Blogs & Comment

Directors’ drought  

Anyone with a camera can now create films and videos, whilst the production industry is being squeezed by clients and agencies alike. Where now for those who make a living out of creating commercials, asks a freelance director 

I write this article half an hour after receiving (yet another) email from (yet another) production house telling me (yet again) that the job we pitched for has a minimal budget from the agency side, that the quote the production house sent was much higher, that they are still waiting for feedback, and to go ahead and plan my wandering life timetable without this job in mind.

I have been hearing variations on this theme, as a freelance director/writer/producer in Dubai for about eight months now.

Let me backtrack. Five years ago when I moved here, the work was plentiful. Companies wanted to pay me ridiculous amounts of money (in my naïve opinion back then) to direct small films. Between studying film and working, I had been in the audiovisual industry for 17 years, in four countries.

Film production. What a gorgeous job. No shoot was too small, no desert too tiring, no overnight set too stressful, no last minute edit too demanding. I loved it all and so did my bank account in Dubai. For the first time, the work was working.

The idea was to make happy clappy, corporatey, commercially, clienty films for several months of the year (when the camera lenses didn’t fog up) and spend the hotter months making art elsewhere. The system worked. Everyone I collaborated with seemed to fare well, we had memorable experiences on set, jobs came through, and Dubai was hailed as a relaxed, functional and profitable industry where making short video content was a professional, sustainable and, often, fun experience, despite the rigid constraints mostly found in the brains of risk-averse clients.

About eight months ago, the tables turned. I still got asked to write a dozen treatments for various jobs. The one selling chocolate. The one selling a drink. The one selling a fancy new hospital. And so on. Last year, I was told that some other directors would no longer write treatments, which horrified me at the time. I now understand. Of about 10 different pitches we put forth, none have come through, even though we were given the go ahead several times. Not one. This is tens of thousands of dollars in real-life money for a freelance director.

Reasons were cited. The agency lost the job. The client changed their mind. They postponed. They don’t feel secure enough to spend the money. They went with another production house for no real reason. It’s the Euro. It’s the price of Oil. Bad luck. No one can really tell etc.

What was I doing differently? I am more qualified than ever before. We have 2020 coming up, loads of new work should be commissioned. What is the issue?

I wrote a giant pitch (with illustrations and graphics) a few months ago, and when I saw the final they sent the client, I realised they had cut half my imaginative work out. When I somewhat aggressively asked why they had diluted the pitch, I was informed they were worried the client would take the ideas and not hire us. I was astounded. We did not win the pitch with a half-deleted proposal, naturally.

It’s a messy situation. Everyone involved is blaming someone else. The freelancers blame the production companies for not getting the work, or for their massive fees. The production companies complain about agencies being too precious or weak when facing their clients, massive mark up fees (again) and no proper filmic approach or product. The agencies blame the clients (behind the client’s back) for everything from messy schedules, late payments, change of direction, lack of feedback, and the whole hurry up and wait phenomena.

I decided to ask some people I knew in the industry what they thought. A lot of them declined to answer, citing sensitivity or a nervousness for any sort of criticism of this small fish bowl. Most told me to not write this if I ever want more work.

Some answered in a lot more moderate tones than the ones I heard privately. I thank them. I asked for commentary on issues such as are agencies taking work from freelance directors by budgeting themselves out of the market? Are we now in an over inflated market in the UAE that does not make sense worldwide? Should freelancers get in touch with clients directly for smaller jobs? Is it time to implement cancellation fees strictly and chase people for intellectual copyright? How can freelancers make a better living without being tied to the long laborious process the agency has to go through with clients? Is it sustainable? Is the competition much bigger now than before, and is that why there is less work?

Here are some of the answers I received:


Pierre Dawalibi, filmmaker: “It makes sense for agencies to pitch ideas as they have the employees and the structure to do so. But when it comes to freelancers, it is indeed too exhaustive to pitch. I personally stopped pitching two years ago. And I don’t regret it. I do write a one-page approach to give an idea how I would like to treat their film, but I never pitch from scratch. I feel it’s too abusive and wrong. The ugly trend nowadays is that production houses are functioning as agencies, which pleases clients as they end up paying much less for creative fees and no agency commission at all. This is a miserable situation for everyone, be it the freelancers who are being abused and working days and nights to come out with ideas for production houses with the hope of winning one of those thousand pitches. Be it the production house competing against so many others with creative ideas and that has never been their job anyway. Their job is to produce on the ground and do their best to put together the right team to execute the job. Advertising agencies are struggling as well. More clients are skipping the agency and going directly to the production house, and it’s partly their fault since they charge massive commissions that sometimes don’t make sense. It is indeed a lame situation that requires government intervention to organise the process and protect creative rights.”

