HE Noura Al Kaabi: Show Time – The Business Year Interview
11 Aug 2015
The Business Year talks to HE Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of twofour54, on developing the UAE’s media and entertainment scene, attracting huge film developments, and the organization’s role in the region.
As the commercial arm of the Abu Dhabi Media Zone Authority, twofour54 was set up to nurture the development of the thriving entrepreneurship ecosystem in the field of media and entertainment. How would you describe the creative environment and the work culture at twofour54?
A group of 30 people started up this company in 2008. From day one we wanted to reflect creativity, teamwork, and a unique sense of environment, differentiating ourselves from the usual companies that fall under the government and follow a specific structure, for example, in the way that their offices look. This does not mean that our processes are not fully compliant with the government, but that there is a difference in the feel and look of twofour54 and in how people operate here. This is a loose environment where we allow for creativity, and it is an environment where we allow people to express themselves. At the end of the day, they are part of a creative sector or cluster that is commercially based. In our creative lab, people have a space to feel part of a creative community where they can share their ideas. We have a video editing room, an audio editing room, and tablets for creatives to work on their films, animations, or games, and also a game area to help generate ideas and encourage the flow of creativity, all for free. Individuals can come here during the weekends too. This is where we harness their creative energy.
What encourages companies to set up in Abu Dhabi at twofour54?
twofour54 operates the media zone in Abu Dhabi, which allows media companies setting up at twofour54 to enjoy 100% ownership without the need of a local sponsor, repatriate 100% of their profits, and pay 0% corporate taxation. In addition, twofour54’s business and content regulations are best-in-class and provide the much desired regulatory clarity to media companies. tawasol—the one-stop-shop of twofour54—takes care of the visas, driving licenses, travel arrangements, and even employee medical checkups for companies that set up here at twofour54. twofour54 actively engages with the companies in the media zone to support their local, regional, and international business development needs. We encourage films to be shot in Abu Dhabi by providing a 30% rebate offered by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission that also comes with support facilities, such as production services by intaj, freelancers, and other talent. twofour54’s support services on the production projects ensure that Emirati talent receives training that supports our industry development efforts. When we work with Bollywood, Hollywood, or even regional operators, each one of them operates differently, so our standards are designed in a way that allows for an efficient work process while allowing for local talent participation, and still reach the standards and expectations the companies have. Producers do not have that much time, so we need to manage their demands and make sure we achieve them as quickly as possible. We try to provide services that are not provided anywhere else. If you come at it from the perspective that all you need to do is make it a free zone and people will come, you will not get far. It is more than that—it is a specialized zone. Getting people from all over the world to set up here encourages a marriage of expertise and culture and helps considerably in driving more innovation.
In terms of content and new developments, what are some current projects taking place at twofour54?
We have partners like CNN, Sky News Arabia, and Cartoon Network set up here, and each one of them is responsible for its own target when it comes to its content or news segments. The Ubisoft studio developed a full iOS (iPad compatible) game called CSI: Hidden Crimes in Abu Dhabi with some graduates of Ubisoft Abu Dhabi, and it currently has over 13 million downloads. Furthermore, season two of an Emirati animation called Mansour supported by Mubadala, which used to be done outside the UAE, will be fully developed here in the Cartoon Network studios. We will also start filming the GCC version of Sesame Street, Iftah Ya Simsim, by the end of 2014, and it will show in 2015 on all GCC channels. We plan to have a channel on YouTube that will show the short films that are being made at twofour54; more than 400 members from our creative lab are volunteering on those short films. We have received a request from Etihad Airways to work on a documentary that shows the stories of Emirati pilots and cadets. These projects are helping our ecosystem by bringing more professionals, young creatives, and enthusiasts to twofour54; our creative lab now has more than 10,000 registered members. Our production services arm, intaj, has supported the production of more than 18,000 hours of content from its Abu Dhabi studios. intaj works closely with the Abu Dhabi Film Commission to encourage international films to be filmed here, such as Fast and Furious 7, Star Wars 7, together with Bollywood films. We have also arranged for two episodes of the BBC’s Top Gear to be filmed here.
