The Persian Gulf, where film distributor Gulf Film holds the lion’s share of the cinema market, looks radically different today than it did when the company launched 25 years ago.
The staggering growth of this high-striving region is evident in its sparkling skyscrapers, its smooth superhighways and its couture-packed malls.
But there’s another indicator that the Gulf’s growth remains firmly in the fast lane: its multiplex theaters, which have gained a serious foothold in this once cinema-shy region thanks primarily to Gulf Film.
Headquartered in Dubai and owned by Qatar Media Services (q.media), the media arm of the cash-flush Qatari government, Gulf Film has a 51% market share and distributes 150 titles per year, the vast majority of them Hollywood blockbusters and thrillers. One of every two films that comes to the Middle East today is handled by Gulf Film.
It sub-distributes Paramount and Universal films in the Gulf on behalf of Four Star Films, and in partnership with Eagle Films, also handle Lionsgate, Nu Image, Red Granite Pictures and Sierra Pictures. The company maintains relationships with studios including Relativity Media, Studiocanal and Hyde Park, and distributes a number of Bollywood titles and Egyptian-sourced Arabic titles each year.
Its success, says CEO Selim El Azar, comes from carefully monitoring the global cinema market and then curating it for local crowds.
“Whatever works in the States works here, with the exception of films where the subject is too American, like a baseball movie,” says the Lebanon-born, Dubai-based El Azar. “All of the action films, with big budgets and big casts that would be a sure hit in the U.S., they are also a sure hit here.”
Gulf audiences love car chases and explosions as much as their American counterparts. Pics like “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “Fast & Furious 6,” both of which were distributed by Gulf Film, shattered records in the region.
The company’s biggest market is the UAE, where the population has surged from fewer than 5 million to nearly 9 million in just 10 years, and the company now sells more than 10 million tickets a year for its 97 screens.
Qatar comes next, with 10 screens, followed by Jordan, with five screens. Cinema openings are slated for Bahrain in the near future, and execs are also focused on expanding soon into Oman.
Romantic comedies, dramas and indies also get shown, but Gulf Film execs know that the bigger the budget of the pic, the bigger the draw. Movies such as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” both of which raked in more than $100 million domestically, did decent business but not great in the Gulf.
One exception to the rule was “Slumdog Millionaire,” which appealed to Arabs and expats alike.
On average, the company releases three or four Hollywood blockbusters a week and one Bollywood movie, and then every other week they offer a new Egyptian-made Arabic film.
A full one-third of the ticket sales in the UAE, El Azar says, are for Bollywood films, while Arabic films remain a much smaller but still profitable piece of the box office pie.
“Aside from the things that changed for everyone — going from 35mm to digital, from Dolby to Atmos, from non-Imax to Imax and to 3D, the market we are in has grown exponentially,” El Azar says.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said that Gulf Films holds an exclusive deal to distribute Paramount Pictures’ films in the Middle East. The company sub-distributes on behalf of Four Star Films.