Jordan’s entertainment industry faces ‘dramatic’ challenges

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Director/writer J.J. Abrams directs Daisy Ridley (Rey) in Wadi Rum while filming the Pasaana scenes for “Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker.” (Photo: TheSWU Twitter)
AMMAN — Since the early 1980s, Jordan’s entertainment industry, particularly TV and cinema productions, has strived to assert itself and grow into a bustling sector, but while TV production has suffered a decline, the movie services sector has experienced relative success and growth. But recently, the sector has also faced some new and serious challenges. اضافة اعلان

A Bedouin production’s budget can fund five independent dramas

“Jordan's TV production industry, once promising, is now struggling to survive,” said Bassam Hajjawi, president of Near East Production Studios, member of the Board of Commissioners at the Royal Film Commission (RFC), and president of the Jordan TV Producers Union. 

Jordanian TV producers have seen a dramatically dwindling demand for their local productions in the past years, Hijjawi told Jordan News. Jordan Radio and Television Corporation (JRTV), once a supporter and shopper of local productions, has turned into a competitive producer and minimized its acquisition of independent productions. 

“JRTV is supposed to pay a certain rate per hour for the television shows produced locally; it’s an agreement independent producers had signed with them 15 years ago. But they’ve stopped honoring the agreement by lowering these per-hour rates. Not only that, but Jordan TV also competes with independent producers,”

Hijjawi believes that JRTV can hardly compete with the efficiency of independent production houses because it lacks certain expertise and resources, which the private sector can offer.  “A single JRTV produced Bedouin series costs a budget that could otherwise buy 5 similar dramas from local independent producers, thus denying us the essential support we need from our government channel.”  

According to Hijjawi, JRTV must focus more on the production of programs that tackle social issues in Jordan, setting aside commercial dramas to independent producers. “While it’s not up to us, private producers, to judge how Jordan TV produces content, they should in our opinion focus more on the production of programs that tackle social issues in Jordan, leaving commercial dramas to us… they also don’t have the experience to market TV productions and reclaim their costs,” he added.

Hijjawi noted that JRTV receives JD24 million yearly from the government.  “More than half of which covers salaries, and when you add up costs like electricity, transport, satellite coverage and logistics; what remains is a meager JD1.5M for to acquire programs, Jordanian dramas and films.”

Even the lucrative market of the GCC has become hard to penetrate for Jordanian TV producers, said Hijjawi. A plethora of new production houses in Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria were set up to capture that market. Such high supply of TV programming has created a glut in the market, pushing hourly rates for TV programs to drop. This new reality has dealt another blow to Jordanian TV producers who had pinned their hopes on Gulf markets. 

GCC markets are where TV acquisition budgets are high, which is why Arab producers compete there. “As Jordanian TV producers we cannot compete because we only offer conservative content while the others produce more liberal programming, the type of shows that attract advertising dollars and more audience,” he added.  “There are now two to three TV production studios still standing in Jordan.” 

To stay in business, Hajjawi switched the focus of his business from production to offering translation and dubbing services to foreign TV stations, such as OSN, the German channel DW, and Al-Hurra, as well as Al-Jazeera documentary channel, among a few others. 

More incentives, less red tape, and higher rebates to sustain Jordan as a movie hub

Elsewhere in Jordan’s entertainment sector, the movie services industry has progressed and become more competitive, assisted by Jordan’s captivating landscape, its liberal and open social environment, and its multilingual educated class.

This has helped the different related businesses to develop movie production skills and services, including logistics, costumes, props, art direction, casting of extras and other aspects of production that international movie companies and studios require. 

The establishment of the RFC to support Jordan’s budding movie services industry has helped achieve exposure and growth, agrees Hijjawi. “The RFC has done well in promoting Jordan as a movie location. We facilitate issuing licenses and permits and refer foreign studios to the right movie services companies.” Moreover, added Hijjawi, the RFC provides financial support to independent local film makers from its private funds. 

A photo from the filming of “The Martian” at Wadi Rum in 2015. (Photo: Desert_Adventur Twitter)

Jordan also offers rebates that range between 5 and 20 percent against local expenditure by foreign studios.  Over the last two decades, the Kingdom has managed to attract major studios from Hollywood, whereby Jordan was selected for the production of blockbuster movies such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), The Martian (2015), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2017), Aladdin (2019) and Dune (2021), among others.

However, new but serious challenges to Jordan’s movie services industry are now emerging and threatening its sustainability and growth potential. Jordan’s southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which had ended its ban on cinemas in 2018, has recently allocated a $62 billion budget to support its nascent entertainment industry. 

“We have high ambitions to build up Al-Ula as an international film destination,“ Stephen Strachan, a Saudi film commissioner, was quoted saying to Business Standard, an English-language Indian daily. Like Petra, Al-Ula was also built by the Nabateans on landscapes similar to Jordan’s Wadi Rum.

However, “the movie services industry of Saudi Arabia is new and lacks the skills that Jordan has, but with a massive financial budget, they’ll become very competitive in the near future.” The Saudis have already managed to win over two big budget movies, Kandahar and Desert Warrior, which were supposed to be filmed in Jordan,” Nasser Zoubi, who offers movie services in art direction, design and props, told Jordan News.   

The Saudis also offer foreign movie studios rebates that reach 50 percent on local expenditure in the Tabuk region, which borders Wadi Rum. Saudi Arabia has also become a powerful magnate for Jordanian movie talents. “But, Saudi Arabia has yet to develop the movie skillsets we have available in Jordan, but this is being resolved by the Jordanian services firms that are setting up operations there,” he added.

Zoubi believes Jordan’s open social environment will be hard to compete with and remains the preferred destination for foreign movie professionals. “Some have quit their jobs on movie sets in Saudi Arabia after one or two weeks because they couldn’t access alcohol, while others travel to Jordan in between work sessions to have a drink.” 

Offering a tip to the government of Jordan on how to enhance the competitiveness of the Kingdom as a location for big budget movies, Zoubi said more incentives must be offered to international studios, less red tape and higher rebates. “The team that I hired and worked with on many movies left to work in Saudi Arabia.”

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