Two years ago, when Hollywood icon Tom Cruise dangled from the Burj Khalifa  for his blockbuster Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, one could assume that the UAE had peaked as a filmmaker’s paradise. But that iconic scene set in Dubai was just a sign of things to come. Over the last two years, the UAE has become a familiar landscape in films.
Just this month, the $90 million (Dh330 million) Arabian Nights project, starring Anthony Hopkins, Liam Hemsworth, Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson, was announced, with the stars expected to film in Abu Dhabi early in 2013. Meanwhile, Bollywood heavyweight Salman Khan returned to Dubai last week to shoot a song sequence for Dabangg 2. The first film also featured scenes set in and shot in the UAE.
According to industry experts, the number of productions that are being shot in the UAE is on the rise. Dubai Studio City’s Location Approval Services (LAS), the sole authority for issuing shooting approvals in Dubai, receives an average of 100 filming applications a month.
“We have already seen an 8 per cent increase in 2012 from 2011, and the year is not over yet,” said Jamal Al Sharif, managing director of Dubai Media City and Dubai Studio City, in an e-mail interview. He credits Dubai’s range of shooting locations combined with sophisticated infrastructure for the soaring popularity. “340 days of sunshine” always helps, too.
“Since 2005, when the Location Approval Services group [which now falls under the Dubai Film  and TV Commission] was established to facilitate shooting permits, over 6,000 productions have been completed in Dubai to date. The number of productions has grown year on year,” said Al Sharif.
In 2012, a healthy mix of Arabic TV serials (Hebr Al Youm, Law Bagi Leila), international TV shows (Britian’s Top Next Model, X Factor, The Apprentice), international films (Chinese film Switch and The Bourne Legacy) and Indian dramas (Diamond Necklace and Khiladi 786) have been shot in the city.
“With a population of over two million people and 200 nationalities, local and visiting productions enjoying significant casting flexibility too,” he added.
Abu Dhabi  is also proving to be a magnet for filmmakers.
“The city and its surroundings offer a wide variety of production locations: from the massive sand dunes in the Empty Quarter desert to remote offshore islands and a singular mountain, Jebel Hafeet. “At the same time, Abu Dhabi can double for many Middle Eastern and Asian cities, while offering a comfortable and efficient shooting environment,” said Noura Al Ka’abi, chief executive officer of twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s media and entertainment hub. Schemes are also in place to help producers save millions of dollars in production costs.
“The incentive scheme, launched in September 2012, takes the form of a rebate of up to 30 per cent of qualifying spend in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and is available for feature films, TV, documentary, commercials and music video production,” said Al Ka’abi. It worked. Ace Bollywood director Farah Khan has zeroed in on Abu Dhabi to shoot her forthcoming film Happy New Year, starring Shah Rukh Khan. When tabloid! met her in October, she had scouted for over 20 locations and six towers.
“We have been all around and there are so many possibilities in Abu Dhabi. Beautiful locations, good-looking buildings, sunny weather … In fact, I could shoot my whole film at the Emirates Palace, it could be like a character in the film,” said Khan.
Local industry insiderMini Sarma, General Manager of 7 Media, who facilitates shoots in the UAE, said that smooth shooting is guaranteed if all the permissions are in place.
“Once you follow the rules of the government, everything just falls into place … Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, which suffers from overexposure, there are several places here that are yet to be discovered on the big screen. Always have the permissions sorted,” said Sarma, who assisted on the shoot of Abu Dhabi-set Malayalam feature Oru Marubhoomi Katha and SIIMA, a South Indian film awards event in Dubai. On an average, she takes on at least four projects a year.
“I have been in this industry for over five years. The first year, I just had two projects. Now, I get five projects to look into every year. Farah Khan’s film will be a big one for us,” said Sarma.
Akram Sabry of Abu Dhabi ’s Sky Events, a local company involved in the production of the Chuck Russell-directed Arabian Nights, describes the assignment as an iconic one.
“This will be a milestone for Abu Dhabi. 75 per cent of the shooting will happen in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. We have lovely locations with nature and the landscape lending itself to the film beautifully,” said Sabry, general manager of Sky Events. Having Hollywood veterans such as Hopkins and heartthrobs Efron and Hemsworth is also a great draw, he adds.
“Some of the production team from Hollywood are already here scouting for locations now. The actors will arrive later. There’s still a lot to be done now.” said Sabry.
Sur Kshetra – a musical reality show that has contestants from India and Pakistan and tends to feed off the rivalry between the neighbours — was shot primarily in Dubai, with as many as 30 episodes shot in the city. The grand finale, which is tipped to attract some big names from the music world, will also be held in Dubai.
“UAE is the perfect location for almost any large scale event. For Sur Kshetra, we were looking at a venue that had audiences from both the countries, was musically sound and could accommodate large audiences. Dubai has the space and the capability to manage an event of this stature. We are looking at making the finale the biggest ever live show that celebrates music and culture of both countries,” said Gaurav Gandhi, chief operating officer of IndiaCast. The show, telecast on Colors, has acclaimed singers Atif Aslam and Himmesh Reshammiya as mentors.
Dabangg 2 executive director Manoj Chaturvedi had no qualms about admitting that Dubai trumped locations such as Ireland and Istanbul.
“We had gone location scouting to many countries to shoot the final song sequence. But Dubai won over Ireland, Istanbul, Kerala … There’s lot of variety here,” said ChaturvediHis crew filmed at Shakespeare & Co on Jumeirah Beach Road, the plush Al Maha Desert Resort and the stables at Meydan. Also this month, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar chose the Hatta-Oman border to add an Arabian flavour to his latest Khiladi installment.
It’s not just Hollywood and Bollywood filmmakers who are training their cameras on the UAE. Acclaimed Iranian actress Niki Karimi told tabloid! that she plans to direct a film about Iranians living in this region starting in March.
“It’s about Iranian immigrants living there. I got all the permissions sorted and I will begin to shoot in March,” said Karimi on the sidelines of Abu Dhabi International Film Festival in October.
Bollywood events manager Sameer Khan, of Times Square Events, also intends to make his Bollywood debut with a UAE-set drama.
“It’s a thriller and it will be shot at Ras Al Khaimah and Dubai. It’s a completely new star cast and we have planned a 60-day tight schedule,” said Khan. Bollywood producers say the UAE is a cost-effective shooting destination.
“In many foreign countries, there’s no guarantee of an uninterrupted shooting schedule. But in the UAE, we can get our work done on time without much hassles,” said Ram Mirchandani, CEO of Rampage Motion Pictures. He has pencilled in several UAE shoots for his forthcoming South Indian and Bollywood films, such as the Zanjeer remake.
“It’s a win-win situation for both the filmmakers and the UAE.”
Currently, Dubai Studio City authorities are also working towards tailoring structured incentive programmes.
“With the importance of cost in mind, we are currently working on the development of a structure incentives programme, details of which will be announced soon,” said Al Sharif.