The Globalization of the Film Industry

How Oriental Films Make It to Europe

Films from the Islamic world are poorly represented on European film markets - Ludwig Ammann explains why. Contrary to general opinion, it is not prejudices but commercial reasons that are primarily responsible for confining Oriental film to a niche market

​​Great cinema tells stories that captivate the whole world. But who makes these films? Whose are the stories that capture our hearts from Sao Paolo to Jakarta? Europe, that trembles in the face of Polish workmen and Indian computer programmers?

More than 750 films were made on this little continent last year, more than in the USA – supported by fat subsidies provided with the intention of protecting European cultural assets. The only problem is that even here in their home region hardly anyone has seen these films.

Out of one billion EU cinema-goers 70% preferred US American movies, 20% saw films made by their respective nations, and only 10% watched films from other European countries. Not to mention films from other parts of the world: you'd need a magnifying glass to look for films from Arab countries, and a microscope for films from sub-Saharan Africa! Why is this?

The distributor's task

Film is a gamble, with five- to seven-figure stakes for the distributor alone. In other words, people become distributors out of sheer recklessness. Then they carry on being distributors in order to make back what they've lost – and become addicted, like every other gambler.

Other people bet on companies. We bet on films. This is more seductive than studying the balance sheets of listed companies on the stock exchange. The problem is that the public, unfortunately, does not necessarily share our erotic preferences – and the choice rests with them…

Be that as it may, one day Michael Isele and I recklessly founded KOOL Filmdistribution GbR. Our motto: 'Distributor for unusual films. Committed and aesthetic.' And committed ourselves to "Destiny" by Youssef Chahine, a film with an educational message about the heyday of Arab culture in Andalusia and the fight against religious fanaticism.

German feature writers were charmed. All of them wanted to interview Chahine. We basked in his glory. And deemed 15,000 cinemagoers with three copies a success.

Success? The distributor's customary 40% of the cinema takings may have covered our costs, but it didn't come close to paying for the weeks of work we had put in! Lesson one: There are feature writer films and there are audience films. Both together constitutes the jackpot – and it's a rarity.

Fifteen thousand cinemagoers, at any rate, is not an audience you can live from. Unless, that is, you've received sponsorship funding. Which we hadn't: the jury responsible had never heard of the most famous director in the Arab world and had callously rejected our sponsorship application!

Capricious audience

Lesson two: There are films that neither the feature writers nor the public like. These are the majority, and they will break your neck! Cinema maths is basically very simple.

Here it is: cinema costs a fortune – a Hollywood blockbuster can cost up to 175 million US dollars! – and this it has to make back, at the box office, with DVDs and through sales to TV channels worldwide, at a level of return that will also help finance the unavoidable flops. Otherwise the producers, distributors and cinemas will sooner or later all be broke.

At the box office a new film has precisely four days in which to prove itself, because the Monday after the first weekend is the day of reckoning: the cinema operators check which title has sold how many tickets. The top titles get an extended run, the flops are pulled.

The predatory competition is merciless; week after week a dozen new films are out there waiting for their chance, and if you've only got one or two screens to fill you're going to have to turn most of them down anyway…

Lesson three: There are commodities for the multiplex and commodities for repertory cinemas, i.e. art house. These are not only worlds apart in aesthetic terms – what makes the difference are the zeros on the minimum up-front guarantee (50,000 or 500,000 euros!). There's no need for KOOL to view titles with potential audience figures in the millions; we wouldn't have the money for them.

The Parisian world distributor charged nothing for supplying "Destiny" – we only had to split the profits after subtracting our initial costs. In other words, the seller did not believe it would be a commercial success – and was proved right, at our expense! Because he values Chahine and Egypt so highly he has invited us every summer since then to a fantastic breakfast in Locarno…

Turkish popcorn cinema

So are films from the Islamic world condemned to be seen only in their home country? Far from it! Depending on their respective origins and styles, they are certainly also screened, and are successful, in Germany.

Even in CinemaxX multiplexes! Not Arabic art house films, of course; due to the lack of cinephile middle classes in the Arab world there is scarcely an audience for these there either. But Turkish blockbusters like "Hababam Sinifi" ["The Chaotic Class"] have long been hits in German cities too with a high immigrant population.

The German-Turkish distributor Maxximum, founded by a CinemaxX project developer, places them - with German subtitles for Turks whose Turkish is rusty! – in the multiplexes, where they bring in sensational takings on the opening weekend – more than 2,000 tickets per copy! Up to 400,000 cinemagoers in no time: breathtaking box office returns for a niche market of only 2.4 million German Turks!

Global cinema products from the major American studios reach five of the eighty million Germans with Julia Roberts' 20 million dollar smile. That’s only a fraction of the money they need to score a success – because the studios are constantly stealing each others' share of the market by flooding it with too many titles.

Let's not raise any false hopes here: we are talking about Turkish popcorn cinema. Of course Turkish art house films do exist, though they are few and far between owing to the lack of sponsorship.

A minimalist masterpiece like "Uzak" ["Distant"] by Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the rightful winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2003. The film did better in France than in Turkey – and in Germany, despite excellent reviews, it did worse than "Destiny"! Lesson four: Minimalism is box office poison. Press work pays off with films like this, but the audiences still don't come.

The success of the Iranian cinema

Nonetheless, there are art house films from the Middle East that find an enthusiastic audience in Europe both at festivals and on the ordinary cinema circuit. Most of them carry as their stamp of origin MADE IN IRAN. Why?

In 2001 we fielded an Egyptian and an Iranian, "El Medina" by Yousry Nasrallah, and "Zamani Baravé Masti Asbha" ["A Time for Drunken Horses"] by Bahman Ghobadi. Both of them first class films that had won many prizes. But what a difference in their reception!

