A Dubai Film Market (DFM) panel discussed the challenges in distributing Arab films in the region and internationally, and how Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa’s From A To B may become a game-changer.

The film is set to receive a groundbreaking theatrical release across nine Middle Eastern territories on some 60 screens at the beginning of January.

By US, European or Chinese standards, 60 screens may not seem a big deal but in a region where the widest releases – even for high-profile Hollywood titles – are on 120 screens, distributor Empire International’s plans for From A To B are ambitious. 

Arab films, bar a few Egyptian star vehicles, rarely travel beyond their territories of origin in the region, or further afield in Europe and the US, and often even have a hard time finding distribution at home.

This issue was at the heart of the DFM talk on Friday entitled “What are the challenges of distributing Arab Films?” The panel looked at the prospects for pan-Arab releases as well as distribution into Europe and the US. 

“I’m not sure the situation for Arab cinema that comes to Europe is so different from that of other international cinema which is not European,” said Irit Neidhardt of Berlin-based Mec Film, which specialises in distributing Middle East works in Germany. 

“It is becoming more and more difficult to distribute these films theatrically. If we look at the quantity of films that reach Germany through festivals and institutions, there are much more films shown now but they don’t get German distributors. They’re seen in special programmes but not on the regular cinema circuit.”

She commented that VOD did not offer much of a solution for Arab cinema in Europe, unless titles were showcased on carefully curated sites.

“VOD doesn’t play a role because audiences in Europe don’t know about Arab films. How would they find a film in the thousands of titles on a VOD platform?” she asked. 

Closer to home, local distributors such as Hania Mroue, director of Beirut’s arthouse Metropolis Cinema, and Mario Haddad Jr., who heads up Empire International’s operations in Dubai, said it was difficult to distribute Arab titles across the Middle East. 

“I’m not sure it makes sense to bracket all the films from the region under the banner of Arab cinema, Egyptian cinema is very different from Emirati cinema – and even within the context of Emirati film – there are more commercial movies and arthouse films,” commented Haddad.

“In the Gulf, over the last three years, we had an average of 20 to 22 Arab films released each year out of 300 titles. But breaking that down, the average Arab film does 20,000 admissions in the UAE, which is a low figure for an Arab local film. But an Arab film outside of its home territory, is not local.”

Mostafa talked about his experiences with his first film City Of Life, which was launched in a gala screening at DIFF in 2009, and noted that it was crucial for local cinema to travel beyond UAE borders in order to recoup costs. Success at home, he said, was not enough to make a film profitable. 

“There was a lot of scepticism at the beginning. They weren’t sure how many screens to put it on. We were very blessed. Although we were on only 12 screens and were launched on the same weekend as Iron Man 2 and Clash Of The Titans, we were second at the box office,” he recounted. “We picked up a lot of buzz from our festival screening and I guess it also showed how powerful word of mouth can be.”

“The film lasted about nine weeks in the theatres but it wasn’t a commercial success. It was a success in helping Emirati cinema grow and making people aware of Emirati cinema, but not commercially – we weren’t in enough cinemas to recoup our costs so we were hoping for some international distribution,” said Mostafa. 

“An important factor is having the right sales agent and I didn’t think we had it for City of Life,” he added. “City of Life could have worked internationally. It had international appeal but unfortunately it didn’t live that long. With From A To B, we decided it was important this round not to make a big-budget film but still try to make something that was commercially viable because if we don’t recoup, how are we going to make more films?”

Commenting on Mostafa’s anecdote, Haddad said: “It’s really difficult. Ali says it wasn’t a commercial success and I agree with him, but it did 77,000 admissions and lasted 10 weeks in the theatres, which in this part of the world is very unusual.”

It remains to be seen whether From A To B, which is already generating buzz locally and has just secured an international sales agent in the shape of Highland Film Group, can buck another trend.