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Empire Intl. Ready to Ride Potential Box Office, Production Wave in the Middle East

Courtesy of Empire Entertainment
Courtesy of Empire Entertainment

Empire Intl. currently releases roughly 60 titles a year across the Middle East, which ranks among the top 10 largest global markets for Hollywood. The region, unlike most of the rest of the world, is also likely to soon experience an exponential box office burst.

Mario Haddad Jr., who now runs Empire’s distribution side, grew up steeped in movies. As a child he would spend his weekends watching three or four new titles with his father, Empire topper Mario Sr., and other company executives, who had to make decisions on release dates, marketing strategies and the like. He recalls being “a little walking movie encyclopedia.”

After high school, Mario Jr. went to film school in London. But a couple of days after graduation he was back in Beirut in the family company’s headquarters, having bowed to paternal pressure. “I thought: ‘It’s not that bad, I’m still going to be working in the movies.’ ” He started out in marketing.

It was 1994 and Empire at that time was only active in Lebanon. Mario Jr. describes the business model as: “you play the movies you have rights for in your cinemas exclusively.” The idea “of distributing movies across all cinemas in a territory — regardless of whether you own those cinemas or not — is only 10,15 years old here,” he notes.

But things changed in 1998. After seeing competitor Selim Ramia make an unprecedented $4 million in Dubai with “Titanic” (for which Empire and Fox had sold him the UAE rights), Empire opened a Dubai office and started distributing movies across the Gulf Cooperation Council (in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar) where moviegoing just exploded.

The UAE went from 2 million admissions a year at that time to 17 million admissions annualy today. Eventually Mario Jr. took over distribution, changed the whole model and moved to Dubai. That is where the bulk of Empire’s distribution business is today.

Lebanon currently only represents 7% of Empire’s distribution turnover, whereas Dubai is around 38%, Kuwait 20% and the Gulf region as a whole accounts for 80% of their business.

Today the Middle East has become a top 10 territory for the studios; Empire is the biggest global licensee for Sony Pictures, with whom it has had an exclusive agreement for 55 years. This “obviously puts a lot of emphasis on analytics and understanding where the cash is going to be spent and how much is being spent properly,” Mario Jr says.

After 48 years, during which Empire was the exclusive licensee for 20th Century Fox in the region, last year Fox granted its license for the Gulf to Vox Cinemas as it entered into a production venture with Vox. But Empire still licenses Fox for the Levant region, which besides Lebanon includes Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. And significantly, Empire still handles distribution in the Gulf of titles from Fox Star, the entity that Fox created in India to handle Bollywood fare.

“They’re like a studio,” says Mario Jr., because it produces 12 to 15 titles a year, and Bollywood is massive in the region; there are 4 million Indians living in the UAE alone, so a good Hindi pic can generate revenues there of up to $10 million.

Paul Higginson, who is 20th Century Fox’s executive vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, praises the Empire team’s ability to successfully release an eclectic mix of product, sometimes “in the most demanding circumstances.”

The box office results from films as wide-ranging as “Avatar” to the “Ice Age” franchise, from Bollywood’s “My Name Is Khan” to “Bang Bang” to, more recently, “Logan” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” show “true talent,” he says.

“I love these people because they genuinely care about people and are completely honorable,” says Higginson. Plus, he notes, the Haddads are “also damn fine chefs and restauranteurs!”

Alongside their work with studio product, Empire also engages in independent acquisitions and some sub-distributions for other companies such as Dubai-based Front Row Filmed Entertainment, whose titles they handle in the Levant and Egypt.

The rapport with Front Row started when its chief Gianluka Chakra acquired rights to Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s comic fable “Where Do We Go Now?” Chakra had approached Mario Sr., who partnered with him after they both attended the Cannes premiere of Labaki’s pic. “Where?” went on to become the biggest hit in Lebanon after “Avatar” and “Titanic,” he says.

More recently, Chakra brought Empire on board, along with Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy, to co-produce an Arabic-language remake of Italian comedy “Perfect Strangers,” which has been remade around the world.

Production is an area into which Empire is now starting to venture, anticipating a greater demand for movies to come from the expected cinema boom in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, this is something Mario Jr. has “always dreamed of doing,” he says. His ambition is to “replicate what TV has already managed to do in the Arab world” and break down old mindsets that prevent Arab movies from traveling outside their home countries.

“Why not create?,” he says. Mario Jr. want to create a pan-Arabic star system and spawn a slate of pictures that are co-produced by different Arab territories in which local stars act together. “Why not make the entire Arab world our market?”