The media positively hurled themselves at Ghobadi, although the man spoke not a word of either German or English. Only true connoisseurs wanted to talk to Yousry Nasrallah – although he speaks fluent German, English and French.

And the public! At the premieres of "El Medina" the cinemas were only half full, despite the presence of the director: he asked worriedly whether we would manage to make ends meet. He was right to be worried…

By contrast, audiences flocked to see "A Time for Drunken Horses", the story of orphan children in a mountain village and their fight for survival. More than 50,000 cinemagoers – and it would have been more, if we had launched the film with a greater number of copies! Where did the difference lie?

Recipes for success

Firstly: Iranian cinema is not just good – others are good, too – but has established for itself an unmistakable label by virtue of its superindividual clan aesthetic.

MADE IN IRAN stands for ascetic, semi-documentary cinema that is also profound and rich in imagery, just as MADE IN HOLLYWOOD stands for action, big bangs and big stars. As a result, critics and fans both here and there expect more of the same.

That works because Iranians themselves enjoy going to the cinema, and after the revolution the film industry reached new heights with the help of state funding. This is something the once-proud and now washed-up Egyptian film industry can only dream of – and a single, determinedly individual swallow like Yousry Nasrallah still doesn't make a summer.

Secondly: it is not easy for local-language cinema to conquer a niche on the global film market. The Danes have managed it with quality and their brilliant Dogma PR campaign, the Iranians with quality and… children.

It is embedded in the basic human genetic material that wide-eyed children overcome all racial and class divisions. The canny Iranians have boosted exports with hundreds of these wide eyes and turned the 'children's movie for adults' into a label.

Wide eyes alone are, of course, no guarantee of success. The Australian hit "Rabbit Proof Fence", about two Aboriginal girls on the run, made it in Germany (under the title "Long Walk Home"). The Moroccan hit "Ali Zaoua" – yes indeed, a hit! seen by an incredible 500,000 cinemagoers in Morocco! – a pessimistic ballad about street kids by Nabil Ayouch, unfortunately didn't.

Thirdly, once again it is demographics that decide whether a film will be a success or a failure – the demographics of immigrants. Iranians of the educated classes who fled the revolution love their art house films in Germany too.

The predominantly poorly educated audience of Arab exiles would be better catered to with folkloristic popcorn cinema. On more than one occasion this audience reproached our directors, who had been specially flown in for the occasion - the love story was too explicit, the music too Western, and so on… peasants who dream of their homeland and don't realise that this too has changed.


And the German art house audience? Yes, it does indeed have exoticist expectations of the cinema of the Orient. And anyone who wants to succeed abroad would do well not to disappoint them. It is possible to satisfy this yearning so subtly that the story is not compromised by it. The Iranians do it with magnificent landscapes.

Wong Kar-Wai does it with nostalgic stories set against a late-colonial 1960s Hong Kong backdrop – with the aesthetic of the next millennium. Design products like "Keid Ensa" ["Women's Wiles"], a feminist 'World-of-Interiors-In-Morocco' soufflé, are less pleasing.

That this fairytale Orient, of all things, was better received in Germany than stories set in the real world of Casablanca or Cairo – that hurts.

But the audiences provide the takings – and anyone who radically refuses to accept this will suffer as a result: he will be left with no money to carry on distributing films.

In other respects Iranian cinema is simply lucky. It is the self-contemplation of a dynamic post-revolutionary society – which is something that is also in demand abroad. The world wants to know what life is like beneath state-prescribed veils.

It is of course a great shame that stories from Iran, Turkey, Morocco and Palestine market themselves best as sociocritical documents, providing answers to the questions - always the same ones - that the West asks of the Islamic world: as if these people were only worth talking about in contexts compatible with a news broadcast or a talk show.

Of course, in the drama of the lonely metropolitan intellectual in "Distant" we are supposed to be interested in him as an individual, not as an example of Turkey's modernity and therefore its eligibility as a candidate country to join the European Union.

But the world isn't like that. Europeans like to hear about love from Julia Roberts' smiling mouth, and about love in Cairo from people in Oriental costume.

The required emphasis on the exotic is probably important in a market flooded with interchangeable products. Good marketing makes use of that, a shrewd journalist emphasises this aspect, and already the public’s attention is secured.

Will we in future still have to use a magnifying glass when looking for films from the Arab world? That could change as early as next year. "Faites vos jeux" - better luck next time… And who are 'we'? Arab cinema has been well-received in France for some time now – because that is Europe's best market for international art house films, and the country with the largest Arab population.

For that reason, Arab producers with export ambitions tailor their product for this market right from the start, e.g. with a French co-producer and a storyline that takes the protagonists to France – as Yousry Nasrallah did in "El Medina": the Egyptian hero goes to Paris to realise his dreams of the theatre.

Thus a third of the film is written by Claire Denis and set in Paris; thus it also features stars of French 'Cinema Beur', like Roshdy Zem. With the result that the film did well in France - unlike in Germany!

And what does 'from the Arab world' mean? Can these also be films with Arab themes, regardless of who made them? In that case the tide has already turned.

In early May the crusader epic "Kingdom of Heaven", about Arab Muslims and European Christians in Jerusalem, a US-UK-SP-D co-production filmed in Morocco and Spain with British leads and a British director, stormed the top of the charts in 100 countries – and did better outside America than in the US!

That too is global cinema. And when it once again becomes possible to make money with local films in the Arab world itself, when people there start going to the cinema again to see really good films, and when films are not always produced just for television, then the Arab world too will one day tell us its stories itself!

Ludwig Ammann

© Goethe Institute 2006

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