How did Abbout Productions come about and how did you get involved?Abbout Productions was first established in 1998 by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige so that they could produce their own films. I initially joined around 2003 when I helped them finance their film A Perfect Day. Later on I acted as a producer and acquired a big part of the shares. As well as producing films, along with Joana and Khalil, I developed the Metropolis Cinema – for which I have been an active vice-president since 2008, and MC Distribution that releases Arab and international films in the Middle East. Independently, I started Schortcut Films a year ago, which is dedicated to financing independent features worldwide and producing innovative content from the Arab world.
Where is the funding for these films coming from?In the beginning, we were securing money from the classical funds which was co-production deals. I envisioned us producing low budget arthouse films and setting up festivals that would be funded by these agreements. It was a success, and we grew as a production company. A nationwide industry was slowly but surely forming: it was becoming possible to raise funds through private equity, more funding options were available like the funds released by the Doha Film Institute. All these different money streams were a good indication of the part Lebanon would play in future productions.
When I produce a film like Tramontane, securing funding from places like ART gives a real boost to the budget, and makes a big difference to the film. These funds are more comfortable in injecting money in Nadine Labaki’s films for instance, since they’re more commercial. However,Tramontane is an independent film, and I’m not used to getting this kind of funding, but since then, we have got two other projects financed, which is great.
What are the biggest challenges for you as a producer and the ones the cinema industry is facing?There are two classical ways to structure an industry. Either you improve your market or you improve your production. That may be too simplistic, but I believe it to be true. We don’t have a market in Lebanon, it needs to be developed to allow more commercial movies. There are 10 or 15 screens in Morocco, 15 in Jordan. In Lebanon you have between 180 and 200, which is immense. We are looking at a potential market of around 2.5 million spectators per year.
As I see it, our responsibility now is to find enough funding to produce both the quantity and the quality that an audience of this size requires. Subsidies [from the government] are not part of our culture. Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank (BDL), has introduced Circular 416: This allows the producer to get a loan on 16 years with only 1% of interest. Creating this healthy cash flow for producers is a good first step. Although you still have to go to a bank and ask for money, with no real guarantees. It’s not as easy as Circular 331, which is for tech startups, where the BDL will guarantee 75% of the loss. Moving on from this, I think the next thing that we need is a fund. Not like the National Cinema Centre Fund (CNC) you have in France, but more of a recoupment fund, which would finance seven or eight films per year. It wouldn’t be a loan, it would be an investment.
Is the Lebanese market big enough for you to guarantee a profit or do need the international markets?I’ve produced films that have not been recoupable at all. It is my ambition to have a market where independent/arthouse movies can be profitable. Over the last 10 years, the system has been simple: Ensure that the smaller part of your budget is made of equity, which lowers the risk. It’s difficult to recoup from an arthouse film, but it’s doable over time when the equity investment is low and the rest of the investment is in soft money. This is specific to Lebanese movies only. the Schortcut Films are international coproductions which function with a completely different financial logic. My films have become less auteur and more independent, so it should be getting easier. We are hopeful that Tramontane will make money.
Are you looking for co-productions with international companies in the future, or are you looking to build the industry at home?My next project is The Notebooks, by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas; It’s my first big scale project. It’s being coproduced with Haut Et Court (France), we’re also looking for a second coproducer from Canada who isn’t confirmed yet. I have another project in the works which is being coproduced by Schortcut Films. It’s called Looking For Oum Koulthum and being directed by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and produced by Razor Film (Germany).
What do you think is lacking in the industry at the moment and how can that gap be filled?I don’t believe that we have a big gap in the industry. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. At one point, everyone was complaining that there were not producers, or screenwriters, but it was a very new industry then. Now we have lots of producers. With around 10 – 20 films being produced a year, you have around 10 or 12 line producers with full crew, including, DOPs, sound engineers etc. The whole industry is progressing, step by step, without any sudden or massive growth in one particular field.
If I had to chose one field that would find it more difficult, it would be the screenwriters. If you work as a cameraman or a sound recorder, then you can easily work on TV or for advertising, while waiting for the next project. You can’t do this as a screenwriter.
What makes Abbout important?Abbout has been producing films since 1998. We have more experience than most other companies in the country. I myself have produced 20 films. I’m present at the Cannes Film Festival every year, and I’m currently working with international movies through Schortcut Films. I think that my experience helps people. I tend not to do co-productions with Lebanese projects as I find that the films are not big enough to absorb the talents of two producers.
by Hugo Goodridge