Adham Nasrallah: The MENA Film Market at a Glance

The MENA film market differs a lot from other ones around the world. It’s a region mostly known for acquiring films rather than producing them.

‘‘MENA Film Market’’ is too broad to describe it as the homogeneous one as the region is big and widely diverse. In terms of places where there might have been growth for an actual film industry, it’s been strangled by many factors such as political, economic, social, and cultural factors.

In terms of a solid base of real film industry Egypt stands ahead of all others in the region. Unlike the Lebanese, it wasn’t strained by war, but the scope was very narrow to go beyond the Arab World entering the international market. It was very local and basic and fit the regional market well. Most productions were very commercial, as it dominated the market. Thus, art wasn’t essential as productions were being merchandized either way. The main advantage was they were in Arabic, since dubbing or subtitling foreign films is not popular because of cost and literacy; the Egyptian accent became widespread in the region.

Jordan has played a significant role, though it’s been mainly on Palestinian subjects. Even though they won an Emmy for a local series the film industry still struggles in Jordan. The country was a location for films like Indiana in the late 80’s, later it became less popular for Hollywood producers who, for security reasons relocated to Morocco where films like Spy Game, The Gladiator, and others were shot.

Lebanon was on the right track in film production until it was strained and came to a stop due to the civil war (1975-90). This was the main obstacle for growth for an actual film industry locally and for attracting western cinema. Despite the continuous turmoil in the country and region, the Lebanese government through the Ministry of Culture has been trying heavily along with several local and foreign organizations to enhance the country’s film industry with the means available and funds they could collect to aid producers. Even on an international level they were actively exposing their films in cultural weeks and foreign film slots with international TV channels. The Lebanese films, though very few, weren’t as narrow and the storylines though they mainly focused on the war and it’s after math, had a wider scope of reaching international audiences. This was not the case for the production of international TV formats as Lebanon is the hub for most of the prime time shows like Arab Idol, The Voice, Star Academy, and Arabs Got Talent.

The film industry has been trying to gain strength in the past few years, however the recent Arab Spring did not help – Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria have pulled the industry many steps backwards. Syria was trying to achieve a Film Industry similar to the success they achieved in the Drama Series, through the National Film Organization in Damascus; they were trying to produce around two films a year for an International Film Festival. Unfortunately, that’s all gone now due to the war.

The interesting thing is the birth of a new ground for the film industry in the region, in the Gulf GGC countries. They are working heavily on creating an industry, investing in contribution, time and effort. Creating opportunities and encouraging initiatives through institutes, workshops, seminars, attending international film schools, trainings, film festivals, as well as sponsoring students, directors and producers etc.

The whole region stands far behind the rest of the world in terms of an actual solid form of a worldwide trade level entertainment industry. Distribution of Arabic Films is nonexistent outside the region, either they were never promoted correctly or the content was too primitive, very local, unsuitable, or didn’t exemplify its origin to echo in other cultures properly. Though very few films make it to international festivals, theaters and TV screens, a business can’t be defined with one movie here and there or a slot in a cultural week.

The question is how we make our films global, while saving their identity and authenticity. They should have an identity of national origin, but with a wider reach that would make them appealing to foreign audiences. That’s through advancements in methods related to production, storylines, acting, studios, technical matters, etc.

Lay the groundwork to form an industry, before the glamour. It is essential to have film culture and audiences before imported film festivals and bring on international stars to a red carpet. Yet, when there’s no sign of a film industry, film schools, directors, producers, writers, actors, and intense censorship, what are the basis of a fair judgment and evaluation? Only when the foundations are complete, then an audience can make a proper assessment. Then again, if there are no movie theaters let alone a film industry, then how can that be achieved?

The most vital element in the film industry is to have no boundaries that would limit its creativity. That is simply what defines the situation of the film market in the MENA region strangled with an economic, socio-cultural / religious, political and geopolitical constraints, which are the main reasons behind the circulation of films from and to the region.

The last years have demonstrated a remarkable significance through co-productions in various manners, locations, methods, content, talent, funding and other forms mainly within the region itself. It is probably difficult come up with an accurate percentile of the co-produced films in the MENA region, especially with those from beyond the territory. The cross-cultural productions have been popular ever since the industry began in the territory, historically most popular between the Lebanese and the Egyptians, in addition to other Syrian and Jordanian productions.

In the recently years there has been a big achievement going on the Arab Gulf, Dubai, Abu Dhabi & Qatar, launch of films festivals, Media Cities, Studios, Production houses, Media Institutes, Funding, and Investments. In North Africa, especially Morocco has been for a while a main destination for western cinema, as far as location, cost of production, and governmental encouragements through incentives, legal work and protection. Safety, plays a major role, the country enjoys more security in comparison to the rest of the region. This illustrates why it was chosen to shoot films such as “Sex in the City 2” not in Abu Dhabi for legal issues, as well as “Spy Game” though the story takes place in Beirut for security reasons it was transferred to Morocco. Moreover, may be the west always felt nostalgic about it since the iconic film Casablanca.

The region fails then you have an actual ecosystem for co-production beyond itself such as attracting the international filmmakers. It lacks proper promotion, publicity and incentives to expose the regions attractive film locations, production talents, and supportive governments. As in countries were improved top of line production infrastructure is available, its controlled by censorship, regulations and dictatorship, where as in the places were talent and freedom is abundant, they lack the finances, major studios and production facilities.

The Euromed audio visual program Cinemas particularly have invested lots of funding, time, efforts through there institutional programs by offering trainings, workshops and seminars. Through a developed strategy trying to push, enhance and promote it to the global film production market. Primarily publicize diverse locations like the mountains, beaches, deserts, rivers. Furthermore, providing production infrastructure, studio equipment, acting courses, new film techniques, workshops and talent database for talent pooling.

Adham Nasrallah, Safe Media, specially for SSTR on peculiarities of MENA countries’ film industries.

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