Gulf Film, the Middle East’s leading distributor and exhibitor, has even more growth plans for the near future. Wendy Mitchell talks to its CEO, Selim El Azar, and Jaber Al Ansari of new parent company

There are big growth plans ahead for Gulf Film, in terms of film releases, number of cinemas and even plotting an important move into production. Expansion is something the company is used to, as it has grown in leaps and bounds from its inception to become the biggest Middle Eastern distributor and exhibition chain.

“Gulf Film was established as a film distributor in 1989, and essentially developed the market. Bear in mind that it was a time when the industry barely existed in that part of the world. Gulf Film was at the forefront of the film and cinema business from the very start,” says Selim El Azar, the company’s CEO. (Ahmad Golchin, who co-founded the company, still serves as an adviser.) “Despite several economic and political upheavals, the region has seen sustained growth over the past five years,” he adds.

Dubai-headquartered Gulf Film has adapted to and kept pace with the changing markets across the Middle East. “Twenty years ago, most of the revenues were generated in Lebanon, and to a lesser extent in Egypt. But with the introduction of copyright law in the UAE, the market shifted and the UAE started making more revenues. Another change of note over the past two decades is the overall economic growth of the GCC, and specifically that of the UAE,” El Azar adds.

Gulf Film has a market share of admissions of about 46% to date in 2013, and the outfit has released more than 150 films per year, from studio-level fare to independent releases. The company sub-distributes Paramount and Universal titles for Four Star Films in the Gulf territories, and is the Middle East distributor for StudioCanal, EuropaCorp, IM Global, Relativity Media and Voltage, to name a few. It is also in partnership with Eagle Films and Jaguar Film, and distributes Lionsgate, Nu Image and Summit Entertainment titles.

Gulf Film launched its exhibition arm, Grand Cinemas, in 2000, which has since grown to become the largest theatre chain in the Middle East. Part of that expansion came from acquiring major competitors such as Ster Kinekor Gulf Cinemas (known as Century Cinemas) and Al Massa Cinemas of the UAE. The company currently has 108 screens in the UAE and Jordan, and plans to build up to an impressive total of 200 screens by the start of 2015.

The move will include two cinema projects in Qatar, a 10-screen venue at the Pearl Qatar and also a nine-screen cinema at a central mall in Qatar.

Grand Cinemas was the first to introduce Imax (in 2005) and RealD 3D in the region, and the first to offer online booking and set up e-kiosks. It has a mobile app and publishes a glossy monthly cinema guide (the current issue is available in Cannes).

Working across both distribution and exhibition is an advantage, of course. “Being on both ends of film delivery to the movie-goer, we know exactly which movies to buy and how to promote and release them in theatres,” El Azar says.

Gulf Film’s offerings also include a digital subtitling lab, which will soon extend to post-production services, and plans for a fully managed theatrical content-delivery system are in the offing. Of the latter, El Azar says: “It is revolutionary. Basically a virtual theatre network, the service aims to provide film exhibitors and distributors with a more controlled, time-efficient and cost-effective means of managing the flow of content to their audiences region-wide.” One key to Gulf Film’s recent growth is the company¹s acquisition last year by Qatar Media Services, aka, which is owned by the Qatari government.

Jaber Al Ansari, chief enterprise management officer at and managing director of Gulf Film, says: “Cinema in the region has grown fast and continues to do so. We believe that by bringing our media expertise to the cinema business, we can create synergies and add value to the industry.

“We at are involved in directing Gulf Film, not only by setting the general strategies but also by getting into the operational aspects.

We are not passive shareholders, nor are we an investment house that merely looks at return on investment.” Designs on production Of the future, Al Ansari says: “I see Gulf Film maintaining its position as the market leader for film distribution in the Middle East. And I definitely want to see Gulf Film in movie production.”

Production could include both regional and international projects. El Azar is hopeful for the growth of local film-making voices. He pays tribute to the region’s festivals for helping to boost Middle Eastern talents. “Film festivals in the Middle East have been supportive of up-and-coming local directors and local Arabic films, be it the Dubai International Film Festival, Doha Film Festival or Abu Dhabi Film Festival, to name a few.

Commercially, on the other hand, the films have yet to perform. But I believe the future is promising,” he says.

By adding production to distribution and exhibition, Gulf Film will become fully vertically integrated. News on the company’s production business could be announced later this year.

Meanwhile, the team is in Cannes with plenty to applaud at a reception tonight. “It is a celebration of the success of cinema in the Middle East and I’m looking forward to welcoming our friends and partners,” says El Azar.