According to Media Industries in the Middle East 2016 report by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q), in partnership with the Doha Film Institute (DFI), Qatar leads in the region as the major Pan-Arab funding organisation available for feature narrative films. The country funded an average of 43 films per year during 2011—2015, followed by UAE with an annual average of 34.
Doha Film Institute began accepting applications for film grants in 2011, and by 2012 had become one of the major granting organizations in the region in terms of total grants awarded. Because it is one of the few granting organizations in the region that accepts applications from and awards films from outside its own national borders, it quickly became known to filmmakers around the region and the world seeking to fund their projects independently. With so few organisations in the region to turn to, many filmmakers apply to all of them. Thus, DFI has received thousands of applications, including the majority of independent films that have been made in the region in recent years.
Compared to mainstream cinema films, independent films are around four times more likely to name more than one country of production. This tendency toward multi-national production could reflect the necessities of fundraising, a cosmopolitan background of independent filmmakers (over a quarter of directors are expats – those living in a country other than that of their nationality). Organisations in Qatar and France fund films that are often shot in countries other than their own – one reason why they top the list of countries engaged in multi-national productions.
The region-wide study points to a general expansion of channels and offerings across all sectors, including broadcast, print, and digital media. The new content also tends to represent a wider variety, created by a broader diversity of content producers.
Previous research had suggested that regional audiences are both hungry for content reflecting their own culture and are generally open to media from other parts of the world; however, they had been limited by the mass-market options available to them. The recent expansion of channels and offerings is obviously diminishing the disconnect between what audiences in the Middle East want and the media they can access.
NU-Q and DFI initiated the project last spring, leveraging the access to unique data, contacts, and experience at the two organisations. Project authors, NU-Q’s Klaus Schoenbach and Robb Wood, supported by recent NU-Q alum Marium Saeed, assembled a wide-ranging team of contributors from Northwestern faculty, Doha Film Institute staff, and ten contributing “expert commentators” from across the region and world. A team from Monitor Deloitte, known for its expertise and extensive contacts in the media sector, was brought on board the project to collect and assess industry data as well as gather information from a program of nearly 100 interviews with industry insiders. The Monitor Deloitte team also contributed to insights and analysis.
Some highlights of the findings:
Analysis of previously unreleased data compiled by the Doha Film Institute reveals a robust independent film scene in the Arab World, which reflects far greater diversity than the relatively homogeneous mainstream cinema that has been the custom in the Middle East:
- Independent films are twice as likely to have female directors and originate in a far wider range of countries than their mainstream cinema counterparts.
- Egypt is not only home to “commercial” mainstream films. Egyptians are also the most common nationality overall among writers, directors, and producers of independent film.
- France plays a central role in independent Arab film – far more than any other country outside the region.
- The most common nationality of writers and directors of higher-budget independent films is Lebanese.
- Release of advertising market estimates based on newly updated industry data show the regional market holding steady through the recent years of social turmoil, with a total value in 2015 of just over USD5.5 billion. UAE edged out Saudi Arabia as the largest national advertising market, at USD632 million (excluding Pan-Arab revenues).
- Gains in television and digital advertising have largely made up for losses in newspapers and magazines.
Has the Arab world skipped the website age and gone social? Compared to the total population of Arabic speakers, there is a disproportionately low number of Arabic language websites, but a disproportionately high number of the world’s top Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels in Arabic.
According to extensive industry interviews, digital advertising is more common in the region than reported by major tracking agencies, but is still a small portion of total advertising revenues compared to many other parts of the world.
There was a sharp rise in the number of TV channels available in the region in the years after 2012, while advertising revenues have remained relatively flat.
More non-scripted shows are appearing on the major channel lineups, and more of those are made in Arab countries.
The number of religious free-to-air television channels grew by fifty percent in the three years between 2011 and 2014, at the same rate as free-to-air channels overall.
While the majority of religious channels in the region remain Sunni-affiliated, Shia and Christian channels have more than doubled since 2011.
Newspapers still claim a substantial share of overall ad spend in national markets, benefitting from their well-defined national distribution areas.
90 percent of the revenue of MENA magazines comes from ads. As a point of comparison, in the U.S. that number is closer to one-third.
The music industry is grappling not only with challenges common worldwide, but also struggling to develop viable online options due to rampant piracy, low credit card penetration, and a limited performance rights tracking infrastructure.
Radio still claims only around three percent of total advertising revenues in MENA, considerably lower than in other parts of the world. But, compared to other world regions, where radio’s share of ad revenues has decreased somewhat since 2010, it has remained relatively stable or even increased slightly in the MENA countries.