The evolution of the GCC region's media and production freezones from upstarts to industry leaders has had a detrimental effect on the Lebanese production industry. Despite this, John Parnell finds there is still much to cheer about in Beirut and beyond...
Lebanon has long been one of the most important media hubs in the Middle East with a reputation for producing some of the region's most flamboyant and popular entertainment programming broadcast in the Arab world.
Sadly, political unrest and a series of related periods of conflict have punctuated the progress of the country's production industry in recent times.
Despite this, a great deal of output from the country has found its way onto channels right across the Middle East.
Recently, Lebanon has been an entry point for many Western formats to enter the Arab market with internationally popular entertainment formats such as Star Academy and Deal or No Deal enjoying success in the region.
Beirut-based production company Studiovision has also proved the space and technical infrastructure required to ensure these projects are produced domestically. Studiovision has 38,000 sq/ms of space including 16 individual studios. The largest of these measures 2500 sq/ms and has been used for many of the large-scale shows mentioned above.
Production giant Endemol issued licences for many of its top formats to Lebanese producers Ziad Kebbi and Dany Karam while they were at Elements TV. The pair now head Endemol Middle East, launched last year and already releasing new formats for pan-Arab audiences. The company has offices in both Beirut and in Dubai.
Maintaining a permanent presence in the UAE is an increasing trend among Lebanese businesses. The volume of media companies, advertising agencies (who throw a lot of TV commercials in the direction of small independent production companies) makes it hard for Lebanese companies to ignore the emirate.
The challenge for the Lebanese market is to showcase the quality, ambition and creativity behind projects such as Star Academy and international co-production Caramel, and persuade clients that this far outweighs any perceived danger arising from misperceptions of Lebanon, often generated by the Western media.
A satellite office in Dubai or elsewhere may go some way to enable these companies to offer a stable base of operations to any concerned clients. It is important, however, that the Lebanese production business, as much as is possible, stays in Lebanon.
This means shooting and editing in Lebanon and supporting the local rental houses and equipment distributors.
One such production and rental house, Platform Studios has found its crew and equipment utilised on a number of high-profile projects recently including Captain Abu Raed, which was filmed on location in Jordan.
However for Lebanon to receive the full economic benefit of an active production industry, it is important that these shoots are kept on location in Lebanon, whenever possible.
This way the armies of international crew that are brought in for the blockbuster scale shoots, will put extra money into the local economy through their spending on accommodation, catering and transport. The local crew used on these also gain more experience that is fed back into the local industry.
Despite rivals in the region aggressively pursuing their own movie production, Lebanese films have managed to maintain a regular attendance at international film festivals, maintaining the groundwork that had been laid previously.
The country has long been a default location for international news networks to position a bureau. As a result, a string of media service providers, OB facilities, camera crews and journalists are able to ply their trade in Lebanon with international news crews and documentary makers keen to secure the services of local field producers.
The Beirut Media Centre also offers satellite services to sustain the many news crews who report on matters across the entire Middle East from Beirut. These include satellite uplinking, lightweight flyaway systems and other OB infrastructure.
The accelerated development of competing media hubs in the region may have undone some of the progress that the country made in the 1990s with big players like Rotana choosing Lebanon as a base for much of their work.
Smaller uplink facilities offered both by the Beirut Media Centre and Studiovision have been able to support the work of visiting crews and the country's heavyweight broadcasters such as LBC and Future TV. However, MBC, Orbit and Showtime have all relocated in recent years with Lebanon overlooked.
The problem is that over the past ten years the region's emerging media hubs in Egypt, Jordan and the UAE have been in a stronger position to exploit the rapid expansion in the industry, with Egypt securing more and more Arabic TV production work and Jordan pushing the film industry strongly, successfully attracting a series international movies to come and shoot in the kingdom.
Lebanon has long enjoyed a healthy share of TV commercial work as well as music videos and documentaries. However much of this work is now distributed more thinly across a greater area, with new competition from emerging destinations such as Iran and Syria attracting producers.
One reason for the migration of advertisement production to the UAE is the development of a production industry on the door step of the major ad agencies which are concentrated in Dubai. The emirate is now seen as a more convenient location with the necessary post-production and editing personnel to churn out the vast volume of work.
The political unrest is also holding back the educational development of the trade in Lebanon. In 2006, the SAE Institute began work to open a branch in Beirut. The company had to cancel these plans in the summer of 2007 and has since opened new Middle East branches in Kuwait and Jordan.
There is no doubting the appetite for TV from domestic audiences. A recent Arab Advisors report found that 93% of households in Lebanon watched terrestrial TV. Another 75.8% claimed to own a satellite receiver as well, although whether these homes also have a valid subscription is an entirely different matter.
The country has long been known to suffer from rampant cable and satellite piracy with small illegitimate operators redistributing signals throughout neighbourhoods for a fraction of the full subscription charge.
Last year, the country received a major boost, however, when Netherlands-based production giant Endemol announced the creation of Endemol Middle East. The company now has an international network spreading over more than 20 countries including the two recent Middle East offices in Dubai and Beirut.
The company claims to launch 100 new formats a year. The Middle East division of the company will be the first to screen one such new format. Gameshow Tons of Cash was sold to Abu Dhabi TV and is scheduled for screening later this year.
At the time of launch of Endemol Middle East, managing director Ziad Kebbi claimed that on top of a base of around 10 permanent staff at the Beirut office, the presence of Endemol in Lebanon would also create a significant new source of employment for the country's freelancers.
Despite choosing to maintain an office in Dubai, the decision by an international player on the scale of Endemol to place its confidence in Lebanon, should be seen as a sign that the country still has more to offer the industry than real estate and tax incentives namely, talent.