Beirut as a filming destination is on the up
Beirut and Lebanon in general has not been greatly affected by the rough recessionary winds that have hit so much of the Middle East’s media business. While Dubai is still struggling to raise sail out of the doldrums, Lebanon powers ahead on a wave of domestic production to challenge for international film, TV and ad work.
Lebanese feature films are currently in vogue globally, with the work of filmmakers like Nadine Labaki and Chadi Zeneddine being feted everywhere. Zeneddine, whose debut film Falling From Earth is a poetic take on life in modern-day Beirut, has been signed up by Disney to develop The Last of the Storytellers, drawing on the Arab world's tradition of folklore.
However, it is the ad business that is really gathering speed. Stolichnaya vodka, Total petroleum and The Olympic Games are just some of the clients who have jumped onboard in 2010 to take advantage of the daily 14 hours of sunshine, the proximity to Europe (as little as two hours), the incredibly cheap crews and the solid production service infrastructure.
Rolly Dib, Producer at Olive Tree Productions in Mathaf, Beirut, explains that they are mainly producing for the Middle East, the Gulf and the Saudi market, but that in the past year they've been quoting for a number of European and American jobs.
“We in Lebanon have recently started receiving servicing jobs from around the globe and not only in the TV commercials business but also inquiries about feature film shoots. Beirut is such a culturally rich city and there is a feeling that things are really happening right now.”
Joanne Keirouz of The Talkies, a 20-year-old established production company in Beirut who have worked on campaigns for BMW and Visa recently, explains:
“With the recession European advertisers, agencies and production houses are looking for quality at good prices. Lebanese production costs are very affordable and crews are professional and motivated to meet the requirements of foreign productions.”
How does Rolly spin Beirut to potential clients? Clearly talking about Lebanon’s strengths is an easy job. There is a lot to say, given that the Romans, Phoenicians, Ottomans, Arabs and French have all left their mark on the territory:
“Being a crossroad of civilizations, Lebanon has a mixture of oriental and occidental features and these influences create a place like no other. The collision of past and present in our environment is captivating. It is also the most liberal environment in the Middle East, it hosts a lively and vibrant art scene with designers, musicians, architects and high fashion all doing good business. So Beirut has become a cultural hub. All of this is helping change people’s perception towards Lebanon and stirring their curiosity. With this curiosity comes all the inquiries I have been dealing with recently.”
Joanne wants to remind Producers that Beirut is practically a neighbour to Europe.
“We are only a two- to five-hour flight away from European capitals, with a maximum of two hours time difference. Plus our locations are stunning, all with a maximum three-hour drive border to border. You can be in Italy, Brazil, Turkey or Morocco 30 minutes after leaving your five-star downtown hotel room.”
The one thing you won’t find in Lebanon is Government assistance, at least not in any recognisable American and European model of tax rebates or grants. Producers agree this is not to say that the state is unhelpful. For Frederic Ephrem, from Miracle Films-Mena, who have just completed a high profile shoot for The Olympic Games, the lack of a film commission isn’t necessarily a disadvantage:
“There isn’t a film commission right now but we know the production houses and can make good deals with the crews. However the Government is always there to support filming informally and in my experience they will help with access to sites if there is a need.”
The Talkies has had the same experience, as Joanne explains:
“The authorities have always been helpful when it comes to location permits. When it comes to servicing TV commercials we have never faced any problems with officials. Most nationalities don’t need a visa to enter the country. Equipment import and export is very easy.”
Variety recently reported that there are plans afoot for the Government's ministries of culture and tourism to promote Lebanon as a potential film destination by flying international film executives to Lebanon to show them exactly what is available in terms of studios, locations, crews and infrastructure. But without a film commission to blow a trumpet for Lebanon at the moment it is down to individual Producers. So what kinds of locations are available?
Lebanon comprises a narrow strip of land that hosts two mountain ranges and narrow coastal plains. The fertile Bekaa valley, to the east of Beirut, served as the bread-basket for all the Romans’ Levant provinces. Rolly is lyrical about the options for filming, which are as varied as the geography and history of the country itself. She reels off a list from the top of her head:
“We can do beaches, diverse mountain ranges, an array of different agricultural lands, coniferous forests, rivers and lakes from Northern Europe or America, vineyards and olive trees which could be from the South of France and snowy mountains that double for the Alps. We can do South American orchards and plantations, Mediterranean beaches, Arabic and European cityscapes, Italian villages…”
And Joanne adds to this list:
“There are rocky deserts, sandy deserts, trendy shops and restaurants, slums, archeological sites from many periods, modern cityscapes and historical cities in various styles. There are old Middle Eastern and European villages, modern interiors like hotels, villas, restaurants and bars.”
Clearly Beirut has strength and depth, and the country is small enough for Producers to know the country inside out. Additionally one of the great strengths in production is the well-equipped studios at much lower costs than in Europe and the range of equipment available in Beirut, as Frederic points out:
“We have huge studio facilities and the market has a variety of the latest equipment and technologies. We have many suppliers that have international standard facilities, like Studio Vision, that has four state-of-the-art studios across Lebanon. In terms of equipment you can get anything, from digital pictures to 35mm cameras with the best lenses and accessories and then film developing, post-production and colour correction. Everything you need to finish your production is here.”
“The level of equipment in Lebanon is very impressive. One can basically find very recent, if not brand new, film or digital cameras, lenses and accessories. HMI lighting of all kinds and power, Technocranes, HDCAM, Red camera systems, dollies and all the grips you could need.”
If Lebanon can harvest the seeds of 2010’s ad projects, and repeat the cycle in 2011 without raising prices, it is perfectly plausible that Beirut will create an international ad-shooting location as fertile as the Bekaa valley itself.
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