This week saw a surprisingly low-key movie world premiere, with Disney’s National Treasure: Book of Secrets being released in the UAE even before its commercial release in the United States. Nor is this Nicholas Cage movie the first film to hit our screens before US audiences; Ocean’s 13, Spider-Man 3 and Transformers managed that feat earlier this year.
But while we celebrate the UAE’s global reputation as a potential money-making market with cinegoers, films like August Rush, Enchanted and even Death Sentence were first screened in US cinemas over a month ago, but they have yet to see light of day here.
“It’s a constant struggle between distributors and exhibitors to get a film released here within a two-week period of its global release. The major problem is that the limited number of screens in this country only facilitates five to six films releasing every week. And smaller budget films tend to take a backseat,” says John Chahine, General Manager of Italia Films Dubai.
His firm is the sole distributor of National Treasure: Book of Secrets in the region and releases more than 200 films annually. But he had to obtain special permission from producers Disney to release the film two days early to coincide with Eid Al Adha. But the same reason doesn’t apply in other cases.
Choosing a UAE release date for a Hollywood and Bollywood film is a joint exercise that distributors and exhibitors participate in every week, says Ahmad Golchin, co-partner of Gulf Films and owner and CEO of Phars Film. “We have a group of exhibitors representing Gulf Films and Cinestar Cinemas who analyse the potential commercial success of a film before it hits the theatre screens,” he explains.
“Audience tastes take precedence, and the genres that are most successful here include dramas, action and horror films. This is why Titanic, Spider-Man 3 and King Kong have been the most successful grossing films in the country to date.”
While this may be a case of power to the people, Golchin is quick to point out that priority is still given to the top five Hollywood studios. Second priority is then given to Indian films, which are released a day before their commercial release in India, says Chahine. Mahi Golchin-Depala, Managing Director of Phars Film, which distributes and exhibits Bollywood and other foreign language movies in the Gulf, says the primary reason for an early release of Asian films is to combat piracy in the region.
“Earlier, when India released Bollywood films on Friday, Pakistan would release pirated copies of the film by Saturday,” she says. “Over the years, we took advantage of Thursday weekends in the UAE and asked Indian distributors to release films here first and then commercially distribute them in India. “With this move, we are saving up to 15 per cent of lost revenue to pirated DVD copies before the release of the film in local cinemas.” Plus, the popularity of Bollywood films in the UAE has ensured that two screens in Al Ghurair’s Grand Cinecity, one screen in Grand Cineplex and three screens in Ibn Battuta’s Grand Megaplex are exclusive to them.
While this is good news for the large South Asian demographic, such exclusivity further limits the number of screens available for Independent films, says Talaat Captan, Vice-President of Prime Pictures UAE.
“Independent films don’t generate much revenue at the box office, so they are always the last to make it to the big screens here. But that decision is also fuelled by the fact that studios release only a limited number of prints of such indie films and once those films have completed their run in the US, those same prints are then cleaned and sent over to the UAE.
“This further delays the release-date of many such films, like The Guide to Recognising Your Saints,” he tells Emirates Business. Many of these only see the screen in Ramadan, traditionally a lean period for big-budget cinema releases in the UAE.
The award-winning Goodbye Bafana is the perfect example of this, making it to our screens last Ramadan, nearly a year after its international release. So will extra cinema screens around the country ensure a smaller gap between the US and UAE releases of a film?
Captan says while more screens will help, the problem is that existing venues such as Cinestar, Deira City Centre and Grand Cineplex also need more screens.
“We never have a problem with Ibn Battuta, as it has 21 screens. But the others can only show five to six new films, because the smaller screens are showcasing films running into their second and third weeks.
“But one does hope Cathy Cinemas, the third exhibitor to enter the UAE market early next year, and a fourth one later in 2008 will tackle this problem and ensure that audiences in the UAE manage to watch big films the same time the US does.”
Titanic, Empire Intl
Spider-Man 3, Empire Intl
King Kong, Universal Pics
Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Italia Films
Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Italia Films