Ali Azarmi, managing partner, Joy Films: “I don’t think agencies are taking work away from freelancers. The reverse could to some extent be true. Not all potential clients have agencies. But the market is inflated with too many fish in a little pond. So one better develop a sustainable eco system to survive. It’s not about being bigger or smaller. It is about being adaptable. Those freelancers have a choice not to deal with those agencies. There are many other sources available to them if they look hard enough.

“Wherever there is an agency involved, the responsibility of clients rest with the agency. The right process is that of interdependence and collective responsibility. Not to be greedy and self-centred. Maybe the situation is not sustainable. There are more players now than five years ago but the market hasn’t expanded. More supply than demand. Having a better product, service and price is not enough. It is not what you know or who you know, but what you can do with who you know. It is about what you can do with your people, your technology and your connections.”

Paul Alexander, producer and owner, Strudel Films: “It has certainly become more noticeable recently that there seems to be a higher percentage of pitches for jobs that for one reason or another don’t materialise. Pitching for work has always been speculative and obviously you’re always going to win some and lose others, but as the percentage of jobs that are pitched for, and lost, increases, the unpaid workload on companies and freelancers increases too. This is much more of an issue for freelance directors, who are being asked to put together ever more detailed treatments. Personally, I will only ask a director to write a treatment if I know they are really in the running for a job, otherwise it’s just unfair to them.

“The business has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Directors that are represented by production companies used to be on retainers, giving them a degree of security, but those days are long gone. The digital revolution has meant that both acquisition and post-production equipment has made the basic tools available to almost everyone, but in this technological drive the thing that hasn’t altered is the talent.”

Wael Hattar, branded entertainment consultant: “Unfortunately, the only way I see a solution to the problem of freelancers spending too much time applying for work they don’t eventually get is for them to get a full-time job.

The whole world currently isn’t sustainable, so it isn’t this industry per se but the whole system in general. Sorry, it may seem bleak but it’s reality rather than thinking someone is out to get me specifically. Both my siblings and myself are/were in full-time work and freelancing in this industry and we are mostly screwed. But we would rather be screwed than work in a mind-numbing job doing something else.”

Andrej Arsenijevic, creative director, Commonwealth/McCann: “There are predictions that Facebook feed could only be video in a few years’ time. Look at how popular YouTube is in our region and how Netflix is rising to be a big global player. They all need great content and that’s where the focus should be. It’s a fearless fight for consumers, more then ever before. With new media and message pollution it’s much harder to get to them. On YouTube, for example, brands are competing for views with videos of a German shepherd who eats peanut butter like a person (this always makes me laugh). Everybody is walking around with a camera in their front pocket, and as a result, anyone could create the next big thing. But still, great content always wins. That’s the only way to be competitive. Be better than the everyday.”


I don’t have the remedy for the issues I raised here. I just know that the sustainability of waiting for bigger jobs to happen a few times a year to keep one afloat is no longer working. A series of smaller jobs, ones that require more time and pay less, is the way forward for many freelancers in the industry. Which can really get in the way of any real ‘art’ happening in the region, if we are constantly just struggling to pay the bills, through the commercial work we take on. It is a radical problem to have to wait on 20 people in three companies to agree on a two-minute viral video shoot that could be developed, shot, edited and delivered by a team of three to four talented hard-working freelancers working together brilliantly. It angers me that having to go through such lengthy, expensive and diluted processes to start filming is now translating to not getting the job at all. These are mostly simple, fun, short-length online content videos that can be rewarding for both client and filmmaker, but the steps to getting them made are so muddy and tiring and confusing sometimes. And if a freelancer contacts the client directly, the effects of such disloyalty, bridge burning and bad rep are quite tremendous to an individual supplier. So I don’t. But what happens when none of the ‘right’ paths are working?

My intention was to raise some questions in the minds of any creative teams in agencies, production companies or independent lone rangers. I love making films. Of all sorts. I love collaborating on set and late nights in edit suites, looking in the faces of people I interview or direct and long geeky conversations about transcoding. I really do. I hope that I will be able to continue to make films, of all types, regardless of industry trends, moody companies and the whimsy of marketing budgets.