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Hollywood strikes a blow to Mena film industry

Jane Fonda strike Shutterstock
Actresses June Diane and Jane Fonda on the picket line in Los Angeles. In July thousands of SAG-AFTRA members joined the strike alongside the Writers Guild of America
  • US writers and actors striking against low pay, AI rights and more
  • No filming in Gulf with striking union members until resolution
  • Opportunity for local productions to step into the gap, expert says

When it came to creating the epic sunset scenes for the upcoming Dune movie sequel, director Denis Villeneuve chose the sand dunes of Jordan and Abu Dhabi to stand in for the futuristic desert planet of Arrakis. 

Local fans sitting down to watch the movie this November should relish the occasion, as it may be some time before they see their homeland on the big screen again. 

Strike action by writers and actors in the US has meant Hollywood studios have been forced to halt or delay any filming in the Middle East until a resolution is agreed.

Jordan has always been a popular location for blockbuster shoots such as Keanu Reeves’s John Wicks 4, various Star Wars films, Disney’s live action Aladdin and The Martian.

“We have noticed fewer inquiries from Hollywood producers in the last two months,” Bashar Abu-Nuwar, production services manager at Jordan’s Royal Film Commission (RFC), told AGBI.

The RFC offers cash rebates of up to 25 percent to entice producers to film their movies in Jordan, but Abu-Nuwar said that the kingdom has no films in the pipeline for the rest of 2023. 

Locals often make up to 70 percent of the cast and crew on foreign productions and Abu-Nuwar said the Hollywood dispute will have an impact if it drags out for a long time.

“In our case, if the strike continues it might affect a lot of the crew since our local industry size is relatively small,” he added.

Jordan Wadi Rum filmingCreative Commons/Guillaume Baviere
Dune, Aladdin, The Martian and various Star Wars films are among those filmed at Jordan’s Wadi Rum

The Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents around 11,000 writers in film, television, radio and online media, started picketing on May 2. It was joined by nearly 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) on July 14.

This is the first time since 1960 that both unions have banded together to take action.

The issues at stake are low pay, residual payments for work shown on streaming services and disagreements over artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of an artist’s likeness.

Global law firm Reed Smith has worked with entertainment companies for almost a century and has a dedicated film and TV division. When asked if the Hollywood strikes were having an impact in the Gulf, Jamie Ryder, a Dubai-based partner, said “a resounding yes”. 

“Any production in the Middle East that is currently taking place or scheduled to take place soon which includes members of either union is likely to be postponed until the parties reach a mutually agreeable solution,” he said.

Ryder said he was aware of at least one shoot a US studio was planning to film in the UAE later this year that is likely to be postponed, although he declined to name the film.

It has been reported that Apex, Brad Pitt’s new movie set in the world of Formula One, was due to film at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. Filming has already taken place at the British and Hungarian races, but media reports this weekend said Pitt had halted production to support the SAG strike.

The movie’s US producers did not respond to queries from AGBI on the status of any filming in the UAE. Pitt previously filmed part of his movie War Machine in Abu Dhabi in 2015.

The Abu Dhabi Film Commission offers a 30 percent rebate to entice producers to film in the emirate. It has hosted some big productions such as Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Fast & Furious 7 and the latest Mission Impossible movie, with star Tom Cruise attending its Abu Dhabi premiere last month.

Rory McLoughlin, a freelance film director in Dubai, played down the impact the strike has had so far. However he said many members of his local film networking group were looking closely to see whether the strike action leads to any new rules on using AI.

“The threat from WGA and SAG-AFTRA to deny non-members future membership if they cross the picket line is heavy on people’s minds,” he added.

Tom Cruise Abu DhabiAbu Dhabi Airports
Tom Cruise was in Abu Dhabi in June for its premiere of the latest Mission Impossible film

Amanda Turnbull, a former general manager at Warner Bros Discovery Middle East, who last year co-founded Rise Studios in Dubai, said the lack of Hollywood productions could be an advantage.

“It’s a great opportunity for local productions to step into the gap, either through the creation of Arabic originals or through Arabic versions of international formats,” she said.

The strike action also prevents any actors or writers from attending any events to promote their work.

This could potentially impact the big names able to attend Turkey’s Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival and Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival, both in October, or the Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia in November.

The previous WGA strike in 2007 lasted for 14 weeks. Ryder said it was difficult to estimate but he believed the issues at stake this time meant it could drag on.

“The parties appear to be far apart on key issues, from reflecting the immense impact streaming has had on the media industry, to the use of AI. But hopefully it will be sooner rather than later,” he said.

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