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Still in development: a film culture in Dubai


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POSTED: Monday, August 31, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—When the heiress Paris Hilton traveled here in June and July to audition female friends for her show “;My New BFF,”; her producers had access to state-of-the-art studios and a government eager to import Hollywood glamour to the Middle East.

But to adhere to the region's Islamic norms, many of the usual ingredients of reality TV were taboo: There would be no drinking, no cursing, no dramatic displays of affection. The producers thought about filming a scene at a water park, but passed on the option of dressing the contestants in religiously appropriate swimwear.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other Persian Gulf cities face enormous hurdles as they try to diversify their economies by fostering creativity and becoming entertainment capitals. Chief among those hurdles: They operate under Islamic law. Hollywood does not.

This month Dubai, citing moral reasons, rejected the producers of the “;Sex and the City”; sequel, who wanted to set part of the film there. “;Body of Lies,”; a thriller about fighting terrorists, was turned down in 2007.

So far, the oil states have proved more able to pay for productions and to build expensive film facilities than to actually lure production to the Middle East, as economic efforts run up against traditional values.

Some other hurdles are logistical. For instance, local requirements for full-time work visas mean Dubai country lacks a robust freelance market to support productions.

Despite the drawbacks, the region's ambitions cannot be written off, partly because of the sheer sums proponents are willing to spend. Imagenation, a subsidiary of the government-run Abu Dhabi Media Co., has invested $250 million each with Participant Media and Hyde Park Entertainment and $100 million with National Geographic Entertainment to finance feature films.

Abu Dhabi's most expensive joint venture to date is a two-year-old one with Warner Bros. that was said to be worth $1 billion. Its first film, “;Shorts,”; opened this month in the United States, earning a disappointing $6.6 million in its opening weekend. So far, “;Shorts”; is the only film to come from the joint venture.

National Geographic is making more progress with Abu Dhabi. Adam Leipzig, the president of its entertainment division, said the partners planned to make two or three films a year for the next five years. Their first, “;Amreeka,”; is scheduled for release on Sept. 4, and their first co-production, “;The Way Back,”; finished filming two months ago.