While hollywood blockbusters are scoring better box office returns in the Arab world, getting local audiences to go see quality regional titles in movie theaters remains as challenging as ever.
But things are starting to change thanks to innovative marketing and release strategies that saw 2015 become the best year in recent memory for non-Egyptian films across the region. Despite all its political turbulence, Egypt remains the Arab film industry’s powerhouse, especially when it comes to commercial fare.
“Though Arab audiences are used to watching Hollywood and Egyptian movies, they are feeling a need for more diverse content, and this is opening some new space for different types of Arab films,” says film analyst Alaa Karkouti.
Karkouti heads MAD Solutions, the Cairo- and Abu Dhabi-based marketing and distribution outfit that is making inroads thanks to new micro-release and social media strategies.
MAD did well with Jordan’s Oscar contender “Theeb,” which it released in 11 Arab countries last year and then recently re-released in nine Arab territories on the strength of its Oscar buzz. “Zinzana,” the first genre movie to come out of the United Arab Emirates, can be considered a success with Vox Cinemas giving it a relatively robust release across the Middle East, including Egypt and Lebanon, after it launched from the Dubai film festival. MAD recently broke new ground by releasing Basil Khalil’s Oscar-nominated short “Ave Maria” as a double billing with “Theeb.”
“It’s not just the first Arab short to get a theatrical release in recent history, it’s also been sold to broadcasters, airlines and VOD,” says Khalil.
Though piracy is rampant, VOD is becoming an increasingly viable way for local distributors to maximize the value of highbrow Arab product.
Dubai-based Front Row Filmed Entertainment, which purchased almost 70% of Arab-language titles for the Middle East in 2014, sealed a deal with iTunes in which they act as aggregator for Arab indies who want to make their product available across the Middle East and worldwide.
And that added revenue stream
is key. According to Karkouti, “Theeb” made $195,000 theatrically across the Middle East during its first release, while “Zinzana” has pulled some $180,000 in the UAE. In Lebanon, where local movies have the highest market share, anywhere between $200,000 and $500,000 is considered a good take for a homegrown title. By contrast, “Furious 7,” which was partly shot in Abu Dhabi, pulled $10.8 million in the UAE. “Jurassic World” made $7.8 million.
The UAE, which accounts for almost half the region’s total box office, generated more than $150 million in theatrical revenues last year.
But with Arab films, it’s not about breaking records or making a fortune, says Karkouti: “It’s about finding space for films that are necessary so that audiences can see their own stories on the screen and we can attain real diversity in the market.”