Fuelled by a multiplex boom, the UAE box office is much bigger than previously believed. But market peculiarities and demographic quirks mean not all films perform as elsewhere.

Even as China lays claim to being the world’s fastest-growing film market, there is another member of Asia’s axis of emergent superpowers that has seen equally stratospheric growth of late: the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

This collection of seven emirates, led by Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has a combined population that falls somewhere between that of Moscow and St Petersburg. And yet, according to published research commissioned by Forbes Middle East from film analyst Alaa Karkouti, UAE’s total box office grew to $110m in 2010 on the back of a multiplex-building boom that has seen the number of screens swell to more than 250.

That $110m figure, representing 11.8 million admissions, is 45% higher than the 2010 yearly total reported by Box Office Mojo and an eye-popping 94% increase from its 2009 tallies. China’s own year-on-year growth during that period is put at 64%.

Part of the discrepancy boils down to what gets counted in a country populated largely by expatriates, many of them South-East Asian transient workers. The new method employed by the UAE’s National Bureau of Statistics to measure the country’s population by counting visas issued and cancelled, births and deaths, and using other administrative data, has yielded an official estimate of 8.3 million residents in the UAE, more than double the 4.1 million of the 2005 national census.

The same applies to measuring film revenues. Once the Bollywood, Malayalam and Tamil imports from India are accounted for, not to mention every Arab-language release, there are sharp variances from Hollywood’s weekly distribution aggregates for the region which tend to focus on US titles.

‘Razzie award winners are often box-office hits throughout the Gulf region’

Gianluca Chacra, Front Row

The unusual demographics of the UAE, where less than 12% of dwellers are Emirati nationals, also lead to quirks in film appetites. Toy Story 3 may have been the most successful film worldwide in 2010, but it did not even make the top 10 in the UAE. On the other hand Salt, which ranked 21st that year in the US, was a hit in the UAE and throughout the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE. Salt finished seventh just ahead of Bollywood blockbuster My Name Is Khan. Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time came in third.

“Quite frankly most Razzie award winners are often box-office hits throughout the GCC,” notes Gianluca Chacra, head of UAE’s leading independent distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment. “For example, Killers was as big as Harry Potter. It probably coincides with the tastes in Asia where lots of straight-to-video releases get a theatrical release. It’s a major reason why we partnered with WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment]. With them, we’ve had theatrical hits with titles such as Legendary and The Chaperone that everywhere else in the world were released straight to video. Same with Hammer Films’ The Resident. StreetDance 3D was a major hit too.”

It would be easy to cite this apparent lack of sophistication as the reason why top festival winners and awards contenders have a more difficult time in UAE theatres. But Chacra says other factors peculiar to the UAE are at play. After all, 127 Hours opened number one in Kuwait and Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? has been a recent box-office smash in Lebanon, breaking records for Arab cinema. But this does not mean they will reach the screens in the UAE.

“Because one chain of cinemas is controlled by a distributor which often prioritises its own films above the rest, independent films aren’t always treated the right way,” says Chacra, referring to the fact the region’s largest distributor, Gulf Film, is also the owner of its largest chain, Grand Cinemas.

“There is a major conflict of interest and no anti-trust laws to apply. These same films, however, tend to work when released in cinemas where operators are purely exhibitors.”

While such dominance has helped pave the way for UAE’s box-office growth, allowing Gulf to expand the marketplace by offering the best time-slots to Hollywood’s most commercial films, it has had a detrimental effect on film diversity.

There is also the added problem of rapid turnover. There are no platform releases in the region and cinemas do not give films a chance to grow based on word of mouth. The average lifespan for a film is two to three weeks. For the bigger titles it can increase to four or five weeks but these are usually major studio films. There are no circuits that specialise in arthouse releases.

Film festivals in the region such as Abu Dhabi, Doha Tribeca and Dubai are just starting to become involved in promoting independent titles throughout the year but this tends to be through ‘sneak preview’ sponsorships and not activities to encourage independents.

Toy Story 3 may have been the most successful film worldwide in 2010, but it did not even make the top 10 in the UAE

“Two years ago, we used to enjoy releasing these titles on DVD because the home-entertainment audience was much more appreciative,” explains Chacra. “Independent titles such as Little Miss Sunshine, documentaries and foreign-language films often outperformed blockbusters. This is the same audience that on hearing about a good film such as Sideways being released, would rush to the theatre only to find the film had been pulled because it hadn’t achieved the immediate results of Harry Potter.”

Censorship also plays a major role, says Chacra, which is why festival screenings are usually packed. “Connoisseurs will flock to a festival because they know the films are not censored. A prime example is The Wrestler [released by Front Row]. The buzz was huge, with standing ovations and tears. Yet people knew that once the film was released nationwide outside of the festivals, it would be cut. The result? The film flopped. Marisa Tomei appeared in two scenes, but never while she was in the strip club. In this case, festivals benefit but distributors and the industry don’t.

“The funny thing is the same titles that are edited or banned often air on pay-TV,” adds Chacra, “and no-one complains.”

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES box office TOP 10, 2010

RankTitle (origin)DistributorGross ($)
1Avatar (US)Empire Int’l/Fox Int’l4.8m
2Shrek Forever After (US)Gulf Film/DreamWorks2.8m
3Prince Of Persia… (US)Italia Film/Walt Disney2.42m
4Alice In Wonderland (US)Italia Film/Walt Disney2.37m
5Inception (US)Shooting Stars/Warner Bros2.35m
6Iron Man 2 (US)Gulf Film/PPI2.25m
7Salt (US)Empire Int’l/SPRI2.23m
8My Name Is Khan (Ind)Empire Int’l/Fox Int’l2.1m
9The Karate Kid (US/Ch)Empire Int’l/SPRI2m
10Clash Of The Titans (US)Shooting Stars/Warner Bros1.9m