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Arab Film Funding Hits Wall

Variety logo Variety 2/11/2017 Nick Vivarelli
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It isn’t getting any easier for producers of quality Arab movies to find financing, especially within their region where the only titles that consistently work at the box office are commercial Egyptian romancers, comedies and action pics that don’t travel internationally.

Still, Arab films with fresh narratives and visual styles burst forth on the international festival circuit in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, which had industrial as well as creative consequences. And the cinematic collaboration with Europe is getting stronger.

Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy points out that the Arab film funding well got drier recently with the shuttering of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and its Sanad film fund, just as private equity coin continues to be scarce “because a lot of these movies don’t pay back.” The only positive difference, he notes, “is there are more European co-productions” and several curated industry events “make it a little easier to connect with European producers.”

Hefzy’s Film Clinic shingle last year successfully worked both sides of the Arab cinema fence. With France’s Pyramide, it co-produced Mohamed Diab’s potent post-revolution political drama “Clash,” which was widely exported after playing in Cannes, but underperformed in the Middle East. Film Clinic also co-produced “Hepta,” Egypt’s top 2016 box office draw.

The big challenge is to make high end Arab movies that can play well at home and also abroad.

Berlin-based producer Roman Paul, whose Razor Film has co-produced several standout Arab titles including Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” and Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda,” the first feature out of Saudi Arabia, says he consciously tries to avoid making movies that only speak to Western audiences. “We think very, very hard with our [Arab] filmmakers about how to make a film that is also valid for the Arab world, specifically the country it comes from,” he adds.

Sadly, within the Arab world the market share for regional cinema has shrunk significantly, says Jacques Kruger, general manager of the Vox Cinemas chain.

Instability took its toll on the industry in Egypt, which is the region’s film production powerhouse, and this in turn “impacted the market share of Arabic language films in all the local markets,” Kruger notes. But there are signs of a recovery. According to the Egyptian Chamber of Cinema some 40 feature films were produced there last year, twice as many as in 2011, the year of the revolution.

Getting Arab movies on Middle East screens outside their country of origin is difficult, unless they are commercial Egyptian pics, the only ones with real pan-Arab reach, because it’s a large region with several Arab dialects. “There are differences in culture, differences in humor and a number of other aspects,” Kruger points out.

In the past decade new Arab film industry entities have emerged in oil-rich nations that are trying to build a film industry to diversify their economy.

Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation has produced several groundbreaking Emirati genre pics, including Ali Mostafa’s road movie “From A to B” and Tarantino-esque thriller “Rattle the Cage” by Majid Al Ansari. The Dubai Film Festival market has become the top movie mart in the Middle East. And the Doha Film Institute is now the most important funding entity for auteur-driven Arab fare and a key incubator and industry matchmaker with its unique Qumra event which blends creative workshop, co-production market, and festival elements.

“You now have Arab events and institutions that have made the rest of the world more exposed to Arab filmmaking,” says Paul. “Meeting someone from the Arab world who pitches you a project has become a more common part of the process.”

He thinks that in these ISIS-stricken times co-productions between Arab and European producers are bound to intensify.

“When there is a lot of conflict, there is also a need to understand more: who are we dealing with? It’s more of an obligation for us as producers and filmmakers to enhance understanding of each other.”

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