Revolutionising content in the Middle East: Front Row acquires stake in creative agency Operation Unicorn

Announced from Jeddah, leading MENA-based distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment joins forces with award-winning boutique creative agency Operation Unicorn in a bid to transform original content and reinvent the way stories are told in the Middle East.
Revolutionising content in the Middle East: Front Row acquires stake in creative agency Operation Unicorn

When Front Row talks, we at MIME listen. When the company's CEO Gianluca Chakra tells us about an untapped audience and creating fresh content tailored for the discerning viewer, we can't wait to watch it. And watch it we did but our lips are sealed. Let's just say MENA audiences are in for a great, big surprise. So while at the Red Sea International Film Festival, the company and its founder/CEO had a big announcement to make.

Just to put things into perspective Front Row Filmed Entertainment is a leading independent film distribution company that acquires all rights for distribution in the Middle East and North Africa. They are based in Dubai (UAE) with offices in Kuwait and Lebanon. The company was launched in 2003 by Gianluca and Michel Chakra and currently boasts a film library of close to 1,000 titles. The company is also in partnerships with Kuwait National Cinema Company (KNCC) and KSA’s leading cinema chain, MUVI CINEMAS under the banner of Front Row Arabia. Some of the titles that Front Row has released recently include The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel, The Marksman starring Liam Neeson, as well as the multi-Academy Awards nominated The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman and Cannes opener Annette by Leo Carax. In theaters soon, thanks to Front Row, will be The Card Counter with Oscar Isaac and Sean Penn's Flag Day.

So, the announcement of Front Row acquiring a stake in award-winning boutique creative agency Operation Unicorn (OU) to create original content from and about the Region is welcomed news.

Established in 2010, Operation Unicorn quickly rose to become of the most respected creative agencies in the Arab world. Their creative flair and rich storytelling approach has revolutionized the field in the Region and quickly cemented them as one of the most sought-after creative agencies in the Middle East. Their talent for genuine and relatable stories and characters mirror contemporary life and resonate with audiences to give their work a unique signature in the industry. Their award-winning body of work boasts numerous successful campaigns, relying on smart insights, authentic storytelling, and strong humor to garner massive success and a wide reach with some campaigns going viral across digital media in the Middle East. OU’s successful model became part of the telecommunications and marketing curriculums in universities.

I mean, just a peek at their website's homepage says it all.

"We want to target the audience! We want to create stories and characters that are relatable." -- Gianluca Chakra, CEO of Front Row

So what does this new collaboration mean for the moving image in the MENA region? "The idea is to do things differently, to create original content -- we are getting into podcast, short form content, branded content, etc... " Chakra tells MIME, because currently, according to him "we get to rely on western content to find what we like, so why not create the stuff that we like — and there is an untapped audience." 

We prod further about this untapped audience and how OU fits in and Chakra replies, "these guys at OU, that’s their background, they know how to capture an audience and we all agree that the Middle East isn’t really tailoring to audiences which are 15 to 35 -- we want to create content for that audience." 

Chakra continues, "in my opinion, the content that is currently being shopped around is an improved version of the year before, it’s not really creating a new audience. It’s maintaining it. With this modus operandi, you’ll never gain a new audience. People don’t really target their audience here, they go straight to the masses — and if it flops, it’s "well, let’s do something else." But it’s not about targeting the audience. We want to target the audience! There are people like us who don’t watch Arabic content and rely on “foreign content” because the stuff that is presented in the MENA is for the masses and often, you never relate to the stories. We want to create stories and characters that are relatable."

One of the challenges of content being created in the Middle East for both the diaspora, as well as the intelligent, upwardly mobile audiences residing in the Region is that it often "talks down" to its viewer, ignoring the fact that audiences in the MENA have quite a discerning palate for entertainment. With Front Row, that's never been the case, as their slate of films proves.

"We want to inject meaningful, insightful stories into local content, stories that will resonate for an audience that feels mostly shut-out or detached from current content.” -- OU founder Nathalie Masri

OU founder Nathalie Masri says about the partnership with Front Row: “The key to successful content is creative, honest storytelling. We want to inject meaningful, insightful stories into local content, stories that will resonate for an audience that feels mostly shut-out or detached from current content.” Masri adds that Front Row “has built a great track record in the industry with a non-conformist approach that really resonates with us as creators. We feel this inspires us to work with them and send a strong message with powerful new voices.” 

In fact, with similar philosophies on storytelling, Front Row has amped up its production game over the last two years, by shooting its first feature film in Beirut, the Arabic adaptation of the international smash hit Perfect Strangers which features an all-star cast led by Nadine Labaki and Mona Zaki. The film is set for release in Q1 2022. 

Front Row is also actively working on several original projects through its production arm Yalla Yalla, with OU tapping in to offer their creative input and on-ground production expertise. Front Row and OU are currently developing several projects including a slice-of-life comedy series titled From the Bathroom -- mark our words, you won't want to miss it -- a couples dramedy spanning various Arab countries called Heads or Tails as well as a feature film and a docu-series that will be unveiled next year. The teams are also actively working on the Arabic remake of the highest grossing foreign film of all time, directors Olivier Nakache's and Éric Toledano's Intouchables with an aim to kick off shooting in May 2022.

OU’s team includes partners Nathalie Masri, who held a senior art director position at HAVAS, a well-known creative agency, before launching her own agency and leading its creative department. Masri is also the co-creator of Coffee Break, an online popular satire show; Wissam Matar, who worked as a creative director for creative agencies Leo Burnett and FP7, during which he managed to amass several awards to his name on numerous highly acclaimed campaigns and who joined OU in 2017 as Managing Partner; Jad Aouad, OU's Director and Head of Content, an award winning and a highly sought director, who is also a session drummer; and Anthony Tawil who worked as a digital planner and strategist with digital pioneers Eastline Marketing before joining OU as their Digital Director in 2015 -- it's noteworthy that Tawil is currently producing the first docu-series podcast on the Lebanese Civil War.

With this acquisition, the two companies aim to establish a successful content network ready to entertain a growing Arab market that is eager to watch and consume valuable content that speaks to them.

So why this, why now? The move merges Front Row’s strong reputation and expertise in acquisitions and distribution with Operation Unicorn’s creative writing and production skills as the two companies will also jointly develop original, short-from content in addition to branded content, podcasts, and new formats for the region. And the results are the stuff creative moving image dreams are made of.

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