‘Oman, a great filmmaking destination’
Dearham is convinced Oman has the potential to metamorphose into a great
filmmaking destination. It all depends on how you market it, feels the CEO of
Film Resource Unit (FRU), South Africa. Dearham, indeed, knows better. For, he
is entrusted with the hugely challenging task of selling South African films to
the global audience. He heads FRU, a leading NGO tasked with the distribution of
up to 400 social documentaries and feature films from the African continent. In
a freewheeling interview with Mehre Alam, Dearham, who was on a visit to the
Sultanate to attend the Muscat Film Festival, bared open his heart on a wide
range of issues concerning the marketing of African films.
Oman, says Dearham, has unique advantages. This country, he points out, has good
climate and fantastic locations. What it needs to develop is its service
capacity in terms of production studios, editing studios, technicians’ skills
and support. “I think the friendliness of the Omani people and the good security
allows for a filmmaking destination. You need to sell it. This is a challenge.”
For Dearham, this is a sure way of economic empowerment as well as for
dispelling the many a misconceptions surrounding the Arab world. “You can start
using films to dispel the demonized concepts attached to the Arab people in the
West, in particular,” he emphasizes. “This is critical if we’ve to improve
public relations and engage this Arabophobia, this terrorist-behind-every-rock
Films As Trade Route
South Africa, informs Dearham, has co-production agreements with countries like
Canada and Italy, and memoranda of understanding with countries like India and
Netherlands. “Our governments sit down and identify the appropriate partners and
say: well, we’re working in a few other fields and we’ve got historical links,
now let’s collaborate in audio-visuals as well. This preferential collaboration
between countries is necessary, especially in the light of the WTO laws that
treat audio-visuals as an ordinary commodity.”
Dearham comes out with a formula: “As a developing country, you have to find
ways to link up with other countries in bilateral arrangements and come to some
agreement on different levels for preferential support, specifically on the
How soon does he expect the film industry to shape up in Oman? “Let’s not be
be-little the challenge of developing a business. For Oman to rise to the
challenge of becoming a film-producing nation, it has to ask itself what it can
do to make it different from any other country in the world today. You need to
find that uniqueness. Is it the stories? Is it the culture? Is it the locations?
Is it the dovetailing between different government departments and the private
sector that makes a filmmaker want to come here?
You can establish that, then package it and market it. There is no rocket
science to this business. But to do that, you need to establish market
intelligence. You need to know who is buying what.”
Develop The Domestic Market First
Dearham says his country is at a stage now where it is designing and even
implementing strategies to take its films onto the global platform. “The first
lesson Oman has to learn is that you must develop a domestic market. You cannot
be thinking of international markets until you have ensured the successful
promotion, marketing and delivery of your films at home. Secondly, the film in
itself – as you see with Hollywood – is a powerful tool to sell the country,
both in terms of the country as destination as well as in terms of product
placement. Do you have any idea of how many businesses in Oman would like to
have their products showcased in films?”
Filmmakers need to be thinking about product placements, and of course, getting
the support from the private entrepreneurs, tips Dearham. “And of course, the
Oman government – I was very pleased to see the Oman Culture Department
supporting this film Al Boom – needs to nurture the domestic industry.
What does this mean? This means that the state needs to support and help the
filmmaker effectively participate in the international markets. The Departments
of Tourism, Culture, Education, Communication must integrate the strategies.
Each can have a strategy and a government mandate but the integration is a
challenge. This is what we have been grappling with down South. How do we
integrate the national department strategies?”
Different Marketing Strategy
How different the strategies are for marketing African films compared to, say,
marketing Hollywood films? “We cannot compete with Hollywood films,” quips the
medicine student-turned-soldier-turned-film-CEO. “They have budgets in excess of
US$50 million for blockbuster films. There is no way any local or national
cinema can compete with this kind of marketing phenomena. In the world today,
Oman, South Africa, and the developing South are all sailing in the same boat.
There is this huge juggernaut in front of us. How do we deliver our images to
people so that our products become viable and we take our place in the world of
entertainment and media?”
According to Dearham, the only way to do that is to keep the production cost
low, and scout for segmented, niche ways of delivering image to people.
“Segmentation of the market is critical for independent filmmakers today,” he
says. “You cannot replicate what the monopolies, in this case Hollywood, and
possibly even Bollywood, are doing. We do not have the critical mass. So we have
to find ways of using new media, specifically Internet broadband delivery and
digital hardware, in terms of production, to accomplish delivery of our
What about promoting African/Arab films via the internet broadband means? “It’s
a new frontier,” Dearham spells out. “It’s a frontier that we have not charted
yet. You need to firstly own the rights.
