(L-R) Salim Ramia’s son, John Ramia; Actor Jason Statham; and Salim Ramia.
Born and educated in Lebanon, Salim Ramia started his career in 1966 working for the record industry, before moving to cinema and film distribution in 1975. In 1980, Ramia returned to Lebanon to form his own company, but due to the war returned to the UAE in 1986, where he formed a partnership with Ahmed Golchin. The result of this was Gulf Film LLC (Gulf Film) which began distributing films within the GCC and the Middle East in April 1989. In the early 1990’s, and under Ramia’s leadership, Gulf Film expanded to include cinemas, and is now the largest circuit of cinemas in the Middle East. In 2007, Ramia also established Selim Ramia & Sons in Lebanon, entering the Lebanese market with the Grand Cinemas brand, which was by then operating 4 multiplexes, in partnership with Jamal Sannan (Eagle Films). Selim Ramia & Sons also operate Grand Cinemas in Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.
DFI: Can you tell us a little about yourself, and what you do?
Salim: I am a Lebanese businessman and co-owner of Gulf Film LLC, which is based in Dubai. I co-manage the company while simultaneously searching for new projects to develop, such as multiplexes, for the Grand Cinemas group in the UAE, as well as acquiring films for the company. I also launched Selim Ramia & Sons in 2007 to develop multiplexes outside the UAE in partnership with other industry friends. We have multiplexes in Lebanon and Jordan, and are developing others in Syria, Iraq and Kuwait, amongst others. We also distribute the films of Gulf Film in the Levant area. I am constantly looking for new business, working on current films and following up with our representatives in LA on acquiring new films. I’m also always looking out for projects I think might be good for the future. I might be working a minimum of 18 hours a day, but I enjoy it – it’s about passion!
DFI: You go by ‘Salim’, yet your company name is ‘Selim Ramia & Sons’. Can you tell us the significance in the different spellings?
Salim: In Lebanon, my name is spelt ‘Selim’, so my name is actually Selim Ramia. When I moved to the Gulf, however, there was a mix up with immigration and they spelt it ‘Salim’ on all my official documentation. From then on, everyone in the Gulf has referred to me as ‘Salim’, while everyone in Lebanon still knows me as Selim!
DFI: How long have you worked in this field, and can you tell us how you got involved in it?
Salim: That’s a good question! All my life, since I was a teenager, I have been a film buff. I’ve always looked at this field as entertainment for everyone. Before the Lebanese war, I was writing articles for Lebanese magazines specializing in cinema, but it was only when I moved to the Gulf that I started getting actively involved in film and cinema. I returned to Lebanon in 1980 to form my own distribution office, but had to leave due to the volatile situation there. I moved back to Dubai in 1986, and soon after partnered with a friend to start our company, Gulf Film.
DFI: Can you tell us more about Gulf Film (Gulf Film LLC), which was established in 1989 as a partnership between yourself and Ahmad Golchin? What inspired you to create this company, and what does your company do?
Salim: Ahmed Golchin and I took the decision to partner with the vision of joining forces to create an entity to distribute films for the Gulf and Middle East areas. As I mentioned, our aim was (and still is!) to create a company that can distribute films on a wider scale throughout the whole Middle East region. We have always used our instincts to succeed in what we are doing because we have passion for what we are doing. As I said, I believe this is the secret to success for any business: passion.
DFI: Regionally, you distribute major studio productions as well as independent films. Can you tell us the difference between the two, and how you promote each? Do audiences differ between major studios and independent films?
Salim: We sub-distribute in the GCC for Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, and Dreamworks Animation. From these studios, we acquire the rights for Four Star Films, who hold the exclusivity for the Middle East. To be honest, there is not a big difference between releasing a big studio film or an independent film. We have distributed both: blockbuster films, which are released by major studios in the US, and small, independent films that are more targeted at certain market sectors. We own the rights for the Middle East and ensure that we give each film its proper share of marketing and promotion: it makes no difference if it’s a blockbuster or an unheard of film – it’s only fair that every film gets the same treatment. In fact, sometimes it’s the unheard of films that make more business than a big time studio film!
DFI: Gulf Film LLC further expanded its industry profile through the creation of the Grand Cinemas Group, which is today the largest chain of cinemas in the Middle East. Can you tell us a little more about Grand Cinemas Group and what it does?
