Qumra panel debates challenges of producing and distributing local fare. 

Meeting the demand for regional content in the Middle East was at the heart of a panel discussion during the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra meeting this week.

The panel was inspired by a study last year by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) on entertainment media use in the Middle East, one of the biggest ever undertaken on the region to date. 

In the survey, covering Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia, two-thirds of the participants said they preferred to watch films that portrayed their own culture.

Fatma Al Remaihi, CEO of the Doha Film Institute, said her organisation had partnered with NU-Q on the study to better understand tastes and demands in the region as it attempts to foster the growth of the local film industry.

“We believe that it is vital to understand the beliefs and opinions of people in the region in order to accurately inform all those who play a part in paving the way ahead,” she said.

“The entertainment industries in the Arab region are at various stages of development – some countries have established healthy local industries while others, like Qatar, are still in their infancy.”

But while the replies of the 6,000 respondents suggested strong demand for local content, the reality on the ground is very different – both in terms of production and distribution.

Khalifa Al-Haroon, founder and CEO iLoveQatar Network – a popular platform aimed at demystifying Qatar for expats which has clocked up some one million hits — said locals seemed to be shy about making and disseminating their own content online

“They are not making it; maybe they do not have the confidence,” he said, agreeing, however, that the key to garnering an audience was making content “locally relevant”.

In an example of a “locally relevant” show, Saudi Arabian director Mohammed Makki discussed the genesis and popularity of his groundbreaking YouTube drama series Takki, revolving around young Saudis.

“Takki succeeded because it is simple and relatable to the people. Today’s audience is smart and to reach them, do not seek what they want but start from inside. Write where it hurts; what is bad for the heart is good for art.”

Makki said YouTube was an important platform for young filmmakers in Saudi Arabia, where there are no cinemas.

 “I was passionate about films but in Saudi sadly there are no cinemas. YouTube was booming and I simply connected the dots,” he said.

One medium were Arab language content is king in the region is television.

“The worst Arabic drama series will always get higher ratings than the best US series,” said Fadi Ismail, general manager  of 03 Productions, a subsidiary of the MBC Group which acquires content and also adapts local telenovellas and drama series.

The theatrical challenge

The situation in the region’s theatrical scene – which varies widely in terms of the number of screens and viewing habits from territory to territory – was more challenging, local distribution and exhibition experts said.

Selim El Azar. CEO of regional distributor and exhibitor Gulf Film, said the market remained fragmented and that it was often difficult for Arab-language films to do well within the region, even if they had done well internationally, citing the example of Wadjda.

Hania Mroue, Director of Metropolis Cinema in Beirut said that more had to be done to prime regional audiences. She said her own experiences at the Metropolis had shown her this could be done.

“The industry should also accept responsibility for shaping demand, and not simply cater only to what the audience wants. When we keep showing festival films, even if we accept losses in the beginning, we can change the local demand.”

“When we started, we were very happy to have 500 admissions for the films we showed; today it is five to seven thousand, and it will grow. Not every festival film works in a commercial cinema but it is important to create alternative spaces,” she continued.