The media industry is going through an array of changes across all sub-sectors. It’s not just network TVs but even the distribution and acquisition business has evolved in recent times. For Dubai-based Front Row Filmed Entertainment it’s about discovering new methods and business streams as it looks to forge partnerships and involve itself in more co-productions.
Front Row, and its managing director Gianluca Chakra, shot into prominence when it acquired the rights to distribute the 2004 indie documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11, which shone the spotlight on the Bush administration in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre twin towers.
The company began life as a distributor of feature films for the MENA region, but the shifting sands of the media sector has prompted Chakra to keep evolving the business.
“There are new ways of distributing your films, and we pre-buy a lot of the films. When we go to film markets or through our contacts that we have developed throughout the years with producers and sales companies,” Chakra says stating that his firm acquires anywhere between 90 to 110 titles annually.
Previously, titles acquired by Front Row and its competitors enjoyed almost guaranteed success with its theatrical release. But streaming and OTT platforms have changed that trend.
Chakra explains: “Today you aren’t restricted to titles being released theatrically, there are quite a few channels to do it that include iTunes, Google Play and VOD platforms. We can also now premier titles directly on subscription VOD platforms — Netflix, Amazon Prime and StarzPlay to name a few.”
Piracy has also forced distributors to be creative and versatile, but more on that later.
In terms of recent acquisitions, Front Row won distribution rights to ‘Leaving Neverland’ — a documentary that explored the lives of two fans that Michael Jackson had close relationships with.
Chakra is a firm believer of developing local content along with distributing local content.
The Kuwait National Cinema Company, one of Front Row’s business partners, is one of the biggest acquirers of Egyptian content.
“But things are now changing with the introduction of global platforms, the way they want to increase their subscribers is through local content — Arabic speaking content,” he says.
Generalising the Arab world’s need for local content is a huge mistake and Chakra says the Middle East is comprised of 350 million people with different cultures and dialects.
“There is a definite need [for Arabic content] and I feel there is going to be a surge in content from the Gulf. Films being made locally have been few in the past. In terms of formats we are beginning to see a lot of what is made in Europe, the US and Asia being acquired for adoption in the Middle East — Arab X-Factor, Arab’s Got Talent to name a few.”
Chakra says the Arab audiences are accepting of international remakes, which means an Arab version of Game of Thrones might do well in this market. “It’s about pushing the envelope, a ‘sword-and-sandals’ series could work well because you want the controversy and physical dilemmas [in Arab productions]. [Audience acceptance] is going to take some time because we are going to have to fight the culture. But it doesn’t need to be a fight, it’s about changing mind sets,” says Chakra, who is half Lebanese and Italian.
Recently, Netflix Arabic original Jinn came under heavy criticism mainly for the language used and physically intimate scenes. “In this case you had people in Jordan, where the show is based, offended. There is a level of cultural hypocrisy, which will fade away. Eventually, it [audiences accepting cultural truths] will happen. The more controversy you have, the more viewers you will have because of the curiosity factor,” Chakra says.
In terms of its own productions, Front Row is working on quite a few co-productions but Chakra wants to keep his cards close to his chest. “One of the things we are working on is [a remake of] Perfect Strangers, the Italian film that was released in 2016,” he reveals.
The story revolves around married couples who are friends and meet over dinner. They criticise a common friend because he left his wife for finding a message on her phone. “The movie explores the fact that people have something to hide on their phones. The premise revolves around the four couples putting their phones on the dinner table, every time a message is received it needs to be read out loud. This leads to an interesting turn of events and explores a universal subject which definitely applies in the Middle East,” he says.
Chakra says Front Row looked at filming the remake in the UAE, but “high costs” forced them to look to the Lebanon and Egypt.
“High costs are deterring productions to take place in the UAE, hiring cameras and permits is expensive. I wish they would incentivise filmmakers to shoot independent productions because you cannot have a Mission Impossible every day. It’s quite expensive to shoot here and that is what has driven us to focus on Egypt and Lebanon. Shooting a low budget film here is nearly impossible,” Chakra tells Digital Studio ME.
In addition, Middle East audiences tend to be star driven. And Chakra says this translates to audiences not giving as much importance to the script. “All too often, the region has relied on Egypt to churn out content. It’s changing, however, with Saudi Arabia working on producing its own content, and while that’s great for the industry that content will not work in Kuwait. That’s because the Middle East has a diverse audience. You cannot have a pan-Arab approach to producing Arabic content in the Middle East,” Chakra reveals.
He also predicts that the Saudi market is going to be the second, if not the leading creative powerhouse “depending on the expansion, and things moving in the direction that authorities have planned”. Saudi could leapfrog Lebanon and Egypt, two markets which are considered creative pioneers in the Middle East.
Earlier this year, Front Row formed a development and production company called Yalla Yalla in collaboration with an international sales company called Rocket Science.
“We are developing a few international projects with them but at the same time they are cognizant of the demand of local content. The JV will help us find the right content / product that could work here. We are getting into local content and buying IPs and remake rights (such as Perfect Strangers). We are buying book adaptations from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and quite a few properties. We are working on original stuff too, but that’s going to take time for sure,” Chakra tells Digital Studio ME.
The burning issue for any stakeholder in the content / media production space is piracy and battling its negative impacts. Front Row’s acquisitions business is not affected as the firm continues to buy more than a 100 films a year.
But Chakra fears the fight against piracy might not be one that can be won as easily. “You can’t win the battle, you can never fight piracy unless the telcos completely clamp down on pirate sites. We collaborate with anti-piracy associations, locally but not much is being done. The problem exists because people like to watch stuff for free. It’s just as simple as that.
“Today, theatrical releases are done on the same day with the US or the first territory the film is released in. It has to be released as close as possible just to avoid piracy. In the past, you used to have a gap of four months between a theatrical release and VOD / DVD availability. Now it’s shortened to a matter of weeks all to counter piracy.”
Chakra cites the Bollywood industry’s practice of theatrically releasing movies a day earlier in the Middle East than in India. “It’s done because they know after three days after releasing any Bollywood title you are going to have it available for download. We also know this for a fact that the Filipino audience relies on piracy. It’s not different for audiences in the west either.”
Closer to home, Chakra talks about the existence of a pirate pay TV network that is currently “not being fought by anybody because it’s tied to a whole political situation”. He adds: “That is killing pay TV networks in the region, and the entire eco-system. Especially for a region that’s trying to come up with an industry. I’m sure, however, that will be solved sometime soon,” Chakra says.
Beginning life as a film distributor Front Row has taken on several other functions in its 16-year existence. Chakra denies the suggestion that Front Row is a full-fledged production house today. He prefers to take it “step by step”.
“It’s a learning curve,” he says, “we have collaborated with producer Rita Dagher. She was one of the associate producers on Fahrenheit 9/11, and her latest film ‘A Prayer before Dawn’ was premiered at Cannes.
“She’s worked with a huge indie label called Wild Bunch, she’s widely experienced and talented. We are also hiring a few producers with us that are going to be working full-time.”
In the meantime, Front Row’s acquisitions are becoming more aggressive and targeted. Chakra says the company is buying “a lot bigger stuff” with a firm focus on the independent market. “We began with indie films and it remains our passion,” Chakra concludes.