Current measures of the international market fail to include more than a sixth of the world's population, says Len Klady

There was an odd popular culture annotation to the story of British seamen held captive in Iran, which was this week the subject of a major inquiry in the UK. One of the sailors bristled when he recalled that an Iranian soldier guarding him commented that he looked like Mr Bean.

The media enjoyed the self-deprecating anecdote but there was another, immediately rather esoteric, implication of the aside for film.

The two Mr Bean movies have not officially played in Iranian theatres nor has the television series that spawned the films been sold to that nation.

So, presumably the Rowan Atkinson character is known in that country via bootlegged DVDs or from illegal satellite feeds. And presumably he's a sufficiently popular character among the hoi polloi to elicit a joke that resonates across class barriers.

Extent of theft
Putting aside the impact of popular entertainment for the moment, one has to wonder about the extent of film theft in Iran and in other countries of the Middle East and Africa.

According to a studio contact, his company doesn't supply contemporary films to Iran and the few it licenses there are older titles sold for flat fees. The trading policy appears to reflect one that previously applied to China and the former sphere of Europe's Eastern bloc.

Back in the early 1990s, I encountered a South African film-maker in Cannes who was excited about meeting Spike Lee - someone he obviously admired. He appeared to be fitfully familiar with the director's work and I asked which of Lee's films had played in theatres in his country. 'None,' he replied, in a tone that suggested there could be no other answer.

In prior outings, the pressing concerns were focused on such significant filmmaking and audience nations as Russia, China and India. However, in the past year those areas of the globe have made major strides through government and industry agencies and information is available that is comprehensive if not exactly exhaustive.

The known unknowns
The remaining question marks are dotted across Africa and the Middle-East including Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. The Motion Picture Association of America pays scant notice to this portion of the world that is home to more than a billion people but represents less than 10% of member company revenues.

As with Bollywood product, there is an Arabic-language circuit (extending to North America) that embraces films from such countries as Egypt and Iran. Information about that market's commercial potency is only available in snapshots and its interest in films from outside the region is difficult to gauge because more films are available through clandestine rather than official venues.

Industry estimates of the economic impact of film piracy range from 6%-15% with the prime targets being the newest movies from Hollywood and Bollywood. And though that is lost income, it would represent global revenues for the first third of 2007 of almost $5bn.