How the pandemic has actually been a boost for some Arab filmmakers as streamers scramble for content

'Maybe streaming platforms did not show interest before, but now with a lack of original content, they are trying to bring on as much as they can'

Oscar-nominated film 'Theeb' is available on Netflix. MAD Solutions
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While the coronavirus pandemic has brought a number of television and film productions across the Middle East to a halt, it has also presented an opportunity for regional distributors to bring to life some older works from the Arab world.

While films such as Omar, West Beirut, Last Men in Aleppo and Clash are already available on streaming platforms such as Netflix, Gianluca Chakra – managing partner of Front Row Filmed Entertainment – says that more already-released works by filmmakers from the Arab world will soon be available online as well.

"We're releasing most of the Youssef Chahine films on Netflix within the next year," Chakra says of the acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker, whose works include Cairo Station, Saladin and The Choice.

“We’ll also be releasing works by Moustapha Akkad, Yousri Nusrallah and more titles by Nadine Labaki to streaming platforms,” Chakra says.

Chakra’s company is a leading film distributor in the region, releasing more than 100 Arabic and English films every year across regional theatres and streaming platforms like Netflix, Shahid, Jawi as well as iTunes and Google Play.

Right now, streaming platforms are trying to gather as much local content as they can for each region. They need to in order to increase their subscription base and cater to local markets

While the films the company works to release in theatres vary in terms of genre and commercial-viability, Chakra says they do try to push mostly critically-acclaimed works on streaming platforms.

"Still, we can't deny how important commercially-targeted films are as well, such as Tamer Hosny's Al Felous (The Money)," Chakra says of a film he distributed in cinemas. "Those kinds of works give us the ability to boost critically-acclaimed films."

And the current moment might be the perfect time to do so. “Right now, streaming platforms are trying to gather as much local content as they can for each region,” he says. “And they need to in order to increase their subscription base and cater to local markets.”

Abdallah Al Shami, a managing partner at Mad Solutions, an independent Pan-Arab studio with a distribution arm, says that while the pandemic has created a number of unprecedented challenges for the film industry, it has provided an opportunity for works that had been previously overlooked by streaming giants in favour of original content.

“It has presented an opportunity for films that haven’t had screening possibilities. Maybe streaming platforms did not show interest before, but now with a lack of original content, they are trying to bring on as much as they can.”

Al Shami says that Mad Solutions – which has been distributing Arabic-language films for more than a decade – is working on pushing a number of older works to streaming platforms, such as Sanctity by Saudi filmmaker Ahd Kamel.

The film brought the filmmaker international attention after it became the first Saudi film to compete at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013.

“A film has several lives to live,” Al Shami says. “Sometimes films that don’t do well in the cinema, do really well on streaming platforms. For instance, documentaries don’t do as well in theatres as they do online. Certain feature films also do better on streaming platforms than they do in theatres due to censorship.”

What Netflix got wrong about the region at first

A film has several lives to live. Sometimes films that don't do well in the cinema, do really well on streaming platforms

Al Shami points out that when Netflix first began seeking content from around the Middle East for their platform, they weren’t completely aware of the nuances between audiences in different countries in the region.

“When they first opened to the regional market, it was an uphill battle to convince them to change the strategy of how they look at the market here,” Al Shami says. “It has since progressed, new people have joined their team, people who have a background from and experience in the region.”

Bringing on board experienced personnel has made the streaming giant more aware of how to cater content to the different audiences in the region.

Among the films Mad Solutions has managed to house on Netflix is the Oscar-nominated Theeb.

"We're always looking for good material," Al Shami says. "Regardless of what stage the film is in. It can be a vague idea or a finished product. When we first came across Theeb, it was in its script phase. But we picked it up and we agreed to distribute it in the Arab world. The film went on to represent Jordan at the 2016 Oscars and became the first Arab film to win at the Baftas." The film tells the story of a young Bedouin boy who embarks on a dangerous desert journey to guide a British officer to a destination.

Chakra also sees the importance of promoting budding filmmakers and facilitating productions between different Arab countries.

“This is why we formed Yalla Yalla and will soon be encouraging co-productions throughout the Arab world of high-concept titles,” he said.

The Saudi version of 'The Intouchables'

Yalla Yalla, the sister company of Front Row has secured the rights to the Arabic language remake of the Italian film Perfect Strangers. The film is about a group of friends, who during a dinner party, agree to share all incoming text messages and calls with each other.

“Hopefully, once Covid-19 ends, we will be able to resume the project, which is a Lebanese/Egyptian co-production,” Chakra says.

He adds that, because most of the Arab cinema industry's efforts are concentrated in Egypt, the company is also trying to boost joint projects between talents in Egypt and other countries in the region.

The distributor is also set to remake the French film Intouchables as a Saudi-Egyptian co-production. The original tells the story of a street-smart immigrant who is hired to take care of a disabled French nobleman. It has been remade as an American film already, The Upside starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart.

“The film will be shot in Saudi Arabia,” Chakra says, adding that while Yalla Yalla is starting with official remakes, it is also developing original content.

“The Arab world needs to be discovered,” Chakra says. “There is a lot of curiosity about the region. Those in the West are still under the impression that the countries in the Middle East are the same. Films and TV shows can change that perception.”

One example, Chakra says, is Six Windows in the Desert, a Saudi production recently picked up by Netflix and which has done "really well, and proves there is a demand for works from the region. For new stories. Real stories."