Biz is bullish on Mideast as fifth Dubai fest opens


As the Dubai International Film Festival enters its fifth year, the event's glamour, growing artistic ambitions and new market are front and center as one would expect. But the festival provides another key function: shining a spotlight on the increasing vibrancy of the movie business in the Middle East.

Ask any U.S. studio executive these days, and you'll find that the region — while still small by the standards of more established territories — is increasingly seen as a serious growth market making meaningful contributions to international film sales.

Total Arabic Middle East boxoffice has jumped from about $63 million in 2003 to $108 million in 2007, said Neil McCutcheon, 20th Century Fox International's director of theatrical licensees for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

"Up to now, the industry could have realistically expected 10% year-on-year growth in the Arab Mideast that would take us to an estimated $130 million in 2009, but the impact of the global financial crisis is an unknown quantity in the theatrical Middle East business," he said.

The region's rate of growth, he added, might be somewhat slowed by the global economic meltdown, but he points out that "the region is better guarded against recession" because of its oil reserves.

The strongest markets for Hollywood distributors are the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The peninsular Arabic markets (Bahrain, Qatar, etc.), while still small, are said to be showing healthy growth rates that will shortly reach the levels of the UAE and Kuwait.

"The UAE market alone was worth $57 million in 2007 (vs. $31 million in 2003)," McCutcheon said. "With product that resonates in the Mideast, a studio can see around 15% share of that sizable market." Kuwait, he adds, can come up regularly with screen averages of $20,000 on opening weekends.

This year has been an especially good one for Hollywood releases in the region.

"For Paramount, this will be our biggest year ever in the region, with gross boxoffice forecast to exceed $20 million for the year," said Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount Pictures International. Cripps said that the UAE was up 40% from last year, and the Gulf countries were up 35%.

"Overall, it is a growing region with better cinemas coming on line, which encourage an increasing affluent middle class to be regular cinemagoers," Cripps added.

And the high-quality, state-of-the-art theaters in the region are unanimously hailed by U.S. distribution executives. "One thing to point out is that the UAE and Gulf States have some of the best multiplexes you will see anywhere in the world," said Mark Braddel, Sony Pictures Releasing International's senior vp Europe, Middle East & Africa.

Growth in the movie business is not confined to Western/Hollywood product. The region has become a hub for world cinema. Arabic films are a strong player, with countries like Egypt supplying more than 200 local-language films annually. Bollywood films also are popular because of the large number of Indian immigrants.

Fox's McCutcheon called attention to the growing population in the UAE, now at about 4.6 million, boosted by immigrants from India and other parts of the Arab world, as well as expatriate Americans, Brits, Aussies, Germans, etc.

Hollywood films that work best in the Mideast are big-budget action films with big star casts. Warner Bros.' latest Batman offering "The Dark Knight' set a new all-time record this year in the UAE with a gross of $2.5 million, topping the $2.4 million of Sony's "Spider-Man 3."

Slapstick comedy also is popular, McCutcheon said. "Films such as 'Night at the Museum' and 'Big Mamma's House' perform incredibly well in the region."

Even animation, which can be a challenge, is beginning to take hold, said Paramount's Cripps, noting that "Kung Fu Panda" did more than $3 million this year in the Middle East.

Utilizing the buzz from the U.S. with day-and-date releases can help boost boxoffice results from the region, McCutcheon said. "More and more, Fox seeks to undertake day-and-date releases in the Mideast to the point it is virtually the rule as opposed to the exception." (partialdiff)