twofour54 is the Abu Dhabi media free zone, and under the company’s auspices the media and film industry has gone from fledgling sector to national jewel, with the aim to become a regional hub.
A free zone is an area that allows 100% foreign ownership, designed for a given sector so that companies can locate themselves within it in order to attract business and stimulate the respective industry. twofour54 operates in a slightly different respect—as a nucleus, providing proximity between freelancers, companies, facilities, and equipment, while crucially attracting foreign companies to produce their creative output in Abu Dhabi.
Currently, there are just shy of 400 companies registered under twofour54, which range from large international businesses to local, homegrown start-ups. twofour54 develops the media industry, from broadcasting to game design, but its most remarkable progress has been made in the film industry. Since its inception, the zone has brought Hollywood film-making to Abu Dhabi, presenting opportunities for world-famous locations. This is supplemented by the Emirate’s geographical positioning, making it a natural center for Arab films, while the large Indian expatriate community lends itself as an audience for the Bollywood industry.
To date, key achievements in the film industry include providing the second major shooting location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and bringing Sesame Street, the Arabic version, back to Abu Dhabi, having wrestled it from Kuwaiti clutches—a display of the regional power shift in the industry. It is not necessarily about the prestige that such accolades bring; it is the doors that they have opened and the importance of bringing expertise from the industries in the East and West to develop the talent available in Abu Dhabi. The financial incentive for foreign projects is a 30% cash rebate; this attracts large international films to be produced, in part, in Abu Dhabi, which then acts as a tool for developing talent.
twofour54 provides the correct infrastructure and guidance for SMEs and entrepreneurs to develop their business ensuring low overheads and immediate access to a workspace. The company provides shared spaces that can be used by those registered, giving them immediate access to equipment and technology without the outlay of capital. This is combined with the understanding that small companies that need a foothold in the industry do not have good cash flow for rent, making the zone not only attractive, but also practical. It is a nurturing take on the industry, rather than just accommodating foreign companies that wish to outsource their business and monopolize a smaller industry within an emerging economy.
The full gamut of services is offered, such as help with visas, access to world-class facilities, and rent-free office space. Services can even include a freelancer’s license, which allows individuals to come to the UAE without work, which is not permissible under the conventional visa. twofour54 aims to have every business or creative mind operational within three weeks.
According to UN statistics, 2.8 million Indians live in the UAE, which makes the demographic a Bollywood film hub, an aspiration that is already manifest in mainstream culture—many films in Hindi are readily screened at cinemas across the Emirate. This has included the filming of Dishoom, a Bollywood production from Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment, a 50-year old family filmmaking business, which will be Abu Dhabi’s longest feature film production to date.
A study with PwC shows that for every AED1 spent by twofour54 in bringing film sets to the UAE, AED4.50 is returned to the economy. The majority is through tourism, such as hotels and airfares, as well as general expenditure by cast and crew. The economic benefits are there to be tapped into, while simultaneously developing a strand of culture that will mark Abu Dhabi apart from its regional competitors.