Salim: In 1992 the first screen opened in Dubai in partnership with Al Nisr Cinemas, followed closely by Galleria cinemas. When we opened our first multiplex in the year 2000, we created the brand ‘Grand Cinemas’, and it was under this name that our first 9 screen multiplex, Grand Almariah opened in April 2000 in Abu Dhabi, followed by the 12 screened Grand Cineplex in June. The flagship cinema for Gulf Film, Grand Cineplex marked the beginning of a new era for Grand Cinemas, which was joined by Al Massa Cinemas in 2003 and Century Cinemas in 2006. We are still continuing to grow, and are always looking for new partners. The Grand Cinemas brand is now known all over the Middle East as the largest chain of cinemas, specifically in the UAE where we have a large share of the market. Gulf Film also owns the largest subtitling lab in the area.
DFI: As the leading film distributor in the region of Arabic and English titles, can you tell us who you have worked with to bring these films to the Middle East, and why you chose them?
Salim: Our suppliers wanted a distributor who could handle the large amount of distribution needed throughout the Middle East. They also needed to ensure that the films are screened and distributed properly, and are giving them the right coverage and exposure. In essence, Gulf Film and Grand Cinema work side by side to assist us in signing important contracts with major independent producers and companies as they know we can provide them, and their product, with excellent service. There have also been times, due to our knowledge and reputation, where we have succeeded in acquiring films directly from producers before they reach major studios. On the Arabic side, the majority are from Egypt which is definitely a dominating force in Arabic films.
DFI: How many films are you responsible for bringing to the Middle East, and how do you choose which films to bring?
Salim: On average, we acquire around 200 films per year, which actually makes us one of the biggest buyers in the world – it is nearly impossible to find only one company buying such a huge number of films elsewhere! When we choose them we think about flair and instinct – when you decide to buy a film blindly, based only on a script, cast, budget and / or a director before seeing anything on screen it’s really hard! Honestly, this is a gambling business, but since we know what the market demands are we have a very good success ratio.
DFI: Do you ever have problems with censorship within the region?
Salim: As you know, the GCC countries each have their own independent censorship. The most difficult one is Kuwait, where about 50% of the films get banned or cut heavily – even animated films can get the scissors taken to them! Such films as ‘Shrek’ or ‘Transformers’, which many people don’t really see as offensive, can be cut. Other countries within the GCC are more accepting – I would say the most cooperative and understanding is the UAE, which has a more modern outlook on their decisions in censoring films.
DFI: What other aspects of film are you involved in, if any, and can you tell us a little about it? Is there another sector of the industry that you would like to branch out to?
Salim: For the time being I am not involved in any other sector – I like to stay away from any production involvement, which I find very tricky!
DFI: What does filmmaking mean to you?
Salim: Filmmaking by itself is an art whereby people get to see, learn and experience new things and discover another other side of life, away from war and politics – we have enough dramas around! To me, filmmaking is about dreaming, and making your dreams come true.
DFI: How do you think filmmaking has developed since you started in the business? What have these developments meant to you, and to the role you play?
Salim: Filmmaking in the region (within the GCC) is still new and starting out. One of the few successes was ‘City Of Life’ from the UAE, which we played last year. It is an intelligent film and proved successful with cinema goers – we like to think we played our role in helping by offering our audience the chance to watch it. More than 73,000 people watched it, which is great for a local film!
DFI: Can you tell us your thoughts on the future of filmmaking in the Arab world, and what you think is coming next?
Salim: Mass produced filmmaking in the Arab world is still mainly from Egypt, and they deliver some good films. We do not have a big list of leading actors or actresses so we are limited in what we have, but hopefully things can change in the future with the new generation of actors that are out there now.
DFI: What is the message you’d like to give to prospective young filmmakers out there, or to anyone who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Salim: I wish everyone success in what they are doing, but I ask them to dream and have passion in what they do. This is the key to success: that you must believe in what you are doing.
DFI: If you had to pick one film, from any genre or era, what would you say your favorite film is, and why?
Salim: It is a difficult choice to make! So far this year I would say ‘The King’s Speech’, which I really liked. I would also have to say ‘Legend Of The Fall’, ‘Heat’, ‘West Side Story’ (which I saw seven times, believe it or not!), and even the very first, original ‘Star Wars’ film: I have a long list of films that I like, as I’m sure you imagine! At the end of the day, it is how they say: There is no business like show business!