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Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re talking to Gianluca Chakra, founder and managing director of pan-Arab distribution outfit Front Row Filmed Entertainment. The company, which was founded from humble beginnings in 2003, is now one of the most prominent companies in the Middle East and recently launched its first production with Netflix, Perfect Strangers.

It’s been an auspicious start to the year for Gianluca Chakra’s pan-Arab outfit Front Row Filmed Entertainment. The company, which has long been at the forefront of distributing top-shelf independent cinema to the Middle East region, kicked off 2022 with its first production Perfect Strangers, the latest international remake of 2016 Italian hit Perfetti Sconosciuti. Netflix boarded the project last year after signing a first-look deal with Front Row, marking the streamer’s first Arabic original feature.

“I remember watching the original in Italy and I was amazed by how many people were fighting when they came out of the cinema,” recalls Dubai-based Chakra. “All of these couples came out of the film and were at each other’s throats, and I thought it was insane. I immediately thought someone should remake this.”

The premise of the comedy-drama follows seven long-time friends who play a game over dinner by putting their cell phones on the table and revealing every text message or phone call they receive in the evening. It’s since spawned 18 international versions, making it one of the most remade films of all time.

For Chakra, it was the ideal launching pad into the production fray and the film’s structure offered up a perfect opportunity to pool together some of the region’s best talent in one film. He reached out to Mario Jr. Haddad of Beirut-based Empire Entertainment as well as Cairo-based Film Clinic and began assembling “a team of like-minded people” to piece together this ambitious pan-Arab project.

Directed by Wissam Smayra, who co-writes with Gabriel Yammine, Chakra’s version of the film stars Capernaum writer-director Nadine Labaki and Egyptian star Mona Zaki and, in keeping with many of the other international versions, various secrets and scandals come to light throughout the story. There’s a gay character and a scene where Zaki removes her underwear (although there is no nudity at all in the film), parts of the film that would undoubtedly become talking points in some conservative Middle East countries. Recently, films like West Side Story and Eternals were banned in some cinemas in the region due to their inclusion of LGBTQ characters. Netflix, of course, doesn’t need to go through those regional censors as a streamer.

Soon after it premiered on Netflix on January 20, Perfect Strangers topped the platform’s most-viewed charts in many countries throughout the region including Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and more but with that it sparked a wave of controversy, particularly in Egypt, where it saw one member of parliament demand to ban Netflix entirely and Egyptian lawyer Ayman Mahfouz claiming the film was a “plot to disrupt Arab society.” Encouragingly, the movie has received loud applause across the region with many people praising the storyline and calling for Arab cinema to be more relatable, particularly to the LGBTQ community and even the Egyptian Actors’ Syndicate released an official statement in support of Zaki. While Chakra is keeping mum about the controversy, he says that one thing Front Row has always done and will continue to do is “push the envelope.” “I think it’s essential to do that,” he says.

Encouragingly, the movie has received loud applause across the region with many people praising the storyline and calling for Arab cinema to be more relatable, particularly to the LGBTQ community and even the Egyptian Actors’ Syndicate released an official statement in support of Zaki.

While Chakra is keeping mum about the controversy, he says that one thing Front Row has always done and will continue to do is “push the envelope.”

“I think it’s essential to do that,” he says.

Indeed, Chakra has had a pattern of spotting opportunities in places others have overlooked. Raised in Rome, Chakra’s love for cinema was sparked by his father, the late film industry veteran Michel Chakra.

“I remember as a kid I would wait for him to come back from Cannes with all of these promos and trailers on VHS and I’d spend hours in front of the TV with him going, ‘why don’t you buy this one and why don’t you buy that one,’” recalls Chakra.

After a stint working with his father, Chakra moved to Beirut to finish college and there he ended up working for a rival company called Prime Pictures, where he handled acquisitions for the MENA region on titles such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Billy Elliot. He spent three years there and helped the company open its first office in Dubai.

But, getting restless, he decided to go back to Rome where he had a stint as a programming executive at the MedFilm Festival, the country’s only festival dedicated to the promotion of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and European Cinema.

“I was the guy who spoke English so it was pretty easy to program films but I just couldn’t live off of the wages they were paying me,” he says. “With most of my friends moving back to Dubai at the time, I thought to myself, ‘there’s a gap in the Dubai market – let’s give it a shot.”

He moved back to Lebanon, “sold the car, sold the TV, sold everything and came to Dubai with a capital of $14,000, and it kind of all got started like that.”

Front Row Filmed Entertainment was established in 2003 under the aegis of his father, and in less than three years, it established itself as one of the leading independent film distributors in the Middle East, bringing titles like Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine and Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday to an audience that had mainly been served big, tentpole titles. DVD was booming and Chakra, who always kept home entertainment rights when competitors didn’t, aimed for success in this burgeoning home entertainment sector.

