Gabriel Chamoun, CEO and major shareholder at The Talkies talks to LBB’s Zoe Antonov about the resilience the company has shown in the face of Middle Eastern adversity, and how adaptability has helped them remain on top for more than 30 years
A production company that has been around since 1988 in one of the most politically torn and conflict ridden parts of the world – namely, the Middle East, and is not only thriving but expanding across the region, surely has some secrets for staying on top. Providing quality production on a local, global and regional scale, from servicing the top production houses in the US, Europe and all over the world, to producing high-end content for the MENA region, The Talkies now operates in Lebanon, the UAE, Morocco and Egypt.
Shortly after its start in the late 80s, Gabriel Chamoun, the current CEO and major shareholder of the Talkies, joined due to the need for a business partner to handle the administrative and financial aspects of the company. “Both of my ex-partners who founded The Talkies were more on the creative, artistic side, so that’s where I came in. I had zero film experience or any audio-visual experience, really. I had to learn everything on the job, which has been a very enriching journey.” Enriching seems like an understatement, keeping in mind the projects that the company went on to undertake in the coming years and the ways in which it surfed any wave that would come its way in the MENA region, both from a political and market perspective. But let's start from the beginning!
“In the 80s we were the new kids on the block – hip and trendy, quite flexible, not too arrogant. So we immediately managed to grab a big market share of, back then, the Lebanese market, which was our main target. Then, as usual, every couple of years you have major political and security events in Lebanon, so competitors put a hold on the business. During those times is when we managed to grab a bigger market share, by being present during the hardest moments for the country, when everybody else wasn’t there.”
Just to get a sense of the bigger picture, here are some of the events that have affected Lebanon as a country since The Talkies was established – in the late 80s, as the company was emerging, the country was emerging from the Lebanese Civil War and scrambling to gather the pieces of what’s left, as a ceasefire was established just a year after The Talkies came into business; however, the aftermath of the war would keep the country riddled with conflict up until 2006, during which years Lebanon suffered two occupations, by Syria and Israel. Soon after, in 2011 the country went through the Syrian War spillover and mass protests, which although withered down, were reignited with full force in 2019-20. A somewhat chain reaction of events starting in the early 80s actually leads to today’s liquidity crisis with its unemployment, endemic corruption and banking secrecy. We can’t, of course, forget, that we are all collectively living through a pandemic.
You might now start to see how a company that not only stays afloat but continues to be what it was from the beginning and especially shows perseverance in the face of adversity, will win the love of the market and inevitably thrive, as The Talkies did. “The fight became harder and harder,” says Gabriel, “but despite the various challenges that we’ve had, we managed to preserve the quality, the image of the company, the reputation – not always the market share, obviously, because the entry cost to the market started changing, rental companies developed, some post production facilities also developed as time went on. Up to the mid 90s, we had to own our own facilities and equipment, later on as the market evolved, it became much easier to start a production house.”
Regardless of the fact that times in Lebanon swayed from easier to atrociously hard in terms of the overall scene, when asked about the culture of The Talkies and how it has changed through the years, Gabriel says, “Thank God it didn’t change much because this is what really was our strengths – the service orientation, the transparency, the business ethics of the people working there, the team spirit. All of these remain, until today. Of course, in recent years with Covid and everything happening around it, and us having offices now in five different countries, you lose that centralised energy we had in the beginning in our Beirut office. But it’s still there overall in the company.” Speaking of expansion and working across five different countries, we can’t help but wonder what the differences in the markets of these countries are, especially keeping in mind the way they interplay with each other and how their histories overlap both on a socioeconomic and political level.
“The markets are quite similar, but have their important nuances between one another. Our Dubai and or Morocco offices do a lot of servicing jobs, for production companies that are either in Europe, or in the US, or in any part of the world, for that matter. So this is a bit specific to these two countries, because they have great infrastructure and locations and are quite well known, especially in terms of tourism. Dubai also had a lot of publicity in recent years, so it’s an easy place to market,” says Gabriel. By making this parallel between the creative industries and tourism, he also explains what the current situation is in Lebanon, their initial main location: “The purchasing power of the average Lebanese person has dropped by 80% at least. This means there is no need to advertise a product because people cannot afford it. What this has done is taken us back to the 80s, but in a far worse way. A lot of clients from Saudi Arabia or the rest of the Gulf used to want to shoot in Lebanon, because the quality was high, the crews were good, the level of equipment was up to date, we had everything to offer and the cost was low. Now, the cost is even lower, but people don’t want to come here. It’s as if I tell you can get 70% off, if you go to a resort in Afghanistan, you’re still not going to go. To some extent, this is what production companies are suffering from in Lebanon today.”
Another very interesting political development that unravelled as The Talkies were expanding across the MENA region was the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests and uprisings in the early 2010s, influenced by the Tunisian revolution, and spreading to five other countries. “It mainly affected our Egypt office. There were two regime changes in our time there, in about three years. First, the Mubarak administration was kicked out. Then the Islamic brothers took over, and then they were kicked out about three years later. So this really heavily affected the Egyptian market for a few years, where we had a major drop in production,” says Gabriel. “I don’t think it had much effect on concepts or creativity, brands don’t usually like getting political, not in the TV commercial business at least back then.”
However, one of the biggest changes we see in concepts and creativity happens to be Saudi Arabia, where The Talkies also operates. “The biggest change is from a cultural point of view – this is where society went from being totally closed off with rigid traditions and restrictions, where women did not work or drive, let alone lead companies, to much more freedom on every level. Especially in terms of audio visual content, which was very restricted prior. Now, it’s opening up at a very, very fast pace. It’s one of these countries where the government is going faster than the people and we as a company are trying to keep up. Usually, the people are demanding change and the governments are slow, there it’s the other way around.”
You can’t help but wonder how a company can maintain that balance against these sorts of contrasts – selling products and brands in ways for which some parts of society aren’t quite ready, but also needing to be in line with the change that is very much due. “It’s not too difficult for us. What we’re trying to develop as a company is a lot of entertainment, TV series, films. Partly catering to the Saudi demand for that. We are addressing this demand for high quality, Arabic language content. The streaming platforms, just like anywhere in the world, have really changed the way people consume content and think about selective media. People now, more than ever, know what good content and storytelling is, and are demanding that. And this is where The Talkies plays a big role.”
From The Talkies' GHADI The Movie
With so much history behind its back, The Talkies still has a lot to look forward to. Of course, as any company today, thinking about expanding to the Metaverse is on the table, but also sticking to the classics is necessary to keep this seemingly unbreakable momentum that the company has kept going for thirty years. Excitedly, looking to the near future, Gabriel shares that they have a series in development now with a major regional streamer. “Let’s call it a dramedy series, a coming of age dramedy! This is in development and should have it done in about four to five months, which is exciting. Then we’d move into production. But we have also many others in development as well, series and future films waiting to be commissioned.”
A company that has passed the test of time not once or twice, but repeatedly, in the face of so many adversities, still standing as one of the major production houses in the MENA region, The Talkies definitely has a rich history behind its back. A history that ebbs and flows with any change thrown its way, evident from the company’s swift emergence from any political and societal issue that has not been in shortage in the Middle East. With a character built by a rocky past and a very exciting future, The Talkies still remains ‘in tune with the developing trends of today and tomorrow’s viewing experience.’
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