Admissions in the UAE rose by almost one million to a total of 6.4 million in 2006, fuelled by the opening of two new multiplexes in Dubai. The UAE's market share in the region is increasing at a rate of 15% per annum; distributor Empire told Screendaily that the Emirates now makes up 45% of the box office for its Columbia and Fox titles (distributed in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states).
In December, a report by analysts Dodona Research titled Cinemagoing Africa Middle East predicted that the booming UAE will be a hot growth area, alongside Turkey and South Africa. The number of screens doubled from 85 in 2000 to 170 in 2005 (for a population of about 3.7 million). Dodona is predicting a 21% increase in admissions by 2010.
'Mall developers see cinemas as an attractive element in their entertainment complexes,' says Robert Flynn, Middle East manager of the Australian-owned Cinestar chain, one of two multiplex exhibitors that dominate the Gulf. Salim Ramia and Ahmed Golchin's Gulf Film is opening a 12-screen Grand Cinemas multiplex in Dubai's new Festival City in 2007 (plus a 10-screen cinema in Jordan in May), and come 2010, Burj Dubai, the world's highest building incorporating the world's largest mall, will be complete - no doubt with its own multiplex(es).
In Turkey, Dodona predicts a 20% admissions rise by 2010 - again fuelled by mall developments. 'By 2010, 33 million Turks are expected to visit a projected total of 1,250 screens,' says the report. And according to local daily Cumhuriyet, the Turkish box office is seeing an increase in interest in local films - in 2006, for the first time, more Turkish films (51.5%) were distributed in theaters around the country than foreign and Hollywood films combined. While not as dramatic, Morocco has also seen a rise in local film distribution, with Moroccan productions now accounting for 20% of the box office.
Meanwhile, the UAE top ten, as elsewhere in the Gulf and Jordan, is dominated by predictable Hollywood product - Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (which took $1.7 million in the UAE), followed by Mission Impossible 3, Casino Royale and The Da Vinci Code. Compared to the international chart, the only blip is the absence of Borat, banned throughout the region except in Lebanon, where box office business dropped off dramatically following the Israeli invasion in the summer - traditionally the highest-grossing period in the region outside the two Eid holidays.
The UAE's visitation rate is still low at 1.1 - excluding the network of Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam cinemas. The Gulf's down-at-heel Indian cinemas are likely to benefit from the $22 million invested by private equity group 3i in digital cinema chain UFO Moviez, looking to expand its presence in India and nearby markets. India's Economic Times reported this month that Dubai-based distributor and exhibitor Al Nisr has agreed to wire up 35 screens in the UAE as part of the deal.
Bollywood is also on the up in Egypt where, from February, Good News Group is launching Hindi films, absent for several years, and also releasing a French film every fortnight in its theatres. 2006 was a bumper year for the producer, distributor and exhibitor: its controversial drama Yacoubian Building was the box office number one, taking $3.4 million. The top ten was dominated as ever by homegrown comedies, but Egyptian commercial fare is gradually diversifying, with low-budget films starring unknowns breaking through, even in the blockbuster summer months. Egypt's quota system on foreign prints means that Hollywood struggles, foreign number one King Kong barely scraping $500,000. Chronically underscreened (just 230 screens for a population of 75 million), Egypt should get another 25 screens in 2007, again as part of new mall complexes in Cairo and Alexandria.
Apart from Egypt's experiment with French cinema, and Beirut's new Metropolis independent cinema, arthouse and foreign-language titles have a long way to go in the Arab world - particularly since the demise of the Lebanese circuit, traditionally the most broadminded in the region. In terms of diversifying fare, the Dubai International Film Festival is yet to have much impact on the somewhat conservative and reactionary distribution and exhibition circuit in the Gulf.