To what extent has the filming of Star Wars in Abu Dhabi attracted more bids from other big names like Sony, Hollywood, and Universal?
After we finished with the Star Wars filming in Abu Dhabi, we went to Los Angeles to visit some studios. They already knew who we are, what we are doing, and what we are offering. We do get requests and we have a list of projects in consideration, so the filming of Star Wars here in Abu Dhabi has played a huge part in gaining international recognition for the Emirate. When you look at the regulations and the policies in Los Angeles, Hollywood is not encouraging films to be shot there. So people are looking outside of Los Angeles to Canada, the UK, and New Zealand. Producers look at which countries in the world offer the best rebates and incentives. In addition to finding the right location, they are keen to find the most efficient way to spend their money. Luckily, we are getting a lot of regional requests and many TV-series-based offers because of what we have to offer. Bollywood is acting faster than the rest of the region, Hollywood included. India is just three hours away by plane, so the close country proximity also adds to the list of benefits of filming here.
What kind of filming and production environment is Bollywood looking for here?
They look at highways, buildings, and beaches. Mostly, it is about the locations for Bollywood. Although I would emphasize that our location in Abu Dhabi can be found elsewhere. It is what comes with it, the services and the team, that makes the difference. It is not easy to make sure that everything is ready for a shoot. With Star Wars, for example, we had to build a road in the desert in 10 days. You also need to make sure you have all your permits from the municipality, the Department of Transport, and the federal entities, and when it comes to security, from the Police and the Army as well. So the whole package is what truly makes the place an attraction
What effect is the growing media industry having on Abu Dhabi’s economy?
As well as accounting for an increasing share of GDP and helping economic diversification, the media sector also supports other sectors such as tourism. For example, several scenes from Fast and Furious 7 were shot in Abu Dhabi, including a scene that includes Etihad Towers. People will want to come and see those buildings in real life as a result. When that film is premiered, there will be a huge buzz in the city that will end up trickling down and affecting the economy. This is evident from films in other countries such as the impact Lord of the Rings had in New Zealand.
With the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in November 2014, the three themes are distribution, content, and finance. What are some of the main topics for discussion on the agenda?
At the Summit we want to talk about how to build a sustainable media ecosystem in the Middle East. From a financing perspective, we want to talk about how start-ups can be taken to the next level. From a distribution and content perspective, there is a lot of piracy taking place and that will be a major topic of discussion. People will also be talking about the mobilization of content. We will be hosting people from Europe, the US, the region, and the Far East to talk about their models. For instance, the Hulu and Netflix models do not exist here yet. We will also be discussing developments in the industry, such as new gadgets and technology.
How do you see the media industry in Abu Dhabi and in the region in comparison to others in the world?
Our aim here is to have an ecosystem and a creative environment for Emiratis, Arabs, and also for our international partners who are changing the standards of the media industry in the region. Unfortunately, the industry in the region is not up to date in terms of technology and variety of content, as well as audience measurement data and techniques. If you compare the European or American industry, we are lagging behind. An important angle that we are looking into is what are the best ways to measure our content. We do have a people meter in the UAE, which is called tview, but it does not cover all broadcasters as yet. The idea is that content should be driven by creators and then judged by audiences and networks. Currently in the region, advertisers dictate the continuity of a show, which is a barrier to the industry flourishing. We want the media sector to be a viable sector and one with standards.
How do you view twofour54’s role in the region?
We always look at where we are in Abu Dhabi, in the UAE, and in the region, and start from there. This is where we are operating and why we are focusing on the Arab language; it affects the kinds of content we can create, whether it is books, eBooks, games, applications, short films, or whatever. We are developing an industry, not building one. We have a media industry here; however, in the past it was very closed-off. Looking at the future of twofour54, it is about how we can be a game changer. It is having the ability to go out there and say, “This measurement is not right. We need to fix it.” We are trying to build a model that is different from anywhere else in the region. We have more than 26% local Emiratis operating their media companies here in twofour54 and I feel upset when I see content that does not reflect us as we really are. I believe we need to make sure that we continue to provide a stable environment for creativity whilst demonstrating that there is a moderate way to operate. We understand that if you want to have a full-fledged industry, you should allow for many things to take place.
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