Hollywood films of every stripe can take the UAE box office at a canter. But specialist titles, except for Bollywood films, tend to fall at the first hurdle and are increasingly pinning their hopes on VoD. Colin Brown reports.

Ever wonder why the Middle East is often one of the first international territories to be sold when new film projects are unveiled to buyers at Cannes or American Film Market (AFM)?

Well, just listen to what Ryan Kavanaugh, CEO of Relativity Media, had to say at last month’s AFM film finance conference: “We have seen growth in Europe and in the Middle East - massive growth. We’re seeing it 10 times as much from the Middle East in the last three years.”

Led by the UAE, the Gulf states are one of the world’s most fiercely competitive film-watching regions, one where the three hungriest distributors - Gulf Film, Italia Film and Front Row Entertainment - can funnel as many as 600 titles to pay-TV networks between them in a year.

Just weeks ago, Relativity announced it was extending its Middle East distribution partnership with Gulf Film, under a multi-year agreement that covers rights across all media in the region for Relativity-produced and acquired titles as well as third-party pick-ups sourced through its international sales agency. When Relativity first started striking similar output deals across the world, it was able to cover as much as 50% to 70% of in-house production budgets through those collective agreements.

Now, as those deals are being renewed amid revenue jumps in territories such as the UAE, Turkey and South Korea, “We are now over 100% in many cases,” marvels Kavanaugh.

Ever one to stay ahead of the industry’s growth curves - Relativity was the first US studio to bypass the premium cable window in the US when it struck a 2010 deal with VoD platform Netflix to stream its films just months after their DVD release - Kavanaugh has hatched plans to create a “Relativity Middle East”. The aim of this regional hub is to partner with local Arab producers to create a pipeline of original film, television and digital entertainment content.

Playing catch-up

That Gulf Film is now fully owned by Q Media, which itself works closely with Doha Film Institute, opens up intriguing possibilities, perhaps even as a much-needed co-producing or gap-financing entity in the Arab world.

Certainly, the Arab film-making world could benefit from a studio powerhouse that is plugged into the local exhibition circuit where Gulf Film is a major player through its Grand Cinemas chain. While the UAE box office as a whole continues to climb, particularly with ever more resplendent multiplexes popping up in the country’s shopping malls, the major beneficiaries of this remain the Hollywood studios and the larger US independents such as Relativity and Lionsgate (which has just supplied Gulf Film with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).

Specialised films, however, struggle to gain access to - and, above all, stay on - theatre screens amid this booming box office. Other than the occasional buffoonish comedy from Egypt, such as this year’s Tattah and Samir Abu El Nil, most Arab films have to pin their hopes on VoD as their primary viewing mechanism, as do many specialised titles from the US or Europe. That leaves Bollywood as pretty much the only consistent indie box-office performer in the UAE, an anomaly that is a function of the UAE’s large migrant populations.

If anything, the latest digital exhibition technologies have made matters worse for smaller films. “The introduction of the VPF [Virtual Print Fee] model has certainly limited the release of much smaller films,” says Front Row Entertainment chief Gianluca Chakra. “Whereas before we were able to make prints travel around the region, now that 35mms are way more expensive, loads of smaller films don’t see the light of day in cinemas.”

On the mainstream side, the UAE box office remains robust and, at times, delightfully quixotic. Although missing the record-breakers of 2012, hits led by Fast And Furious 6 and Iron Man 3 have been consistent enough that the overall tally was running 16% ahead as of the end of November compared to the same period last year.

Look at some of films that overperformed in the UAE relative to others this year - After Earth (141,000 admissions), The Hangover III (195,000), White House Down (200,000), Snitch (105,000), The Smurfs 2 (222,000) and, yes, The Lone Ranger (110,000) - and you realise why the region has become Hollywood’s new best friend forever.

There’s always a chance that even a lukewarm genre film can catch fire here.