Dubai Film Market goes on-demand

Digital facility allows buyers to screen on their own schedule

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DUBAI -- If the initial response to the Dubai Film Market is anything to go by, the future of film sales just might be digital.

"We have been taking surveys every day to find out how we can improve the facility," market director Ziad Yaghi said at the end of the fourth day on Sunday. "Not only have the responses been very good, but we have also seen all sorts of ways in how this facility is changing and enhancing the way business is conducted."

The Dubai market facility has done away with the traditional structure for a film market -- think sellers stands and organized screenings. Instead, the market revolves around a state-of-the art digital screening facility, the Cinetech, which allows buyers to watch titles on demand in individual screening booths.

Deals so far include the sale of 20 titles to Iranian broadcaster Irib Media Trade, which purchases some 800 titles a year.

"The market has worked very well for us," said Irib contracting manager M. Mehdi Yadegari, who attended with the company's president A.A. Gholamrezea.

Yadegari was off to do some real shopping in a mall Saturday in a move that might not have been possible at a traditional market, where relentless schedules could easily include a 10-day run of back-to-back screenings, taking in a midnight screening one night followed by an early film the next morning.

"We have seen people coming in watching films from 9-6, only breaking for lunch," Yaghi said. "Brennan Wrenn of the Australian broadcaster SBS, for example, came in and did just that for two days back-to-back."

As per Yaghi, the facility has proven useful in a wide variety of other ways as well. Ahead of his Sunday panel on film financing in the Arab world, Disney's Michael Andreen spent a day flicking through Arabic films to find a lead for Disney's first Arabic-language feature, "The Last of the Storytellers," from Lebanese director Chadi Zeneddine.

Zeneddine is in Dubai for the festival's Film Connection production platform to find partners for his Ramallah-set "Barbershop Trinity." The story focuses on the rapidly diminishing number of Christian Arabs living in Palestine. "This isn't only an online film market, but it also serving as an online casting agency," Yaghi said.

The Cinetech's interactive functions also have helped participants finesse deals. U.S.-based Shorts International identified a short film that wasn't quite short enough for its 20-minute cap but negotiated a cut to facilitate a deal online. "The director and the company were able to meet through the interactive messaging service of the Cinetech system and the director has now agreed to shorten the film," Yaghi said.

Shorts International also has acquired American animator Bill Plympton's two latest 3.5-minute films ("Santa, the Fascist Years" and "Bill's Mexican Standoff") for its French and British channels and for distribution on iTunes.

"The market is young and it needs time to grow, but I did seal a deal here, so I'm optimistic, and that's saying something, because I wasn't before I arrived," said Catherine Branscombe, the films' sales agent.

Branscombe will extend her Dubai trip in hopes of selling Plympton's feature-length DIFF offering "Idiots and Angels" to the Dubai-based Arab Media Group for its soon-to-launch Seen TV channel.

Arriving Sunday from Kuwait was Nicole Maamary of the Kuwaiti family channel Alrai TV. "If you are interested in world cinema, then this is the place to be," she said. "Those types of films are usually sidelines in festivals like Cannes, but here they are front and center."

Maamary said that the advent of a film market here and more film festivals in the region could help open the region's television market to broadcasting more Middle Eastern and art house films on television in the region.

"You don't really see Middle Eastern titles airing in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries," she said. "You either see Indian films or American blockbusters. And if there are films playing here from the region they are from likely to be from Egypt only. (Egypt boasts the Middle East's most-established film industry.) Culturally, it would be fantastic to include more of these films, but I don't know how feasible it is."

Fred de Haas, who serves as a market consultant here and runs the market arm of the Dutch documentary market IDFA said that he first saw this type of Cinetech-like digital screening facility in play at the St. Tropez television market.

"This is brand new for a lot of people, but you are seeing momentum build slowly and more and more people are attending the market here," he said.

As per de Haas, the European Film Market in Berlin is looking into adopting the technology, and there could be more. "We are looking into rolling this system out together with the Dubai market team on a broader basis," said Jean-Pierre Le Calvez of Hewlett-Packard, which is behind the technology. "The response has been excellent."