Cinema-going is becoming increasingly popular across the Gulf. But regional sensitivities, censorship and piracy mean it can be tricky to release into the region. Matt Ross reports

With cinema-going seen as an integral part of the modern Arab entertainment lifestyle, demand is growing from the Gulf’s swelling audience. Samer Debsi, general manager of regional exhibitor and DVD distributor Prime Pictures, points to five years of year-on-year growth in the UAE, and similar trends regarding cinema attendance across other markets in the Gulf region (although figures for ­several ­territories across the region can be difficult to obtain).

The leading distributors ― which include Prime, Gulf Film and Empire International ― handle multiple territory releases across the region. Studios release through these companies as few have a substantial regional presence themselves.

English-language fare, specifically US movies, dominates the market. However, Bollywood films are popular in those countries where the population includes a significant Indian or Pakistani community, such as the United Arab Emirates, although their audiences are often dwarfed by the Western competition.

Challenges for distribution

For many international figures working in the region, cinema-going is still hugely undervalued by ­distributors and does not receive the required logistical and advertising support. Major marketing campaigns are rare and low-visibility compared with European or US equivalents.

What’s more, the varying degrees of what is deemed acceptable on screen in many of the Gulf countries can make it difficult to take a blanket approach to the region.

Going to the cinema is a popular ­leisure activity and the strategic situating of theatres in malls makes it more likely that families will frequent  a particular chain. Ticket prices are cheap in relation to salaries, which may explain why the market in  the Gulf region has not markedly suffered during the financial crisis. The intense summer temperatures also increase attendance during the hotter months, as the air-conditioned cinemas market themselves as part of the “under one roof” philosophy of the region’s malls.

Marketing and piracy

While distributors often have access to the same marketing materials across territories, the respective weighting of print, radio and TV often varies. So while the basic materials ― point-of-sale advertising, cinema show material, TV ads and tie-in promotions ― are usually the same, the exact pattern of use will vary in the different markets.

“Local variations in what is acceptable on screen make it hard to take a blanket approach to marketing”

“Some countries will use TV. But in others where the satellite TV options are different to free TV, it can affect how a film can be marketed. Print and outdoor are used, but you have to adapt it to each country,” says Debsi.

Piracy is an issue. Despite largely successful measures by the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance (AAA), there exists a thriving market for unlicensed copies of blockbusters in many Gulf countries, which directly eats into DVD sales and theatrical box office takings.

While this is an issue in many international territories, the difficulty of policing sellers who travel door-to-door makes these figures and marketplace sellers a top priority for the AAA, which seizes millions of copied discs each year.

Some buyers, such as Empire International, which handles distribution for 20th Century Fox and Columbia (Sony Pictures), have tried to combat such issues by tying their schedules to international territories, diminishing the appeal of DVD copies of recent theatrical releases.

Kifah Ghraizi (pictured), operations manager for Empire in the UAE, explains: “We at Empire are releasing our products day and date with the US to avoid [the harmful effects of piracy] on distribution and exhibition.”

Internet usage is policed by individual governments, with many torrent sites blocked in an attempt to curb downloading. However, not all sites are well-known to authorities, and proxy servers still allow a significant if unquantified number of users to exploit peer-to-peer services to gain copies of films.

“We are releasing our products day and date with the US to aovid the effects of piracy”

Kifah Ghraizi, Empire International

Cinema audiences are seen as a lucrative market among advertisers in the Gulf. During the recession of 2008-09, advertising spend in traditional media such as print slumped, whereas cinema proved remarkably resilient to the slowdown. Cinema advertising representative Motivate Val Morgan reported that, in 2009, between 1.5% and 2% of total advertising spend in the UAE was committed to cinemas.

Click here for the UAE Top Ten Films of the year to date

The naked truth: cinema censorship

Censorship remains a little understood, if high-profile, aspect of the Middle East’s distribution sector. The common misconception is that government agencies review every film, and will cut all content in keeping with Islamic sensibilities. In truth, the approach to censorship, particularly in imported Western movies, varies from country to country. The UAE, which comprises the relatively relaxed Dubai and the more traditional

Abu Dhabi, is a good example. Scenes that are in conflict with the nation’s social and religious beliefs ― scenes of a sexual nature and any nudity ― will never make it into cinemas. This can lead to theatrical versions that make little sense to viewers. (Watchmen and Hitman had numerous scenes cut, which had a detrimental effect on the narrative.) This can have a subsequent effect on a film’s performance.