“I didn’t have much competition when it came to acquiring films that I personally liked,” he says. “I always thought that the gap was in the City Of Gods and the Bloody Sundays as there was nobody that distributed those films in the region.”

He adds, “All of the competition out here at the time had this mentality that ‘chicks with guns’ was the kind of stuff that worked. I had this conviction that the DVD audience was different and a bit more sophisticated.”

Front Row’s breakout success came with the release of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which was the first documentary to ever be released theatrically in the Middle East. Despite considerable initial resistance from local exhibitors, the title broke into the top 20 list of 2004. That same year, the company serviced Warner Bros’s titles in the Gulf Region for three years, releasing films such as the Harry Potter franchise, Superman Returns and Syriana.

Chakra tapped into innovative marketing strategies to attract local audiences to titles, something his competitors had yet to exploit. For instance, with Superman Returns, the company cinched a deal with United Arab Emirates newspaper Gulf News to do a promotional Daily Record edition to promote the newest Superman title.

“It was so much fun, and I loved it,” recalls Chakra. “There had been a lot of ignorance at the time of how to find your audience. People would literally turn up to the cinema and at look at the best poster and that’s how they would choose their films. I realized that this is not the way things had to work.”

In 2005, Front Row struck a long-term strategic alliance and partnership with Kuwait National Cinema Company, which controls 94% of the screens in Kuwait. “That really opened us up to the Kuwaiti market, which was growing at the time, and then slowly we started to get more theatrical releases. Obviously the backbone was still DVD at the time, but that’s how we built the Front Row name.”

Today, the company employs 21 people, (42 if you include its Reel Image Middle East digital and post-production lab that it founded in 2013 with Reel Image Media Technologies, KWNCC and Dubai’s Golden Cinemas) and it acquires 90 to 120 titles per year.

It operates throughout the entire MENA region, with a particularly strong presence in the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the latter through its joint venture with Muvi Cinemas (more on that later) . It’s been a pioneer in digital distribution in the area, being one of the first distributors to do premium VOD releases. Additionally, the company has inked exclusive aggregation agreements with iTunes, GooglePlay and YouTube and was one of the first companies to work with Netflix in the region when it scored a significant, worldwide deal for Lebanese black comedy Very Big Shot in 2016.

“With Very Big Shot, we took it on for worldwide sales, which we had never done before and we knew that Netflix was up and coming internationally,” says Chakra. “I kept pushing them, telling them this was a good film for them to start with. I was embarrassingly persistent. But eventually we signed a deal, and it became the first Arab film to hit Netflix.”

Front Row is continuing to break down doors as it makes inroads into the burgeoning Saudi Arabian market. Last year, it launched distribution label Front Row Arabia in partnership with the country’s local exhibitor Muvi Cinemas. The aim is to bring indie and genre titles to the territory, a country which only lifted its 35-year-old religion-related ban on cinema in 2017.

The label kicked off with the release of action thriller The Marksman last January and has released around 40 titles since then.

“Saudi Arabia is a market that needs to grow,” says Chakra. “It’s a market that wants to be discovered so there are going to be a lot of opportunities. Unlike the UAE, where there is no real core audience as just 12% are locals and there’s a large portion of Western expats and Asians, Saudi, like Kuwait, has a base majority of locals. So that’s where you can build. Yes, you’re always going to have an audience for blockbusters but at the same time you could have an audience for arthouse cinema.”

He adds, “What’s beyond valuable, and what translates throughout all of the Middle East, is Arab cinema, local cinema. 60% of the population don’t speak English so to them, Arab cinema is a must.”

In response to this, Front Row will continue to ramp up its local production ambitions. A few years ago, Front Row and KNCC joined forces with London-based sales and financing outfit Rocket Science to launch Dubai-based film and TV company Yalla Yalla, aimed at making shows and features for the Arab-language market. Last year, it formed a partnership with Beirut-based outfit Operation Unicorn in another move to boost its output of local language content.

Through Yalla Yalla and OU, there’s a slew of projects in development including comedy series From The Bathroom, couples’ dramedy Heads Or Tails and a docu series that will be unveiled next year. They have also teamed on an Arabic remake of French hit Intouchables, which is eyeing a shoot date this year.

Will Front Row be one of the catalysts for a new wave of Arabic content that breaks down old patterns and conservative norms?

“I hope so, I honestly hope so,” says Chakra. “The Middle East is where shit is really going to hit the fan. Quite a bit. And I really think it’s needed because, in my opinion, there’s nothing that really stands out or is moving the needle yet. We need to help move the needle.”

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