What future for the Dubai International Film Festival?

The future of the Dubai International Film Festival is in doubt, following the official announcement of “a new strategy to support the growth and evolution of the film and content industries in the region” that includes the cancellation of the 2018 version of the event.

Jamal Al Sharif: “significant changes”

Instead the intention is to run some kind of festival every other year. Jamal Al Sharif, Chairman of Dubai Film and TV Commission, said that “the Festival will continue its significant contribution to the development of the industry” and promised a 2019 event – though with no details yet: “we will announce the final dates, details and the new programme as soon as confirmed”.

There have been rumours for some time about the costs and the perceived return on investment for Dubai Holdings, ultimately the owner of DIFF. While the festival has been a critical success and commercially important as a shop window for Arabic cinema, much of the financial benefit has been felt regionally at a direct local cost to Dubai.

The argument for film festivals is partly that they should be able to pay for themselves – distributors often make no charge for screening new films and will support an important festival with their own marketing spend, and if there’s sufficient buzz about the event there will always be local sponsors eager to be associated with it (and that’s easier in a place like Dubai, where the likely sponsors are often interconnected by networking and shared identity of not actually by ownership).

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Al Sharif’s statement talks about “significant changes taking place in the region’s creative and entertainment landscape”. The elephant in this particular room is Saudi Arabia, where there’s a newfound official enthusiasm for film along with a loosening of restrictions. So Black Panther has just opened to sold-out audiences in the country’s first commercial cinema, and a flood of multiplexes is set to follow (300 theatres and 2,000 screens by 2030, say officials). There’s Saudi participation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for the first time – we understand that the UAE Pavilion (which had become effectively the DIFF Pavilion) will not be at Cannes this year – and it’s clear the country has the market size, infrastructure, talent and wealth to become a movie-making hub for the Arabic-speaking world.

The Saudi Film Council was established in March with the stated aim of building a film and content ecosystem, starting this year – it will “pioneer multiple initiatives to lay a solid foundation for industry growth,” including streamlined filming processes and support services, a National Fund for Saudi filmmakers, and year-round training programmes and skills workshops for talent development.

The 2017 DIFF Muhr Award winners for Arab filmmakers

It’s not too much of a leap to see this strategy including a Saudi Film Festival with an Arab-language bias. Hitherto leadership in that particular race has gone to DIFF. But given that Saudi’s economic clout could be a major threat to an existing competitor, it’s not unreasonable to think that DIFF’s leadership might have taken the opportunity to refashion their product so as to minimise competition.

Equally, there could have been a strategic deal. The reforming Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has become close to the UAE’s leadership in personal as well as political terms, and we can look forward to more empathetic alliances and alignments across the board … including perhaps in sectors like film. Maybe the restructuring of DIFF has something to do with allowing the Saudis a regional presence in film while reaining the Dubai team’s strong industry focus and the technologically aware climate in the Emirates?

The official DIFF-is-dead-long-live-DIFF press release talked about a new strategy that “seeks to leverage the emergence of exciting new talent and innovative new technologies that are rapidly transforming the content landscape in the region”. That sounds like a digital future, and one that takes place on personal devices rather than in the multiplexes. Jamal Al Sharif certainly made the point when he described Dubai as “a world-class destination in the film and content industry” and included “the distribution of content” (alongside “the craft of movie-making”) as key changes that DIFF “seeks to embrace”.

There’s lots of seeking going on here, in fact: “we are seeking to redefine the Dubai International Film Festival’s approach towards nurturing growth, creativity and talent”. We can only hope they find what they’re looking for.

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Things change, of course, and not necessarily for the worse – though cynics might point to the disappearance of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (2007 to 2014), the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (2009 to 2012), and Dubai’s own Gulf Film Festival – “the home of bold, contemporary and experimental cinema from the Arabian Peninsula” was ‘postponed’ abruptly on 1 April 2014 and never reappeared.

2014 wasn’t a great year, actually, with DIFF itself undergoing some drastic reductions in its co-funding platforms. Since then though DIFF appeared to have been rejuvenated, with last year’s festival widely regarded as the best yet.

Dubai International Film Festival had launched in 2004. Since then it has had almost 2,000 screenings, a quarter of them from the Arab world – DIFF was giving more premieres to Arab filmmakers than any other festival in the world. Supporting Arabic film has become its principal role, in fact; through its competitions and direct funding it has helped more than 300 films from the region reach completion, with a further 140 or so getting at least some kind of assistance.

It would be a great shame to lose the momentum that this has built up, or the expertise that has been developed around it.

Given the experience of film festivals in the region, should we take the DIFF statement at face value? Will DIFF continue as a festival – or will it be killed off altogether? We got no response to our own queries, but Alex Ritman, who has inside knowledge, co-wrote a news piece for the Hollywood Reporter in which he related rumours of mass redundancies and explicit shutdowns.

When the Abu Dhabi Festival was closed, the twifur54 Media Zone Authority (which had taken it over) said it would be ” refocusing” its film activities on to “targeted initiatives to further support local and Arab filmmakers and attract more film productions to Abu Dhabi”. That appears to have happened, at least in terms of making Abu Dhabi a strong candidate for location shooting and some post-production. But twofour54 said it would continue the Festival’s Sanad fund, which provided financial support for Arab film projects; that disappeared a couple of years later, subsumed into twofour54’s commercial film producer Image Nation Abu Dhabi.

Is this where Dubai is going too? Attracting more Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol blockbusters and financing mass-market Arab-language TV productions?

Thank you … and goodbye


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