Rich potential for Mideast

But business slowed by censorship, piracy, war

As members of the Hollywood, Bollywood, European and Mideast film biz mingle at the third Dubai Film Fest, the emergence of a genuine pan-Arab film industry seems likelier than ever. Fest, which opened Dec. 10, takes place in the perennially boom region of Dubai, which is working to develop its own biz.

For years, Arab cinema has been dominated by Egypt’s more active industry, but recent months have seen the U.A.E., Oman, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are banned, deliver their first-ever features. Across the region, new theaters are being built at a phenomenal rate, auds are increasing and production investment is on the rise.

On the surface, the 22 Mideast states would be a potential entertainment goldmine. With a total population topping 200 million that speaks the same language (albeit with many dialects) and 70% under the age of 30, the potential is undoubtedly indisputable. But with political strife, censorship and piracy throughout the region, there are plenty of problems to confront.

“It’s true there are 200 million people, but that’s not the film market. For a start, take Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Libya off the table. They’re closed. Iraq would be a good market, but not now,” says Gulf Film’s Salim Ramia, the most powerful film distrib in the Gulf.

“The situation will change with the politics. If the governments open up, then the market can open and it could one day become like Europe,” Ramia says.

One key to the upturn in Arab film fortunes is the entry of Saudi-owned pan-Arab satcasters such as Rotana and ART, into film production.

“Something is happening in the Arab world. Every country is trying to have its own productions, which is a good sign,” says Ramia.

Rotana and ART have strengthened pan-Arab links by investing heavily in Egyptian cinema, and are also looking to fund homegrown product. This year, Rotana produced “Keif Al Hal,” Saudi Arabia’s first-ever full-length feature.

It’s even rumored that authorities in the conservative kingdom are considering dropping the three-decade-long ban on cinemas there. With Saudi Arabia already the biggest ad market for the region’s 200-odd free-to-air satcasters, the possibility of a new film market opening up there could mean big bucks to local film distribs.

While that decision is still some way off, distribs already are reaping the benefits of local films in their native markets. U.A.E.’s “Tarab Fashion” garnered 54,000 admissions in the Emirates alone. “It did better than most American movies,” Ramia says. Similarly, Egypt’s biggest grosser this year was “The Yacoubian Building,” while Lebanon’s entirely self-funded “Bosta” outperformed the likes of “King Kong” and “Harry Potter 3” to become that country’s box office champ.

But filmmaking in the Mideast is a far cry from shooting in Hollywood. The cast and crew of “Keif Al Hal” were subjected to death threats throughout the shoot. The makers of “The Yacoubian Building” had to contend with rumors that fundamentalists were planning to bomb the Cairo preem in protest of pic’s frank depiction of homosexuality and state corruption.

Yemenite director Bader Ben Hirsi saw a group of extremists storm the set of his “A New Day in Old Sanaa.” One of his actors even had to be replaced after being stabbed in a marketplace. “They were very suspicious of us. They thought we were filming pornography and that I was a member of the C.I.A. There were even imams in mosques accusing us of corrupting the country,” says Ben Hirsi.

These tenacious filmmakers could find that the distribution infrastructure isn’t quite ready for their completed films. While the Arab world is inundated with film fests — in Cairo, Marrakesh, Carthage and Beirut, as well as Dubai — the bigger issue of regional distribution is patchy.

In the Gulf, and U.A.E. in particular, the number of screens is no longer a problem. There are some 150 screens in the U.A.E., while Qatar, Bahrain and Oman each boast between 20-30 theaters. Bahrain, fueled by visiting Saudi tourists, has 54 theaters, more than double the figure of two years ago. With real estate development on the rise, more are popping up almost daily. “Screens keep coming up because there’s a big boom (in the building of) malls, and in every mall, they want a cinema,” says Gianluca Chacra of U.A.E.-based indie distrib Front Row.

However, distribs complain that theaters tend to all book the same films, ignoring smaller distributors’ titles. Exhibs exert strong influence on what films get shown, particularly with Arab pics. “If there’s no big star and it’s not a comedy, they’re like forget it. That’s the sad thing,” says Chacra.

ensorship is an oft-mentioned sore point — in U.A.E. for example “The Queen,” though tame, was given the same adult rating as “The Departed” because censors complained the pic’s “content about infidelity would be unsuitable for children.”

In Lebanon, DVD piracy — often brought in from Syria — is rampant. “In one mall in Tripoli, there are two shops that sell DVDs next to the cinema. After we cracked down on those shops, our grosses went up by 20%,” says Bassam Eid of Lebanon-based distrib Circuit-Empire.

For all the apparent risks, however, international shingles are starting to take notice of the Mideast. Jake Eberts (“Chicken Run,” “Open Range”) is producing Moroccan helmer Nabil Ayouche’s English-language debut “Whatever Lola Wants” to the tune to $12 million, and execs from Sony Pictures Digital have held exploratory talks with Jordanian animation house Rubicon.

In the pipeline, a proposed megafund of $200 million from the Gulf to set up co-productions with Hollywood that would merge international crews and talent on projects lensed in the Mideast, although that fund is still a ways off from being finalized. The long-awaited completion of Dubai’s Studio City– a one-stop shop facilitating every stage of filming from pre-production through post — as well as Morocco’s long-mooted $1 billion Film City could also help boost local film industries.

Location shooting is another possible economic engine for the region: Peter Berg-helmed “The Kingdom” shot in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, following 2005’s Dubai-lensed “Syriana.” Forthcoming pics “Rendition,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, and Oliver Stone’s “Jawbreaker” are also set to visit the region.

Tunisian-born producer Tarak Ben Ammar knows firsthand the trials necessary to convince Hollywood to go east.

“To build an industry, you need a backbone. It took me 30 years to build it in Tunisia. Even then I had to co-produce or co-finance most of the films that came here,” says Ben Ammar. “If Dubai wants to launch itself as a center for the film industry and attract people, they’re going to have to put up a lot of money. I would be cautious to say there was an emerging film industry. t can’t be a hit-and-run operation of one or two films.”