Transforming Arab cinema with MAD Solutions

October 2017

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

With a population of around 422 million people spanning 22 countries, the Arab film market is largely untapped and has huge growth potential. Alaa Karkouti is a renowned film analyst and CEO and co-founder of MAD Solutions, a one-stop shop for film promotion and distribution in the Arab region. He talks to WIPO Magazine about what the company is doing to support the development of Arab cinema at home and abroad.

Alaa Karkouti (left) and Maher Diab (right), co-founders of MAD Solutions, a film promotion and distribution studio in the Arab region that is working to transform Arab cinema (photo: courtesy of MAD Solutions).

How did you get into the film business?

I have always loved the cinema. But when I started out, film was not considered a serious career option, so I studied journalism and began writing for Arab newspapers in London. Then I went to Cairo, the Hollywood of the Arab world, and got into film journalism. This gave me an in-depth understanding of the industry. At the time, the standard template for film distribution was a trailer, a poster and a film premiere. But it wasn’t working. People were not going to the cinema. It was clear there was a gap in the Arab film market and we had to develop a new approach and to start making films that Arab audiences could relate to. To do this we needed to better understand the Arab film market and Arab audiences. That was the only way we were going to develop a cinema culture in the region. That’s what prompted me to set up MAD Solutions with Maher Diab, who is now the company’s creative director.

What is MAD Solutions seeking to achieve?

We want to see the Arab film sector flourish and reach its full potential. We want to change perceptions about Arab cinema and to create the space for Arab films to be seen at home and internationally. We also want to encourage people to broaden their viewing habits and experiment with different genres of Arab films. But this is a big challenge because for many in the region, cinema remains a luxury and people are generally unwilling to explore arthouse films. But thankfully the landscape is changing. A few years ago it was rare for an Arab film to be released in the region, but last year we distributed 10 feature-length Arab films to Arab cinemas.

How does MAD Solutions stand apart from other film distributors in the region?

MAD Solutions is the first pan-Arab creative studio dedicated to the creation, promotion, marketing and distribution of quality Arab content to and from the Arab region. We bring all aspects of film marketing, promotion and distribution under one roof, and have a long-term vision for the sector’s development. This concept never existed in the Arab world before MAD Solutions. We work with all film genres – fiction, documentaries, features, shorts – but we only distribute Arab films (for now) in the Arab region. We have offices in Cairo and Abu Dhabi and work with filmmakers in most Arab countries. And sometimes we co-produce films – to secure distribution rights for the Arab region – but even here our focus is exclusively on marketing and promotion.

In its drive to transform cinema in the Arab region, MAD Solutions distributed an unprecedented 10 feature-length films to Arab cinemas in 2016 (photos: courtesy of MAD Solutions).

There are still so many unanswered questions about Arab Cinema, so we specialize in collecting industry data and in better understanding our target audiences. These data give us an accurate picture of the current state of the Arab film industry and its huge potential. For far too long, people have built film budgets around fake markets with no idea of the numbers. But if you are going to succeed in this business, attract investors, build credibility, and track progress, you need to understand the size of your market, and your target audience.

That’s why we have been pioneering new film release strategies, such as micro-releases supported by test screenings and social media to create a buzz around a film. This approach generates useful feedback that allows us to tailor our film promotion to target audiences for maximum impact at the box office. For example, we developed the promotional materials for the Oscar-nominated Jordanian film Theeb around feedback from cinemagoers at a test screening. Then when we launched it to Egyptian audiences we booked just two cinema screenings. The producers were uneasy about this at first, but it paid off. Those who saw the film talked about it with their friends and on social media, and generated a lot of interest in the film, which ended up staying in the cinema for seven weeks. This was exceptional as Arab cinemagoers generally favor Hollywood, Egyptian and Bollywood movies over other Arab content. Theeb has since gone on to be released in 11 countries across the region. With this approach we have won the trust of cinemas and audiences alike.

We are the only company in the region that is looking at the big picture and taking a long-term view on the development of the Arab film industry. We are working with producers and film festivals around the world to develop our vision. We strongly believe that we have to join forces if we are to strengthen the Arab film industry; that’s why MAD Solutions has been a driving force in setting up the Arab Cinema Center (ACC).

Naji Abu Nowar’s award-winning Theeb is set in the First World War
and recounts a Bedouin boy’s experiences in guiding a British soldier
across the desert to a secret destination (photo: courtesy of
MAD Solutions).

Tell us more about the Arab Cinema Center.

The Arab Cinema Center is a non-profit organization that Maher and I set up in 2015 to nurture and promote the Arab film industry and to connect Arab filmmakers with their counterparts and investors around the world. It brings together more than 30 partners from across the Arab cinema value chain. They are the sector’s best ambassadors so we give them a platform, at major film festivals, for example, to showcase and promote their work in international film markets. Through our work with the Center we are also seeking to attract new talent – Maher plays a key role here – and to encourage filmmakers to come up with fresh narratives and visual styles that do well both at home and abroad. 

