as well, especially K-dramas and Indian cinema.
She notes it is important to maintain a quintessentially Arab flavour while producing originals or remakes. “AFL’s focus is out of Hollywood and on South East Asia and India. It’s heart-warming to see that we are finding partners along with way who are eager to work with us.
“There is so much meaningful content from Korea and India, for example. We don’t need to be another Hollywood, and must create our own Middle Eastern identity. There are more relevant markets to the Middle East than the U.S, with cultural similarities that have a proven track record of longevity. For instance Hum Paanch is a great example of that, its success as a sitcom is institutional, one which is likened to Friends in terms of its place in pop culture,” Homos adds.
Due to the rise of OTT platforms and digital formats Homos says it is important to incorporate them during production of new shows.
“We are filming original versions that allows it to be used on multiple formats and platforms. Everything we film now is shot for two different formats, OTT and linear. We are looking into sales... we are confident of it being a success. It will be ready for broadcast in February 2021,” Homos says.
Speaking about selling its shows, Homos says it’s a “dream” to work with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. However the company is focusing on other OTT providers such as Viu and Watch It in a bid to create meaningful partnerships.
“We are working with Watch It, a new OTT service in Egypt, which started as a catch-up service for all Egyptian TV programmes. They are producing originals as well. A platform such as Watch It that starts now will have the early mover’s advantage in Egypt, and we want to be part of those journeys,” Homos concludes.