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Arabic films gain star status in Middle East cinema

A cinema in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Demand for non-English and Arabic content is growing rapidly in the Middle East Alamy via Reuters
A cinema in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Demand for non-English and Arabic content is growing rapidly in the Middle East
  • Arabic cinema gaining popularity
  • Growing importance for Hollywood
  • Saudi target of 2,500 screens

An Emirati family’s life spirals out of control when the behaviour of their son Ahmed, a once softly spoken, confident young boy changes – with terrifying consequences. As his actions become increasingly unpredictable, the lives of those around him are placed in serious danger.

Some counsel medical intervention, but the boy’s mother Maryam is convinced that the child is possessed and only a mullah can rid him of an evil spirit inside. 

This is Three, a fantasy realism horror, by Nayla Al Khaja, the first female screenwriter, director and producer in the UAE.

The film has become the seventh highest-grossing Emirati film in the UAE, “a testament to the power of original content tailored to the local audience”, Al Khaja tells AGBI.

Three and films like it are driving demand in the Middle East box office as Hollywood makes a play for the region.

Audience demand for Arabic content increased from 4 percent to 27 percent between 2020 and 2023.

“As more exhibitors enter the market, the demand for content grows, making the production cycle increasingly dynamic,” says Al Khaja. “The next logical step is to create content with global appeal.”

This week Abu Dhabi-based United Al Saqer Group (UASG) announced a $200 million investment in London-headquartered DNEG Group, a visual effects and animation studio for feature films.

As part of the deal, DNEG will open a new office and "visual experience hub" in the UAE capital, with plans to develop an ecosystem in the Middle East for content production, storage and distribution.

Box office figures from the first quarter of this year show that the Europe, Middle East and Africa region (Emea) recorded the world’s largest year-on-year gain ($463 million), according to Gower Street Analytics. 

The US box office grew $200 million as it continues its recovery from last year’s Hollywood labour strikes which halted production and clogged the pipeline of new film releases.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore, says the after-effects could hit the US summer box office by as much as $800 million compared with 2023.

The struggles in the industry are also being felt in the UK. On Thursday Cineworld, a major operator, said that it was planning to close roughly a quarter of its 100 British multiplexes.

Yet the sector in the Middle East continues to thrive. 

“The summer looks relatively strong and towards the end of the year, the line-up is pretty good,” says Erik Stevens, operations manager at Dubai-based Roxy Cinemas.

“Cinemas have always been a strong pastime for the people in this region because it's hot outside. But I think also our cinemas are at a different standard, a different level of what they are in the States, in the UK, in Australia.

“People enjoy coming to it because we have better food and beverage offerings. Our seating is much more comfortable. It's not massive auditoriums that 6,000 people go into and squeeze in like an economy class airline.”

Hollywood is taking notice. In May Bad Boys: Ride or Die recorded the highest grossing opening weekend for a movie in 2024 at the Middle East box office. The action-comedy movie earned $9.5 million across the region, setting a new record for the Bad Boys franchise. 

Its successful debut followed two premiere stops in the Middle East, in Dubai followed by Riyadh. The latter, at Vox Cinemas Roshn Front, marked the first Hollywood premiere to be hosted in the kingdom.

“This move not only highlights the growing importance of the Middle East market but also sets a precedent for future film promotions,” says UAE-based film publicist Carmen Audino. “The success of this launch has demonstrated the region's readiness and eagerness for more Hollywood engagement.”

After being banned for 35 years, the first cinema in Saudi Arabia opened in April 2018 in Riyadh. The Saudi Film Council is targeting 2,500 cinema screens by 2030, creating a $1.2 billion market for box office revenues.

“Right now I would say Saudi is gold and everybody wants a piece of the pie,” says Ahmed Asal, head of marketing at Empire Entertainment, a UAE-based film distributor.

Saudi Arabia’s aim to build up its film industry as part of the government’s effort to diversify the economy has been buoyed by culturally resonant films such as Mandoob and Sattar

In February Turki Alalshikh, head of the state-run Saudi General Entertainment Authority launched a new investment fund geared towards upgrading Arabic cinema content in producing, distributing and making films featuring leading actors in the Arab world.

“The opportunity lies in original content and IP creation for local and international distribution,” says Mo Fadlallah, a multimedia specialist.

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