Empire CEO Mario Haddad and Gulf Films chief Selim El-Azar discuss distribution in the region at Abu Dhabi show business conference.

Cinema audiences in Middle East, and especially the Gulf, are growing and set to get bigger in coming years, leading distributers in the region told delegates at the International ShowBiz Expo in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

“The market has mushroomed since the early 2000s and continues to grow,” Mario Haddad, CEO of pan-Arab distributor Empire International and Empire Gulf told the conference.

“Of course, it’s difficult in some territories due to current events but you might be surprised to learn that there is a cinema open in Damascus and still some business in Iraq,” he added.

Gulf Film CEO Selim El-Azar, who was also on the panel, noted that his company had released Fury in Damascus’ one remaining cinema this week.

“When people look at the region from afar they consider it as a whole but just because a bomb goes off in Baghdad that doesn’t mean people stop going to the cinema in Beirut,” said El-Azar.

As an example of the Middle East’s growing cinema audience, Haddad cited the fact that the region was the fourth most successful territory for the Denzel Washington-starring The Equalizer after the UK, the US, China and Russia.

Both commented on how they divided the region to differentiate between the Gulf and the Levant countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as Egypt and Iraq.

Hollywood and Bollywood films were popular in the Gulf while European fare had a hard time to making its mark there, they noted. 

A recent Gulf Film initiative to hold a French film night in Dubai, for example, had not really worked, admitted Al-Azar, although the company was now tweaking the event to focus on more commercial French pictures.

Lebanon, meanwhile, remained a key Middle East destination for French films due to former colonial ties. Multicultural marriage comedy Serial Bad Weddings, for example, has sold some 38,000 tickets there to date.

The pair was talking at the final day of the International Showbiz Expo in Abu Dhabi running from Oct 21-23.

In other talks, Pakistani actor Shaan Shahid talked about the potential of Pakistan both as a market and a production hub following the success of films such as the Urdu-English language thriller Waar, which was a hit at home and played internationally.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Issacs gave a presentation on the institution’s work and US producer Edward Pressman gave a workshop with a group of local film students.