New Abu Dhabi Film Commission Head Talks Building Studio Space, Attracting Hollywood & Whether The UAE Could Get A Major Film Festival

EXCLUSIVE: Hans Fraikin was the founding commissioner of the Quebec Film and TV Council, where during his tenure the region saw $1.5BN in inward investment, staging shoots for titles including 300 and X-Men: Apocalypse, as well as becoming a world leader in animation.

Now, he has set up shop in Abu Dhabi in the UAE, the Middle East city which is attempting to establish itself as a global hub for film and TV shoots. To date, the location has housed shoots including 6 Underground, Sonic The Hedgehog, Mission: Impossible – Fallout (where they filmed the famous HALO stunt jump), Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Fast & Furious 7. The location is also popular with high-profile Bollywood shoots, with its proximity to India and tax rebate system proving a draw for producers from that huge industry. Recent large scale Indian productions include Bang Bang, Baby and Tiger Zinda Hai.

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Going forward, the goal is to make Abu Dhabi a consistent shooting hub for global producers. During the pandemic, the city never fully shut down shoots, with local productions continuing to film throughout. International production has been disrupted, as it has everywhere, but the hope is that the successful handling of the pandemic by the local authorities will mean international shoots can resume sooner rather than later. The city also recently staged the UFC ‘Fight Island’, with the help of the Commission, a rare global sporting event to take place during the pandemic.

Fraikin’s hire follows the merging of local majors Image Nation and TwoFour54 under Michael Garin, with the Film Commission spun out of that entity. The new commissioner walks us through the plans to make the city the go-to production hub in the region in his first interview in his new role.

DEADLINE: Tell us about your move to Abu Dhabi.

HANS FRAIKIN: I’d been living in the Northern Hemisphere for most of my carer, based in Montreal with the Quebec Film Commission, before that in Paris as Telefilm Canada’s head of international, and before that at 20th Century Fox both in Paris and South Korea. I was fed up with cold weather. Abu Dhabi had the reputation as already being one of the up and coming cosmopolitan cities in the world. I’m into art and culture, this place has an abundance of it, from the new Louvre museum to the festivals.

I’ve known Michael [Garin] for a long time, when he took over as CEO at the newly-merged Image Nation and TwoFour54 he called and asked me if I’d like to set up the film commission. There was no Abu Dhabi Film Commission to speak of before, so I took on the challenge.

DEADLINE: What’s the plan?

FRAIKIN: There’s a real political will for Abu Dhabi to be the leader of film and TV production, and service production, in the region. I want us to be one of the go-to international filming destinations in the next 7-8 years. We already have set up a locations department, production services department, government relationships department, and a rebate department.

DEADLINE: Production never fully shutdown in Abu Dhabi during the pandemic, how did that happen?

FRAIKIN: When COVID reared its ugly face, the government was really fast to react in terms of testing and safety measures. Abu Dhabi was one of the only places in the world where production continued. $100M of production has taken place during the last four months. The first ever Arabic soap opera, a show called Inheritance, was one of the biggest ones to film during this period – we built a dedicated studio for them and they’ve shot 144 episodes already, 108 of which have been aired. They had mandatory testing for cast and crew, daily sanitization, etc. It was regimented.

DEADLINE: Are there plans to increase shooting capacity?

FRAIKIN: Part of the strategy is also to build the industry here. That includes infrastructure and crew. For infrastructure, we’re going to build a studio city with sound stages, warehouses and production offices. It’s going to be big and impressive, as we tend to do things here. We’re still looking for partners for design, construction and financing, and we’re talking to people from various parts of the world.

We are also looking to build the crew base. I have added a 5% top up on the rebate for locally hired crew and talent, if you hire someone that is residing in the city you get that bonus on top of the 30% rebate that already exists. We’re also putting together a visa program for creative workers, which is a fast track visa for anybody from overseas with experience and talent who wishes to work in Abu Dhabi. We need them, we already have a couple of dozen projects in our pipeline. I did this in Montreal for VFX and gaming – one of the challenges was we didn’t have the artists and compositors so we put together a program for workers from France, Los Angeles, South Korea, and we’re doing the same thing here.

DEADLINE: What’s the timeframe for the studio city?

FRAIKIN: We’re looking to get underway within the calendar year, and if everything goes according to plan we would have our first two 20,000 foot soundstage in less than a year, with warehouses and offices.

DEADLINE: And what’s the plan to attract skilled crew to Abu Dhabi?

FRAIKIN: Local means residing here, so the incentive doesn’t apply to just Emirati crew. The creative visa is for anybody that’s considered an expert in their field, we can fast track them to move here. And it’s a great place to live.

DEADLINE: What’s on the upcoming production slate?

FRAIKIN: It’s a mix of Hollywood, Bollywood and regional productions.

DEADLINE: Any international productions gearing up?

FRAIKIN: A couple before the end of the year, but I can’t tell you just yet. We also had the UFC ‘Fight Island’, which took place in Abu Dhabi. Who would’ve ever thought that could take place during COVID? It was a Herculean task to organize with world lockdowns and travel restrictions, but they did it. “Fight Island will go down in the history books,” Dana White said recently.

DEADLINE: How are you working with the other Emirates?

FRAIKIN: It’s the same as the relationship between Canada and the U.S.. The Dubai Film Commission is a separate entity. We do collaborate. Mission Impossible shot in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We just finished a film called The Ambush, that was an Abu Dhabi production but we used other locations in the Emirates. Abu Dhabi is the centre of it but the aim has been to build the industry in the UAE.

DEADLINE: The region lost the Dubai Film Festival after 2017, and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival was scrapped after 2015 – are there any thoughts about creating a new event?

FRAIKIN: Film festivals and markets can serve their purpose, but maybe not for what we’re developing. The crew and talent already know about our jurisdiction. It’s a huge investment to run a festival and a market, it’s too premature to talk about re-starting the festival in Abu Dhabi.

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