Earlier this year, Dubai International Film Festival (Diff) announced that after 14 years of operation, it would switch from an annual event to one that happens once every two years. Several core staff members were let go. Cinephiles and filmmakers questioned what this meant for the entertainment industry. What was next? Who could content creators turn to?
Five months later, former managing director of Diff Shivani Pandya Malhotra and Emirati content creator Mohammad Saeed Harib have come up with some answers.
The two have joined forces to launch NearEast Entertainment, a strategic marketing and consultancy enterprise offering a plethora of services to cinema, TV, music, arts and live event initiatives. Headquartered in Al Serkal Avenue, a creative hub in Dubai, the company’s vision includes taking local content global, and bringing global content to the region.
“I think it was something that none of us were really aware of earlier... It was a surprise,” Malhotra told Gulf News tabloid!, of Diff’s restructuring in April.
“This region’s becoming really important for the industry, and for people launching films. The UAE is the biggest market in the region, and I think a lot can be done,” she said.
“[NearEast] totally developed in the past five months. What we saw was that there was a need and opportunity, and that’s how we came together.”
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER
Prior to launching NearEast, Harib and Malhotra’s connection went back 16 years. They met in 2002, a year after Dubai Media City (DMC) launched with the aim of becoming the city’s leading media hub.
Harib had just joined as a marketing executive. “Somebody who had a few dreams but nothing to do,” he recalled, with a laugh. Meanwhile, Malhotra was responsible for the broadcasting department as the broadcast manager.
This region’s becoming really important for the industry, and for people launching films. The UAE is the biggest market in the region, and I think a lot can be done.”
- SHIVANI PANDYA MALHOTRA
“There was no film festival back then. There was nothing really of importance to me or her,” said Harib.
He had been bouncing around the idea to launch his now groundbreaking Emirati animation, Freej, when Malhotra, a former employee of United Television (UTV), a mass media conglomerate in India, suggested something.
“She said, ‘Mohammad, if you want to do this project, why don’t you explore producing it in India?’ I remember travelling with her for the first time to do a recce visit to India and to meet the studio heads. Shivani played a huge role in defining the Freej production and working on the business plan,” Harib said.
Fast forward to 2004, when the pair helped launch the first edition of Diff. Harib created the festival’s logo and went on to direct several Diff opening ceremonies. Malhotra became the festival’s managing director within two years. All the while, a synergy was brewing between them.
“We did more than half of the film festival’s opening ceremony shows, and all of them were quirky, weird and creative. All of them were on another level. I always had Shivani[’s support]. When I pitched, she had my back and she knew exactly what I was talking about,” said Harib.
At NearEast Entertainment, the pair complement each other. Malhotra brings to the table extensive knowledge of the local, regional and global film industries, providing a marketing management perspective, while Harib, a showrunner, filmmaker and chairman of Lammtara Art Productions, brings a content creation edge.
Their NearEast family comprises of about 12 people, many of whom have also come from Diff. Today, the team includes Jane Williams, Mahsa Motamedi, Zeina Sfeir, Ben Amy and Antoine Khalife.
Despite operating from the UAE, NearEast Entertainment is not restricted to taking local content to the world, but bringing global content into the region.
“We want to promote good content. It would be both international and regional content, so anything that is coming through here and getting launched in the UAE,” said Malhotra.
Harib echoed her sentiments.
“There are a lot of global companies that want to activate here, that are relying on a voice that is trustworthy. Whether it’s Shivani and her management, or Mohammad and his content, I think they can find some kind of trust that they can actually do something great here,” said Harib.
Quizzed on whether the company would partner with existing local players such as Image Nation, twofour54, or Dubai Film and TV Commission, Harib said that NearEast wouldn’t limit itself: “I think we should even think outside the box… It’s much broader than that.”
Their name, NearEast, was chosen for its ambiguity, according to Malhotra.
“When [people] see NearEast, they get it. Because we’re not only doing the Middle East, we’re looking at a wider range, but we are based here. I just like the ambiguity of it, and yet, it sort of communicates where we are and what we know and the region that we represent,” she said.
Regional content creators are perpetually on the lookout for where they can showcase their work.
As they adjust to letting go of an annual film festival in Dubai, a mere three years after Abu Dhabi Film Festival shut its doors in 2015, they’re reckoning with where to go next.
“Have you heard of a company called Netflix? That’s our next film festival,” said Harib. “In my eyes, the film festival was a platform for us to brush shoulders with a lot of big people from around the world. Talent, producers, everything. Nothing can replace that. At the same time, we have new players coming into the region… Whatever was our conventional gatherings or media outlets, it’s constantly changing,” he added.
As for Malhotra, she recommended that commercial filmmakers reach out to local distributors for support. For more arthouse films, there are festivals nearby, such as Marrakech International Film Festival in Morocco, or Cairo and El Gouna’s film festivals in Egypt.
“Unfortunately, [in] the GCC at the moment, there isn’t anything, apart from the Sharjah [International] Children’s Film Festival... There’s nothing else that really exists. I think they would have to look at the wider Mena region to get their films showcased in the region,” said Malhotra.
There are also global festivals beyond the Middle East and North Africa. For instance, Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) had a significant Arab showcase this year, including Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, and the Egypt-UAE production, EXT. Night, which received a grant from Diff’s Enjaaz fund.
“A lot of the international festivals are supporting Arab cinema, so I think filmmakers [should] write to them,” said Malhotra. “If there’s anything we can do, because we know a lot of the festival directors, we have avenues to work with them.”
NearEast Entertainment’s current clientele includes Harib himself, who is getting ready to hand over his first non-animation film to the team.
Supported by Abu Dhabi production house Image Nation, Rashid & Rajab, an Arabic body-swap movie about ‘a local rich guy and an up-and-coming Egyptian hard-working guy’, is set to launch in 2019.
“It’s my first ever live-action feature film, so I’m happy that I can give it to NearEast to work on it, because it just makes sense, director to PR,” said Harib.