Arab exhibitors at a crossroads

Dubai film festival panel discusses boxoffice

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DUBAI -- Boxoffice in the Arab world has never been better, but there's lots of room for improvement, regional exhibition and distribution executives said Saturday in a panel discussion at the Dubai International Film Festival.

Hisham Alghanim, GM of 41-screen Cinescape, the lone cinema operator in Kuwait, said that his country -- No. 2 in the Arab movie market -- had four exhibition licenses but no competitors because of high real estate costs.

"I welcome partners in the market. I want to see what a newcomer can do," said Alghanim, whose company enjoyed a government-granted monopoly for 50 years until it expired four years ago.

Meanwhile, Cinescape plans 20 new cinemas for April, including an IMAX screen and two "VIP" theaters, and is beginning to segue into distribution via a Dubai-based arm called Front Door.

Alghanim also said that he sees growth in digital cinema and expects Egypt to lead the way. Egypt makes most of the world's Arabic movies and sells the most tickets to its population of 77 million. "Once Egypt starts to produce digital movies, the whole Arab world will follow," Alghanim said.

But no matter the technology, panelists agreed that content will continue to suffer under strict censorship. There is "no good reason" for some of the cuts the conservative Kuwait Information Ministry makes, he said.

Salim Ramia, head of Dubai-based regional distributor Gulf Films, said that the challenge that most frustrates him is a lack of reliability among production companies.

"Sometimes Egyptian movies don't deliver on time, making it tough to deliver them to our theaters," Ramia said.

As such, Ramia believes he can do better with Hollywood films, such as "Quantum of Solace," which topped the boxoffice in the United Arab Emirates this year with $2 million. "Captain Hema," the most successful Egyptian movie in 2008, earned just $961,000.

Ramia, who pays a flat fee for Arabic films, said the cost has gone up as leading actors -- of whom there are just a handful, including comic actor Ahmed Helmi and leading man Tamer Hosni -- command more pay. He said he pays $400,000 for films he got 10 years ago for a mere $25,000. "They have become greedy," Ramia said.

Sanford Climan, the lone Hollywood veteran on the panel, now the CEO of 3ality Digital, believes that with the growth of media serving the 400 million Arabic speakers in the world, there is little excuse not to grow "beyond a landscape dominated by four actors."

In Egypt, competing with established stars is tough. Following the market's nationalization, many of the private theaters of the 1950s heyday of Egyptian cinema failed. To protect their industry's local players, theater owners and the government have blocked imports.

Atoine Zeind, chairman of Egyptian movie giant United Motion Pictures, said that despite multiple attempts to import European films, he has failed. "Even if they don't always understand it, Egyptians are used to hearing English," he said. "When we used to import Alain Delon films they always were the English versions."

When "Titanic" caused a boxoffice sensation around the region in 1997, earning an unheard of $3 million in Egypt alone, hope for change in protectionist regulations took a blow. Only eight or nine prints of any import are allowed into Egypt.

Now that many of Egypt's public cinemas are leasing themselves to private companies, Zeind is hopeful that a change in the rules is possible. Last week Egypt's Ministry of Culture discussed the issue. "I'm sure it will come in the near future," Zeind said.

Ramia said that a movie's success in the region need not be a vehicle for a local star or a Hollywood blockbuster. Passion and careful choices are key. He said that director Oliver Stone had congratulated him on making money in the region off his "Alexander," a flop in the West.

Like elsewhere in the world, Piracy continues to challenge profits in the Middle East and, the panelists said, governments have been slow to react.

Salim said he and his wife recently were approached here by a Chinese woman with a bag of pirated DVDs selling for about $1.50 each. Alghanim estimates that losses to piracy in Kuwait are about $4 million-$6 million each year. "Movies banned in Kuwait sell the best on pirated disc," he said.

Some panel observers said they felt that the executives, for all their efforts, must still raise their game to truly succeed.

"There still needs to be lots more innovation, particularly in terms of marketing films and participating in content creation," said Rachel Gandin, director of the Arab Film Festival in Los Angeles and producer of Disney's first Arabic film, Lebanese director Chadi Zeineddine's "The Last of the Storytellers."