Filmmakers and legislators need to understand that you need to own the right --
the copyright for that particular media. Too often, our filmmakers are signing
co-production deals and signing away broadband rights to financiers who may be
giving more to the production budget than what they are. So, retain the right!
That’s the first lesson.”
The second lesson, according to Dearham, is that in the delivery of those
images, one needs to, just like in any other distribution pathway, sell one’s
product. Which means one needs to understand whom one wishes to target. “Do you
want to target educational institutions, universities, schools etc? Do you want
to target cultural groups around the world? Do you want to target
socio-political civil society groups? Is it the mass market in terms of retail
outlets? Who do you wish to target?
“The filmmaker must, therefore, understand what his story is about and who is he
is making it for. Once you understood this segmentation and your primary target
audience, then you can sell it! You may create tools through trailers and
innovative, creative designs, and then use the broadband medium to deliver it.”
What about the financial returns? “It is of course important. You need to have
reliable credit card mechanism so that someone in China can click on a website,
look at a film called Al Boom, a new Omani film, and wishes to view it on
broadband. So he swipes a credit card and there is a return of that money too
for the filmmaker.”
Cutting Edge Distribution
Dearham has developed and coordinated successful implementation of cutting edge
distribution and marketing strategies for several South African films. What
makes his strategies tick? “The philosophy around these strategies is born out
of a conviction that in the world of business, whoever controls distribution,
controls an industry. And whatever commodity you are dealing with: a soap or
images or intellectual property, distribution is critical,” he asserts.
“We, in Africa, are production-led. We have been making films but we’ve not been
thinking about the tail end of the equation, which is distribution. Therefore, I
found it important to start looking at ways of delivering images to audiences –
both existing and new. The existing audiences for the image was through the
conventional mode of cinema, television, radio, DVD and even broadband (new
media). And the new audiences were those who could not afford to view images in
films; do not have television sets and cannot afford to buy things like DVDs
So, what is the answer? According to the veteran film-marketing strategist, the
answer lies in fully equipped video vans, film clubs, and student movements
around cinema. “And these delivery methods have to be backed, of course, by
innovative marketing strategies.” This, indeed, has been Dearham’s humble
contribution to the African cinema for the past few years.
Double chance for South Africa at Oscars
South Africa has a fair chance of winning an Oscar at the 78th Academy
Awards, slated in Hollywood on 5 March. Charlize Theron, who won a Best
Actress Oscar two years ago for her role in Monster, has been nominated
a second time. Theron is vying for Oscar in Best Actress category in
North Country for her role as a woman miner fighting against gender
discrimination. Tsotsi, a film directed by Wits alumnus Gavin Hood, is
vying for the Best Foreign Film award at Oscars. The movie won the St
Louis Gateway Film Critics Association award and was nominated for the
Golden Globes and the British Academy (Bafta), where it failed to win.
‘Tsotsi’ (pronounced ‘tots’ by the characters in the film) is an
Afrikaans word meaning ‘thug,’ and that is just what the title character
is. The film’s ultimate power comes from its unflinching portrayal of
Tsotsi as a cold-blooded, unfeeling killer. The question the film asks
is whether such a seemingly lost soul can ultimately be redeemed.
Presley Chweneyagae pulls off the near-impossible task of making
Tsotsi’s dramatic personality change convincing.
South Africa is home to a $350-million-a-year film industry, but little
of that money is spent on South African feature films. Most of it is in
foreign commercials and movie shoots that use Johannesburg, Capetown and
other parts of South Africa as stand-ins for cities in other parts of
the world, and not as a backdrop for locally based stories. But that is
changing. Ten years ago, only one or two South African films were made
each year. Last year, there were a dozen. In 2005, the country scored
its first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Yesterday.
The film’s script centers around a woman whose husband infects her with
the HIV virus.
Al-Boom: Oman's first feature film
Al-Boom, the first feature-length film that Oman has ever produced, was
premiered at the Fourth Muscat Film Festival held recently. The movie is
directed by Dr Khalid Al Zadjali and produced by the ministries of
heritage and culture, and information. The movie, featuring Oman’s top
actors Saleh Za'al and Zuha Kader Baksh in the lead roles, was completed
in 45 days. Most of it was shot in the village of Haramel in Oman. The
film’s story moves in a coastal town where the locals are known for
fishing and boat-building. As it turns out, locals’ interest in the two
professions has started to dwindle. Most young local men have deserted
the town, heading to the capital, Muscat, to look for work. They feel
that the sea's fortune has run short and that a container of fish is not
enough to fulfill their dreams and ambitions.
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