However, the National Media Council, the UAE-based organisation charged with monitoring the country’s media for infringements on sensibilities, rarely bans a film outright. On the other hand, an exhibitor may decide it is not worth screening a film with the cuts demanded and instead pull it entirely ― as was the case with the Sex And The City franchise, where the films would not have run far past the 30-minute mark after edits.

The problem for international ­productions ― even those such as Syriana, which was given permission to shoot in the UAE ― is government watchdogs may insist the end result must not damage the perception of the country. Cuts may need to be made and distribution delayed before the film is allowed through the censors. At that point, the exhibitors may then decide to pull the film from cinemas if they feel it is no longer commercially viable.

There are signs that the situation is changing. Emirati breakthrough hit City Of Life features several scenes ― including one of locals consuming alcohol ― that many assumed would be cut. The film was released with the material included and went on to box office and critical success, hinting that the authorities may be coming round to a more cosmopolitan way of thinking. Whether this shift in attitude will apply universally to foreign and local films remains to be seen.

EXHIBITION: cinema expansion

The continuing growth of cinemas in the Middle East in the last decade is inextricably linked to the continuing commercial development of the region: there are few theatres there that are not found in the Gulf’s numerous shopping malls. Screens are, with few exceptions, modern multiplex establishments, with little focus on the concept of arthouse or independent cinema. One such exception is the arthouse cinema club found in Dubai, which shows themed nights once a week for film lovers. However, even this takes place in the ultra-modern Dubai Mall, included under the umbrella of Reel Cinemas, the latest chain to start operating in the UAE.

Key exhibition chains include Grand Cinemas, Reel and ­Cinestar, which all operate throughout the region. Prime Pictures currently has a large market share in Lebanon, with plans to expand in other Gulf territories.

Screenings throughout Dubai can also be found at selected art galleries and outdoor hotel venues, but these are seasonal and do not include new releases. During the summer months, soaring temperatures put an end to all outdoor screenings.

On rare occasions, such as 2009’s Quantum Of Solace, the UAE will screen films ahead of US and UK releases. The different working week ― which runs Sunday to Thursday ― can also mean that local release dates vary in relation to international equivalents.

The other factor of note is the effect of Ramadan. This month-long festival essentially halts many major releases during the celebration, and cinema chains adopt a catalogue of older releases deemed “safe” to show during this period of fasting and religious sensitivity. Children’s movies and previously released titles dominate the programme. Due to the shifting dates of the festival ― based on lunar movements rather than a calendar month ― Ramadan gets earlier each year. Over the coming years, the festival will undoubtedly clash with major international release seasons, and it remains to be seen what effect this will have.

Despite all of this, cinema-going appears to be thriving in the region. Amanda Palmer of the Doha Film Institute states that, in Qatar alone, more screens are being built every year, with ­attendance tripling in the last four years. “There is a huge cinema-going audience here. This market has been hugely undervalued because of distribution issues, with many films going straight to television. One of our goals is to see fewer movies going to TV and more to theatres.”

Key distributors

Empire International

Empire International was founded in the UAE in 1999. A branch of the Lebanon-based Empire group of companies, the UAE office distributes films from 20th Century Fox and ­Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures) in the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, ­Lebanon and Syria.

Shooting Stars

Shooting Stars was established in 2004 to meet the demand for theatrical distribution in the UAE and the Gulf, as a subsidiary of Lebanese Warner Bros distributor Joseph Chacra & Sons. In 2007, it merged with home entertainment distributor Viva Entertainment to form Viva Stars and establish Vintage Films, an independent distribution network. Shooting Stars also expanded to handle non-theatrical distribution for Warner Bros and Filmbank.

Gulf Film

Started in 1989 as a distribution agency for international and independent movies, Gulf Film launched its chain of cinemas and rapidly became the largest company of its kind in the Middle East. It also invests in laser subtitling and movie theatre furniture enterprises.

Prime Pictures

Established in 1995, Prime Pictures represents a variety of studios, independent, documentary and children’s programming. It distributes a number of key DVD markets, and has its own authoring, artwork and production facilities. Also a cinema operator, Prime owns one outlet in the UAE, has theatres in Jordan and Syria, and has 40% of the cinema market in Lebanon. It plans to expand and increase its cinema market share across the Gulf.