DOHA — The media landscape in the Middle East is expanding, with distribution channels proliferating, driven by digital and pay-TV. But content diversification is moving at a much slower pace, and the local film industry is still not feeling much of an impact.
That was one of the key takeaways from a report presented Tuesday in Doha during the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event which is becoming an important incubator and driver for Arab filmmakers. The Arabic word “qumra” is believed to be the origin of the word “camera.”
The report issued by Northwestern University in Qatar in partnership with the DFI underlined the proliferation of new TV channels – 159 between 2012 and 2014 – and pointed to pay-TV revenues almost doubling over the past five years to an estimated $975 million in the MENA region. It also opined that the recent entry of international SVOD players such as Starz Play and Netflix will be beneficial to consumers “through more non-linear programming at lower prices.”
But the current escalating competition for content in the pay-TV arena – which prompted Al Jazeera spin-off beIN to recently buy Hollywood mini-major Miramax – has yet to generate a significant windfall for the Arab industry, especially for producers making more highbrow content.
“Unfortunately the growth of TV channels doesn’t mean I’m making more money,” said prominent Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, whose Film Clinic shingle strives to make quality movies that can play in multiplexes. “Generalist TV is a significant component of how I recoup my budget. But when I sell to free-TV they usually want all rights to fight the competition, so I don’t get to monetise on pay or SVOD,” he lamented.
Interestingly between 2012-2015 in two of the biggest MENA movie markets, Lebanon and Egypt, Arabic-language films performed better on average at the box office per title than non-Arabic films, despite the market being dominated by non Arabic, mostly Hollywood, fare.
Since 2012 Egyptian pics have accounted for almost the entire box office take generated from Arabic-language films in Egypt and the UAE. Meanwhile Lebanese films have pulled nearly two-thirds of box office revenues in their home market.
So although the richer and more densely screened UAE has outpaced Egypt in terms of the box office it generates, Egypt still remains by far the top country for production of Arab movies, especially commercial cinema. Almost 80 percent of all films screened in the UAE, Lebanon, and Egypt – three of the biggest markets – were produced in Egypt.
When it comes to production of more quality movies, however, there is a much greater geographic diversification, and also an interesting gender aspect: there are quite a lot of Arab women directors making “indie” movies.
Independent films from the Middle East are “twice as likely” to be directed by a woman said the study, which claims a 26% female directors’ representation and calls it “far higher than studio films in the West or the Middle East.”