- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
After almost 20 years as the Middle East’s flag bearer for indie film distribution, bringing prestige festival fare and award-winning features to regional cinemas and TVs, Dubai-based banner Front Row Filmed Entertainment recently hit the headlines with its debut production.
The Arabic-language remake of Italian hit Perfect Strangers — the launch film from a first-look deal the company signed with Netflix — was always going to cause a stir thanks to certain themes still considered taboo, including homosexuality, but few were expecting the controversy that would follow. Within days, it was labeled part of a plot to disrupt Arab society, with prominent conservatives in Egypt attacking its actors, threatening lawsuits and even raising the film in Parliament. But perhaps more powerfully came the response from the other side, with thousands — including vast swathes of the creative community — praising the film and issuing statements in support of its cast and artistic freedom. And amid all the noise, Perfect Strangers quickly leaped to the top of Netflix’s charts in every Middle Eastern territory — including Saudi Arabia — becoming one of its best-performing non-English films globally.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Front Row managing director Gianluca Chakra — who launched the company with his late father Michel Chakra in 2003 — discusses how Perfect Strangers underlines his recent push toward making quality Arabic content, explains why the company teamed with Netflix on its first-ever production and describes the pleasant surprise that was releasing Mads Mikkelsen’s boozy Oscar-winner Another Round in a country where alcohol is strictly forbidden.
Indie film distributors have had a pretty tough few years. How has it been for Front Row in the Middle East?
Outside of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, nothing is really working theatrically. Before, it was insane, like this novelty factor, but now you’re starting to realize that you can target films there, whereas in the UAE you can’t, and there’s a habit of screwing over smaller titles. The UAE is so desperate to recover the losses they had throughout the lockdown and through that limited seating phase that when a Spider-Man comes out, they’ll just give every screen to Spider-Man and fuck everything else.
Cinemas are currently offering a pretty easy program tailored to the lowest common denominator that simply gets the audience only used to event films. This clearly leaves a massive gap in the market that will be filled by distributors who will undoubtedly go after different premium sources of revenue, something I think will eventually only contribute to the demise of the theatrical window. They’re shooting themselves in the foot!
Are there censorship challenges with your films in Saudi?
You actually get some nice surprise hits, and it can be quite significant. Saudi Arabia obviously wants to change the perception of what it was. So, for example, we had Another Round and thought, “That’s a no-go.” But on the contrary, they were like, “No, we’ve been waiting for this film.” They’re taking it step by step, but they were quite excited to see the film and let it pass. So we were sensible enough to go for a pic of the dinner party on the poster and not have Mads Mikkelsen drinking from a champagne bottle. And slowly they’re opening up and trying to push the envelope, and after I went there, you see that they are welcoming the change and want to be more progressive. So it’s all very encouraging on that front, and they’ll accept films you think would never pass.
So are the traditional films Front Row would release being squeezed out elsewhere by the tentpoles?
Right now, throughout all of the Middle East, there’s this trend where obviously the tentpole titles work, but (there is) also a high demand for local content, and that’s key. And because they’re not on the streaming sites, they’ll do well in cinemas, at times on a par with the Batmans and the Spider-Mans. But as we’ve found out, the audience is not yet that sophisticated. So they’ll still go for their slapstick comedy. But if there’s a lot more demand for local content, then I’m sure down the line the audience is going to be a lot more sophisticated.
That said, while local content is indeed needed to keep people coming to cinemas, exhibitors in Saudi Arabia are offering disadvantageous terms for local movies that inexplicably prioritize mainly Hindi films, giving them better terms. They do milk Arabic language films, which often do more than any others, but I find this truly unfair. They all mention that they should encourage Arab cinema, but then they offer these unfair terms. It needs to change.
Was this demand for local content the thinking behind Front Row’s move into production a few years ago?
Yeah, that was the thought process, and also the thought process of thinking that, down the line, we want to have the liberty of choosing whether we should go theatrical on some titles or go straight to streamers. It truly depends. Obviously, when it comes to global streamers you are creating a demand of Arab films internationally.
So why then did you decide to launch your first production, Perfect Strangers, on Netflix?
We’ve collaborated a lot over the last few years and helped curate their regional film selections, like the Palestinian, Egyptian and Lebanese ones. Having the whole Palestinian collection on Netflix was a big deal, which I didn’t realize at the time. But it was so significant for the Arab world. From the comments we have read, just the fact that it was called the Palestinian collection — the social media reaction was insane as many saw this as a recognition of Palestine. When it came to Perfect Strangers, the Netflix team understood our vision and our need to present a different perspective in Arab/local cinema and became extremely supportive of the whole project. We just saw this as the perfect fit. Honestly, they’ve been awesome — and it helped cement our relationship with them, eventually striking a first-look deal.
Would Perfect Strangers have even made it to cinemas?
I think it would have passed the censors — literally, there aren’t any written rules over here for censorship when it comes to a film like Perfect Strangers. But when it exploded, I’m positive that two days later they would have removed it. It has happened before with other films, and we would have lost a shit ton of money.
Given its themes, Perfect Strangers was always going to spark a reaction in the Middle East. But has the size of the response — both good and bad and the fact it has topped Netflix’s charts across the region and beyond — helped underline this need for quality Arabic content?
I know a lot of people are now saying, “Hey, let’s create controversial content,” and I’m like, “That’s not the way it works!” But I do think that, unknowingly and I’m not saying this arrogantly, we’ve raised the bar. In the sense that you can do a commercial film with a high concept over here. I wasn’t thinking of this at the time. I just thought, “Holy shit, why doesn’t anybody remake Perfect Strangers in Arabic”? It’s a universal subject. That was my original idea — I remember watching it in Italy and seeing people’s reactions outside of the theater, especially couples fighting, and thinking let’s do it, people need to talk about this stuff.
You’re also remaking the French hit The Intouchables. What’s behind this model of remaking international films?
For us, the writing in the region is just not quite there yet. People tend to auto-censor themselves a lot out here, so they won’t consider writing something different just because people might get offended. So we thought let’s kick-start it with remakes, while also trying to look at and develop original material. Ideally, we want to make films that reflect the sort of films that we’re known for releasing and open people’s eyes. Over here, people will remember Perfect Strangers as the film that dared to break the mold.
Do you think the arrival of Disney+ and HBO Max in the region is going to drive the thirst for more local original content?
Yeah, and it’s great for everyone. It means that people are going to start wanting quality, and this is what they’re going to bet on. I honestly think it’s a great thing.
Do you see production become a sizable proportion of Front Row’s business? Are you going to need to expand?
We’re actually separating the production side, but it’s definitely going to become a sizable part of the business and we have already started expanding on that front. We now have a development team and have acquired a sizable chunk of the boutique creative agency Operation Unicorn (that) will be handling original material that would reflect our brand. We’ve started now, and it’s great — luckily, we had our first hit. But we’re betting on that.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day