Alain Saadeh, the lead actor in Film Kteer Kbeer (Very Big Shot), shocked audiences at a domestic awards show on May 28 when he refused the Murex d’Or award. Speaking on behalf of the director and production crew of his film, Saadeh pronounced the Lebanese award show, which recognizes regional players in a variety of entertainment categories, corrupt and did not want any part of it.
Executive cannot ascertain whether Saadeh and his crew were right in their accusation or not, but the refusal shows two things. One, the Lebanese movie industry is on a path of expressing greater self-confidence and sensitivity to the quality of the recognition that is offered to them. Two, the growth of this industry is accompanied by growing pains.
As Executive did its inaugural investigation of the cinema industry in Lebanon, we found an industry at a crossroads. Things are starting to look up in terms of volume and financing possibilities, though the future would be much brighter if more regional grants and government funding were available (see finance story).
The industry, however, must get its house in order at the levels of labor and distribution and in boosting the quality of production. Film crews often work for little or almost no remuneration and the vast majority of Lebanese productions struggle to be seen; often the best chance for visibility comes if they are selected to be screened at an international film festival (see Cannes story). On the other end of the spectrum are the hypersexualized, cheap comedies that are snubbed by other filmmakers and yet manage to attract a considerable local audience, partly due to their extended theater runs.
In order to bridge this gap, the industry needs to feed itself: a percentage of profits earned at the box office should be reinvested back into the sector to develop talent and fund more projects. Investment into the production value chain such as scriptwriting would lead to higher quality Lebanese stories that would be made into movies with both commercial and artistic sides in mind. In turn, distributors would invest in the marketing of these films which would lead to greater box office results. The end result is that exhibitors would keep the films on their screens a couple of weeks longer.
In a nutshell, what is needed to push the whole industry forward is a collective film fund, something that has worked remarkably well in France. The country has a tax of 10.72 percent on theater admissions that goes directly to a common pot managed by the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC), a financially independent entity under the culture ministry.
Further down the road, once a certain volume of quality feature films has been reached, setting a quota in theaters for domestic films is another way to build up the industry. The Arab Media Outlook 2011-2015 reported that a reduction of the domestic quota in South Korea led to a 9 percent decrease in feature films in the same year.
When it comes to distribution, Lebanese films also need to capitalize on the rising trend of digital viewing in the region (see VOD story) and thus expand beyond its small local market. Cinema is a nation’s history, culture and a part of its identity, and therefore it is worth fighting for.