With MAD Solutions the ACC has spearheaded various initiatives to put Arab cinema on the world map. We created the first ever English-speaking Arab Cinema Magazine, which highlights the quality and range of film content and talent in the region. We have also established the Annual Critics Awards, another first in the history of Arab cinema. Top international film critics identify the best Arab films and select nominees and winners for Best Film, Best Director, Best Writer, Best Actress and Best Actor. The Awards are yet another opportunity for us to highlight the depth and quality of Arab film talent. And we have launched the Arab Cinema Lab, a first-of-its-kind film financing incubator to accelerate new film projects and business ideas by bringing together a select group of filmmakers, creative producers, funders, distributors and broadcasters. The Lab is effectively laying the foundations for a more robust film investment culture in the region. The more we can draw investors to Arab filmmakers and their projects, the greater the chances of opening the door to new talent.

What are the main challenges you face as a film distributer?

In the film industry, for every success there is a disappointment so when things don’t work out as planned you always need a plan B to push a film to a buyer. Travelling to film festivals in all corners of the world sounds like fun, but it can be tough.

MAD Solutions has been pioneering new film release strategies to boost cinema audiences and stimulate interest in Arab cinema within the region (photo: courtesy of MAD Solutions).

Although the quality of Arab films is improving, getting Arab audiences to see quality Arab movies remains a big challenge. That is why our focus on better understanding Arab audiences is so important and why we are pushing for more effective film festivals in the region. But if we are to succeed in creating a sustainable Arab film industry, policymakers and regulators need to take the film industry more seriously and recognize its huge economic potential. If we don’t give more space to Arab films, the region’s film landscape will continue to be dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. Only by boosting the profile of Arab cinema and ensuring that a broader selection of high-quality films is available will we change perceptions about cinema and give it the space to flourish. 

Making a film that works for all Arab audiences and international cinemagoers is a big challenge. Although we share a common language, there are many dialects and many differences in humor, culture and tolerance.

But the biggest hurdle we face is in the area of film financing. Returns on Arab movies are not great. So making high-end movies that play well at home and abroad is not easy. That is why there is growing interest in co-productions. They offer a range of benefits in terms of improving film quality and box-office returns. The region needs a sustainable film financing and distribution system supported by an investor community that recognizes the talent base as one of the region’s great natural resources.

In 2015 Alaa Karkouti and Maher Diab set up the Arab Cinema Center to give Arab filmmakers a platform to showcase their talent and to connect them with producers and investors from around the globe. The Center recently launched its Annual Critics Award to highlight the depth and quality of Arab film talent (photo: courtesy of MAD Solutions).

And opportunities?

The upheavals and dramas witnessed across the Arab States in recent years have made people curious and whetted audience appetites for more stories from the region. Platforms like Netflix and Amazon, which are relative newcomers here, are also creating additional opportunities to promote Arab films. These days, audiences are actively looking for films from different parts of the world. This is very exciting. In the past, seeing an Arab film on cinema screens outside the region was exceptional, but that is no longer the case. 

What role does copyright play in your work and why is it important?

Copyright affects all aspects of our work. These rights ensure that all those involved in the process of making and distributing a film get a fair income. And the revenues they generate make it possible for filmmakers to reinvest in new film projects. Copyright really is central to the sustainability and growth of the film industry in the Arab region and beyond.

Scenes from Mahmoud Sabbagh’s first feature-length film, Barakah meets Barakah, screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016. The film offers a “fascinating glimpse of life in Saudi Arabia,” according to The Guardian newspaper (photo: courtesy of MAD Solutions).

Is piracy a problem in the region?

Piracy is a big problem and it can be difficult to get a buyer to pay a reasonable price for a film when a pirated version already exists online. But some countries are making significant progress. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, pirates now face huge fines and hefty prison sentences. However, we do need the support of policymakers to raise public awareness and build respect for IP rights across the region. Government really does have a key role to play in supporting the sustainability of the region’s film industry. The success of the French, German and Moroccan film industries demonstrates what can be achieved through effective government support.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers in the region?  

Today really is a golden age for filmmakers so if you have a passion for film go for it, but be patient and get used to disappointments. Keep learning all there is to know about the industry and you have a good chance of making it. There are no rules in art.

What is it about cinema that you like?

Cinema is a unique art form. It draws on all your senses and is really intense. As an emotional experience there is nothing like it. The good thing is there is still a lot of interest in cinema and with the emergence of new viewing platforms, its future prospects are very bright.

What are your favorite Arab films?

The Jordanian film Theeb and the Lebanese film Where Do We Go Now? are among my favorites.

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