Middle East distributor Gianluca Chakra talks about the local penchant for action and horror movies and how he is pinning his hopes on iTunes.

Gianluca Chakra, managing partner of Dubai-based Front Row Filmed Entertainment, reminisces that when he and his father Michel first launched the company in 2003 he believed a good film would always find an audience.

“I am a cinephile. I love cinema. I love what I do. When I started out I found it hard to differentiate between passion and business. I thought a good film, if marketed well, would always work, but I tried and lost.”

Over time, Chakra figured out that the best way to distribute “alternative” and foreign films in the region was via DVD.

“The DVD audience was more sophisticated and you don’t have to rely on the support of the cinemas. It’s more about the film and the story. We built a reputation as this cool brand acquiring alternative films but then there was the DVD crash,” says Chakra. “There’s a sort of ignorance here about VOD but the audience is now migrating over.”

Today, the company acquires 90 to 120 titles annually alongside business partner Kuwait National Cinema Company (KNCC) and theatrically releases roughly 40 titles, many of them genre-based.

Recent acquisitions include Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, Jacques Audiard’s upcoming untitled film, revolving around Sri Lankan immigrants living in Paris, and Zeroville.

Front Row and KNCC are among the regional distributors participating in the Dubai Distribution Programme through which they will acquire one Arabic film in DIFF’s line-up and release it.

Chakra talked to Screen International about the challenges of distributing in the Middle East.

Is there much of a market for non-Hollywood films in the Middle East?

We just bought the new Jacques Audiard. He’s a big director and it’s probably going to make it to Cannes and the publicity will be quite big on that one. But it’s always difficult for arthouse films in the Middle East because the cinemas don’t support them and don’t give enough time for films to build up word-of-mouth.

So what does work?

Top titles are usually the action pictures and the horror pictures. This year, we did well with The Quiet Ones and A Walk Among the Tombstones. The Guest also did well – we changed the campaign and had a lot of word-of-mouth screenings before the release.

Is it complicated releasing across a region rather than one territory?

These days the Gulf region is where you make money. Lebanon, Syria and even Egypt – forget it. They’re under screened and unstable – a bomb goes off and the film flops.  You can’t estimate numbers in these smaller territories in the Levant region.

But when it comes to the Gulf, the market is growing and it’s also convenient from an advertising point of view. Because the territories tend to release the same films at the same time, you can target the whole region with one TV campaign. Most the channels are satellite, so when a spot plays, it plays all over the Middle East.

What about distributing Arabic films in the region?

When it comes to Egyptian films, they’re sort of universal but it’s hard to distribute other Arabic films outside of their home territories. The Egyptian films are cast driven. It’s like Bollywood. There are three or four stars they rely on whatever the script.

Last September, Front Row announced it had signed a deal with iTunes to act as its Middle East aggregator. How is that going?

It’s early days. We’re currently in the process of signing with all the Middle East distributors. We’ve launched quite a few of our titles already – 40 in the last two months.  The big action films work all the time – you put up a Dwayne Johnson film –it will always work. We also had a few what we call “mini-hits” with Begin Again, Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here and we just launched Map to the Stars, which is doing alright.

I think in a year and a half, the platform will be essential for releasing titles – we see every week 300% growth. It’s quite significant. The more you release the more the audience will grow but the secret is beating the UK and the US releases.

At the time of iTunes announcement, Front Row mentioned plans to showcase Arab films outside the region via the platform. Can you explain?

We’re hoping the films will find an audience internationally as well as regionally. iTunes has requested for us to start marketing Arab films throughout the world. Once we have enough titles they will open an actual section or genre.

But we haven’t got enough titles yet. One of the actual challenges is educating the producers and distributors of Arab films. They don’t know what iTunes is, or even the difference between a transactional VOD and SVOD platform. We’re talking with iTunes about doing some seminars to educate distributors across the Arab world.

We’re currently in talks to get Omar – which has not been released in the Middle East – and also think Theeb would work well too.

What do you think of the Dubai Distribution Programme?

We’re definitely up for it. Who knows whether it’s going to make money or not but it’s a great way to show the distributors and producers that there are different ways of releasing films and it’s interesting that the festival is going to help promote the release.