Audiences in Middle East Favor Local Films But Demand Higher Quality

Rexa Vella

Audiences in Middle East Favor Local Films But Demand Higher Quality

The lifting of Saudi Arabia’s decades-long ban on cinema in 2018 drastically changed the film market across the Middle East. Combining rapidly developing infrastructure with young audiences, generous funding opportunities, the fastest-rising box office on the planet and burgeoning talent development schemes, the kingdom has quickly become a major player in the Arab region.

“In terms of content, the whole of the Middle East has always been too reliant on Egypt, which is considered the Hollywood of the Middle East. Now, you have people creating and marketing their own content in Saudi,” says Gianluca Chakra, the CEO of Dubai-based Front Row Filmed Entertainment.

Chakra has been at the forefront of the Middle East and North Africa’s independent cinema distribution for two decades, as recent Front Row titles include Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Monster.”

Chakra made significant strides into the Saudi theatrical market in 2023 with the launch of Front Row Arabia, a joint venture with local leading exhibitor Muvi Cinemas. In 2023, Chakra and Front Row Arabia had great theatrical success in Saudi with local and Egyptian titles; three of their Arabic films nested in the top 20 highest-performing films in the year: “Etneen Lil Egar,” “Mandoob” and “Sattar,” the latter taking a whopping $10.7 million in the Saudi box office and outpacing major Hollywood productions such as “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

“Because of the cinema ban, Saudis would rely on piracy and have literally seen every single film ever made. They have a very cool cinematic culture, which doesn’t apply to the rest of the Middle East, including Egypt,” says Chakra. “The cool thing about Saudi is that you can focus on an audience because the majority are locals, while in the UAE, our second-biggest market, it’s really hard to target audiences because 90% of the communities are expats.”

This is a point echoed by Antoine Khalife, director of Arab programs and film classics at the Red Sea Film Festival. “Saudi is a big market for Saudi cinema. In many Arab countries, the local market is not important for the national cinema. Most of the films in Egypt that have had success are commercial ones, titles that do not go to festivals.”

With local audiences’ appetite for local cinema growing, gone are the days when companies could churn out dozens of boiler-plate comedies aimed solely at box office success. According to both Khalife and Chakra, audiences not only across Saudi but also Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon are looking for quality over quantity. “Films produced today can be commercial but also need to have good quality and to have a good, relatable story,” says Khalife.

Films such as the aforementioned “Mandoob” and “Sattar” plus “Voy! Voy! Voy!” and “Naga” have found great success precisely by striking a balance between a culturally pertinent story and high production values. All four films also tap into the region’s growing interest in genre offerings, using thriller, comedy and sports drama tropes to weave in thoughtful commentary on cultural and political issues that pertain to their country of origin while remaining accessible to neighboring regions.

“Some companies have tried to Americanize their scripts and all of them failed royally, no exception, because Saudi audiences stick to their own culture,” says Chakra. “At the same time, local films managed to touch on subjects that could be considered controversial, like bootlegging, but in a way that you never see the alcohol, you barely see bottles, people don’t drink…. There are ways to approach such issues without risking controversy, all while creating well-rounded characters and stories.”

Khalife remarks that, during the first two years of the Red Sea Film Festival, audiences rarely attended screenings outside of traditional comedies and dramas. In 2023, the programmer noticed a drastic change. “Now people know what the film festival is and audiences are seeing something completely different for the first time. Documentaries and short films didn’t attract audiences, but we insisted on it, and now we are seeing people showing up for it in droves.”

Adds Ryan Ashore, head of the Red Sea Labs at the Red Sea Film Foundation, “Cinemas are filled with people throughout the week. It’s good that
people are going to cinemas, but it’s our job to teach [audiences] how to watch a film and how to engage in discussions about what they have seen — that’s when you start getting cinephiles.”

Promoting a wider understanding of cinema as an artform in Saudi is a pressing matter not only for the Red Sea Film Foundation, but for the independent distributors working within the Arab world. Alaa Karkouti, CEO and co-founder of MAD Solutions and co-founder of the Arab Cinema Center, mentions “Goodbye, Julia” as an example of demand for what might be considered arthouse cinema in countries like Saudi.

The Sudanese film grossed $349,000 from 27,000 admissions following its release in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain in December, a record-breaking number for a non-Egyptian or non-Saudi arthouse film in the region.

“‘Goodbye, Julia’ proved there are audiences for smaller films but we need to think about how to best promote these films, how to keep releases regular and how to better understand our target audiences,” says Karkouti.

“There is a huge gap in the market today as we don’t have many arthouse cinemas in the Arab region. The possibility for audiences to explore and watch films they might not know about is still missing.”

Chakra agrees: “We are hoping for more arthouse cinemas to open and raise the bar when it comes to independent films. For a distributor, it’s about how much you pay for the title, and thankfully, with independent films, you have other rights you can exploit. Still, from a distribution point of view, we will always push for independent films to be seen in cinemas.”

Khalife agrees that the time and effort put in to attract audiences to independent and arthouse films can be perceived as futile if there are no theatrical spaces in which to show such films. “What is missing today is a real independent cinema not only for Arab independent films, but international titles, too. Titles get to Netflix and other platforms within six months, they are not seen enough in theaters, people watch them online.”

Ashore believes it is a matter of time until Saudi can offer the theatrical infrastructure to accommodate Arab arthouse offerings, especially given the recent success of Red Sea Fund-backed films at not only major international film festivals but during awards season.

Ashore points to the success of Kaouther Ben Hania, who nabbed an Oscar nomination for “Four Daughters,” becoming the first Arab female director to earn two Oscar nominations (her first was for “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which landed a nomination for international feature in 2021).

“What the fund is doing is outstanding,” notes Ashore. “We have had a record-breaking number of Arab titles in Cannes, including ‘Four Daughters’ and, when I was at Sundance recently, people were constantly asking me how they can be involved. People are inquiring about the model of success, and having an Oscar-nominated film backed by the fund is just going to open more doors.”

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