Mad Solutions to promote arthouse cinema in the Arab world. Interview with Alaa Karkouti

by Isabella Weber


Venturing beyond European borders, Europa Distribution is expanding its focus  on local independent film distribution to take you, thanks to the help of our member MAD Solutions, on a journey to the Arab countries.


MAD: One company, five branches, one hundred projects


MAD Solutions was founded in 2010 as a distribution company devoted to arthouse cinema and based in Cairo. At the time, Arab cinema was booming and in a few months it became clear to the co-founders of MAD Alaa Karkouti (CEO of the company) and Maher Diab (Managing Partner and Creative Director) that too many links were missing in the local film industry for them be able to “only” distribute films.

As a result, they decided to enlarge their mission’ scope by creating four additional “arms” to the company. MAD Distribution, that acted both as Sales at International level and as theatrical distribution locally, expanded to different fields. Consequently, MAD Marketing was born. With it came MAD Celebrity, a programme dedicated to promote Arab talents, from actors to producers, to directors, to screenwriters and to film critics. Another addition was made: MAD Culture, acting as consultant for film programmes which works with Universities and Film Festivals. Finally MAD Content was created to provide editorial content and sometimes venture into production.

Adding to these recent changes, MAD also created the Arab Cinema Center, in 2015.  Based in Amsterdam, the purpose of this non-profit organization was to fill the institutional gap left open by the lack of government initiatives regarding the promotion of Arab cinema culture internationally. Among its initiatives, the Center co-established along with several partners the Latin Arab Co-Prodution Forum and it created the annual Critics Awards for Arab films, gathering for its third edition in 2018 a jury composed of 76 international film critics coming from 34 countries.

“With the kind of films we are working with you cannot only rely on one factor and diversification helped us to maintain a financial stability over the years.” Today, Karkouti’s company counts 50 employees, 7 of whom are exclusively engaged in sales and distribution. They handle the release of arthouse titles whether they be Arab, European or International. They release films in the 14 Arab countries where it is possible to do so, namely: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Tunisia and UAE.



Every territory with its challenges


“In some territories, like Sudan, we can only release a couple of films per year because there are no real cinema theatres but we conceive long-term projects: in these territories we are creating a cinema culture and an industry where there was none. In every territory we work in we try to establish a close relationship with the cinema theatres – mainly multiplexes – to gain their trust in order to have screens for our films because arthouse cinema does not have a tradition.” 

MAD tries to familiarise Arab audience with arthouse cinema, working also with short films, to create programmes of shorts connected with a theme. It as was the case of “Shorts competing for the Oscars” and “Shorts starring famous Arab celebrities”; both programmes worked well enough to be screened several times by cinemas in five territories.“The goal is to get some visibility for these titles so that it becomes normal for people to hear about arthouse titles, even if they do not yet go and watch them. That is why this year we had six Arab celebrities announcing the nominees for the different categories of Arab Critics Awards.” 

One the biggest challenges Arab film industry faces today is censorship.  A number of films that MAD handles are indeed banned from a significant number of Arab territories.  Censorship level changes from one country to another and despite government’s decision to cancel the Dubai IFF, the Emirates remain the Arab country where censorship is the least heavy. Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt on the other hand have audiences that are more open towards less mainstream alternatives but governments pose harder problems with censorship.

Piracy is also a significant issue for the Arab film industry: pirated DVDs of popular films just released can be found in markets everywhere. Although this regards mainly mainstream titles, it can occasionally also effect arthouse films that, for different reasons, echoed with the audience such as MAD titles Clash and Theeb.



What films, when, and for whom?


Besides buying catalogue films for sales and cultural events, MAD acquires an average of 30 to 40 new titles per year, including feature fiction (15 to 20), documentaries (5 to 8) and shorts (10 to 15). The company manages to release most of these titles in 4 or 5 Arab countries but sometimes the numbers rise. It was the case of the Jordan film Theeb, nominated at the Oscars as Best Foreign Language Film in 2016, which was released in 12 Arab countries. In Jordan, the film was programmed in two cinema theatres for 7 weeks, a success even for blockbusters.  European films still do not have a market but MAD is working on a long-term strategy to develop an audience who will be more open to them. An advantage could be that cinema audience is used to subtitles because even films in Arabic get subtitled in Modern Standard Arabic due to the regional accent differences. To further enhance their circulation, MAD subtitles all its films in both Arabic and English (or for some territories like Algeria, in Arabic and French).

Today the age range of MAD’s audience is very mixed, including older cinephiles but also a younger generation. In terms of gender there is a clear trend towards women, who seem more open to try arthouse films.

Despite the lack of regulations on media chronology, most players, including MAD Solutions, tend to follow a rather “classical” window system. They go theatrical first and open after three months to Pay TVs, airlines, VOD and SVOD. Like in many European territories, TVs are no longer buying many quality films.

“What makes us competitive in the market is being a one-stop shop where everything is done internally: graphic, editing, content, marketing, subtitles… Many of our activities do not have an immediate financial return but we can compensate by differentiating and we feel it is a moral duty to help quality cinema circulating and looking at the bigger picture.”

Independent films’ distribution in Arab countries certainly faces strong challenges in social, cultural and political terms, but the passionate engagement of new players such as MAD Solutions is the proof that things are beginning to move in a new direction.