The arab movie industry is going through some positive changes, with screens proliferating in certain areas, fresher pics starting to sprout, and new distribution strategies gaining some traction.

Yet plenty of challenges remain in what is clearly a complex cinematic landscape.

The main structural stumbling block is getting Arab audiences to go see quality Arab movies.

“When you talk about the Arab world, it’s, yes, one language, but each country has its dialect, its social fabric, its audience, its regulatory quirks,” says film analyst Alaa Karkouti.

Karkouti heads MAD Solutions, the Cairo- and Abu Dhabi-based marketing-cum-distribution outfit that this year brought the first Arab Cinema Center to Cannes — another signal that the Middle East movie industry is in motion.

By carefully devising micro-release strategies driven by social media and word-of-mouth — and also test screenings, which are a novelty in the region — MAD has been scoring encouraging box office results with Mohamed Khan’s female empowerment melodrama “Factory Girl,” with Jordanian first-timer Naji Abu Nowar’s standout epic “Theeb” (see story, page 3), and also with “Warda,” touted as the first “Blair Witch”-like Arab chiller.

Directed by young multi-hyphenate Hadi El Bagoury, “Warda” is rooted in the true story of a rural village in Egypt rattled by demons. This groundbreaking Arab genre pic, which traces a video blogger probing strange occurences in his Egyptian countryside home, was written by prominent indie producer Mohamed Hefzy who co-produced via his Film Clinic with El Bagoury’s the Producers shingle. Both are boundary-pushing companies working in different genres.

On the exhibition/distribution front, screens in the Persian Gulf are growing, and so is year-on-year growth in the entire Middle East, both in terms of admissions and revenues.

According to analytics provided by prominent distributor/exhibitor Gulf Film total box office grosses from Middle East territories — excluding North Africa — grew from $252 million in 2012 to $348 million in 2014. However these figures pertain mostly to Hollywood movies, which reap the lion’s share.

Interestingly the United Arab Emirates account for 47% of this intake; Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt account for less than 20%. That’s partly because oil-rich auds pay higher ticket prices. “In the UAE the ticket price is $11.44, but in Egypt it’s $4.97,” notes Gulf Film CEO Selim El Azar.

This economic divide is also reflected in the fact that multiplexes in the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries are mushrooming, while poorer, and unstable, countries, like Lebanon, Egypt, and, of course, war-torn Syria, remain underscreened.
Gulf Film’s Novo Cinemas chain of plexes comprises 115 screens across Qatar, the UAE and Jordan with plans to expand to more than 200 screens by early 2016.

Similarly, major exhibition player Vox Cinemas, which operates 129 screens across the UAE, Lebanon and Oman, plans to expand to over 400 screens by 2018 across eight Middle East territories.

Though Hollywood pics clearly dominate programming in these plexes, Vox is among chains where “Theeb” scored healthy per-screen averages.

Another is Kuwait’s KNCC Cinemas. “We hope ‘Theeb’ has broken the glass ceiling for other art films,” said KNCC Cinemas’ topper Hisham Al-Ganem.

Novo Cinemas will instead be instrumental to the Middle East launch of Gaza-set black comedy “Degradè” by Palestinian twins Arab and Tarzan Abu Nasser. It world-preems in Critics’ Week at Cannes. Gulf is the pic’s Middle East distributor.

Both “Theeb” and “Degradè” tapped into production support from the increasingly complementary — rather than competitive — film funding circuit linked to film fests in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha.

The Doha Film Institute’s new Qumra event, which blends creative workshop, industry networking and festival elements, is a standout in this respect.

Reflecting a burst of promising new Arab productions, the Cannes Market this year teamed up with the Dubai Film Festival to feature an Arab pics-in-post showcase which features five titles, comprising Jordanian first-timer Rifqi Assaf’s VW minibus road movie “The Curve,” co-produced by Rula Nasser’s Imaginarium Films talent hub, and Film Clinic. Also selected for the Dubai Film Market Goes to Cannes showcase is “Eclipse” (aka “Full Moon Night”) a drama about a disintegrating marriage, backed by Habib Attia’s Cinetelefilms, one of Tunisia’s top indie production shingles and directed by first-timer Fares Naanaa.

Dubai recently zeroed in on local distribution woes for Arab pics by forging a deal with some of the region’s biggest distributors, including Gulf Film, Empire, Front Row and Vox, under which they will release at least one locally produced film unspooling at the fest.

Abu Dhabi, besides running a top notch film fest/fund, recently lured shoots of the new “Fast & Furious” and “Star Wars” installments, and spawned Ali F. Mostafa’s “From A to B,” a bold, if failed, attempt to transpose Western buddy pic/road movie tropes to an Arab context.

The so-called “Abu Dhabi system” made up of separate but synergic government-backed entities is spearheading the effort to lay the foundations of the UAE’s nascent film and TV industry.