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Screen International Investigates the Success of Gulf Films in the Fast Growing Local Marketplace

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Supported By Industry Insights from Producer Mohamed Hefzy and Film Analyst Alaa Karkouti

Screen International Investigates the Success of Gulf Films in the Fast Growing Local Marketplace


Under the title "High Hopes", Screen International magazine has singled out an article on the development of filmmaking in the Gulf region. Published in their issue in October, 2013, the article highlighted the development of film industry in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and has scanned the views of professional filmmakers from across the states of the Arab world on the growth of filmmaking in the local gulf marketplace and the collective cooperation taking place among those countries which offers promising opportunities and a prosperous future.

Written by Colin Brown, Editorial Director for the online film-financing platform Slated, the article highlighted the possibility of having Gulf films achieving great commercial success in their local markets. In this respect, Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Hefzy, founder of the Cairo-based production house Film Clinic, commented that there's one problem with the GCC model, which is that the Gulf market is untested when it comes to local product. "Very few TV stations buy Gulf films, simply because there isn't yet a regular supply and a sustainability in quality. I believe that, in the future, the GCC market can be very self-sustainable if it goes for star-driven comedies, but hardly so for filmmakers who make serious auteur-driven films that remain within the realm of independent cinema that is supported by governments, festivals and non-profit institutions," says Hefzy.

In Egypt, where film production volume has dropped to 25 feature films due to the political turmoil in the country, films may enjoy a 60% - 70% share of the local market, but Arab films as a whole achieve no more than 15% - 20% of the Arab box office at best.

Hisham Al Ghanim, General Manager of the Kuwaiti exhibition chain Cinescape, has handled the release of several GCC film productions since 2004. However, he noted that only a few number of films of the homegrown box office hits have gained more than 50,000 admissions in Kuwait.

"Exhibitors in the region only consider Egyptian films as commercial. Beyond those, our experience is that only two or three Arabic movies have been successes here, even if they have been professionally made or have performed well in their countries of origin, such as Lebanese films Caramel, Bosta and Where Do We Go Now? by Nadine Labaki. What we need to do is build trust between the audience and the GCC film industry," says Al Ghanim.

Brown also notes in his article that there are always new gaps to fill and unintended consequences, just like any bundle of initiatives designed to jump-start an entire sector more or less from scratch. Film Analyst Alaa Karkouti, Co-founder of the first pan-Arab film studio and creative consultancy, MAD Solutions, expressed his concerns that too much money may have been lavished on individual film productions in this nymph stage of the UAE's film development. "Emirati films have been supported with unrealistic high budgets given their potential audiences," says Karkouti. "All of the features produced there over the last five years have cost at least 1 million US dollars. Tobe Hooper's UAE horror Djinn was made for 9 million US dollars. While well intentioned, this indulgence can only harm aspiring filmmakers, for they become used to a certain luxury that other parts of the Arab world simply don't have access to. The danger of overspending is that it can create a culture of dependency and a lack of business responsibility going forward".

Karkouti similarly observes that festival competition prizes account for a full 1% of all Arab movie revenues. He puts the combined budgets for Arab film festivals at between $75 million and $100 million annually- not far short of the entire net receipts that film distributors get back from selling movie tickets across the Arab world. Brown also remarks that Arab film funds contribute an estimated $12 million - $15 million annually to productions and despite this munificence, Arab filmmakers continue to struggle to get their films funded.

On the other hand, Roy Chacra, Managing Director of the UAE-based Shooting Stars, which handles Warner Bros. Pictures theatrical releases, has an optimistic view of the situation. He noted that theatrical releases of Hollywood films are seeing soaring revenues. For instance the Hollywood franchise Man of Steel this year became the biggest Warner Bros. Pictures grosser ever in the region. "It was a very good year for the industry overall as admissions rose by 16% compared with the same frame last year," says Chacra. He added, "more screens are being added to existing leading venues and more multiplexes are being built which will increase the business overall. It remains to be seen whether these new additions will end up cannibalizing the marketplace. Regional population growth has added around 2% to annual revenues over the last year".

Collin showcased the ensuing collective cooperation among the three capital cities, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, which have successfully established themselves as the most promising movie powerhouses in the territory, where each city holds a prestigious annual film event. It was noted that this fast growing collective spirit has brought Abu Dhabi and Dubai together for the first time as neighbors under the UAE's flag at this year's Cannes Film Festival. "For the first time, these neighboring emirates shared the same pavilion to showcase their combined offerings," says Colin Brown.

"The fact Abu Dhabi and Dubai are only an hour apart really strengthens the UAE's position as the leading regional film hub and accelerates our objective to fuel the development of a sustainable film production industry in the region, as it makes it easy to collaborate, grow a shared pool of local talent and leverage each other's facilities," says Wayne Borg, President International and Chief Commercial Officer of Abu Dhabi's Media Campus twofour54.

Borg explains saying, "When Universal Pictures approached us to provide South Asian locations for 2012's The Bourne Legacy, we identified suitable locations in downtown Dubai". As a further example of this greater regional co-operation, Borg cites Emirati Director Ali Mostafa's upcoming A to B, which is supported by twofour54. Joining Mostafa are Egyptian Scriptwriter and Producer Mohamed Hefzy, Lebanese Producer Paul Baboudjian and Saudi Producer Mohamed Al Turki.

In the same respect, Qatar's Doha Film Institute (DFI) has also begun singing from the same songbook. At Cannes Film Festival, the DFI announced it was shifting its flagship festival event from November to March in order to dovetail better with the regional industry calendar. Likewise, Doha's new Qumra Film Festival now has a similar mission to that of Sundance Film Festival, which is to showcase first and second-time filmmakers, supported by grants and a year-round film lab.

Emirati Filmmaker Khaled Al Mahmoud, whose short Sabeel became the first film from a Gulf country to be selected for Berlin International Film Festival and Lorcano International Film Festival, also commented, "I'd like to see more independent or government entities promote Gulf films and talents regardless of their affiliations since right now most entities promote a film if it's supported or funded by them".