In a further sign of entertainment biz growth in the Middle East, a group of Asian industry vets are teaming up with leading local distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment to launch a new distribution company aimed at serving the sizable Filipino and South East Asian populations in the region.

Gulf Asia Entertainment is the brainchild of Sunder Kimatrai, former EVP Asia Pacific at Twentieth Century Fox International, Filipino media mogul Vicente Del Rosario Jr, Front Row CEO Gianluca Chakra, and entrepreneurs Anish Wadhwa and Shravan Shroff.

Through Front Row Filmed Entertainment, the company will look to release between 10-12 theatrical Filipino titles a year starting off with romantic drama Never Not Love You on April 19, which grossed $500,000 in its first 4 days of release in the Philippines last Wednesday and is eyeing a $2M total. The outfit will follow that movie up with romance Sid & Aya at the end of May. Plans are for theatrical, VOD and event releases often with a day and date component.

The Filipino diaspora in the Middle East is the second largest in the world after the U.S. with a population of more than 2.5M, including 1.2M in Saudi Arabia and more than 800,000 in UAE. A large portion of these migrants work in the region’s service sector. The drive to set up a new company comes just as public cinemas are due to open in Saudi Arabia for the first time, something which is seen as a potential gold mine by local and international industry.

Chakra is a well known figure in the international industry who picks up around 90-120 titles a year for distribution across the MENA region. His Front Row outfit has been a preferred aggregator for iTunes and GooglePlay and teamed up with SVOD Platform iFlix to coproduce Arabic-language series Tough Luck. The company recently announced that it is teaming up with the Kuwait National Cinema Company (KNCC) on a move into Saudi Arabian exhibition. Home ent veteran Anish Wadhwa is founder and CEO of UAE-based Home Screen Entertainment, which distributes South Indian films internationally while entrepreneur Shravan Shroff is the former owner of exhibition chain Fame India.

Del Rosario Jr, chair and CEO of music, film and TV group Viva, explains, “The Filipino community is the 3rd largest community in the UAE, but unlike the audience for Indian films of various languages, Filipinos residing in the GCC are massive spenders and intensely socially active who regularly attend Filipino events and the occasional film that is released. Our aim is to tap into this market and expand by releasing Pinoy films on a day-and- date basis with the Philippines across major cinemas in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as on VOD and on digital and soon enough, bring in live events and concerts.”

Sunder Kimatrai, who spent two decades at Fox International and was awarded Cineasia’s Exhibitor of the year in 2009, adds, “The UAE market isn’t the only market we are eyeing. There are over 1.2M Filipinos in Saudi Arabia and another 500,000 across Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. There is a real market waiting to be developed… and with the MENA expansion and the introduction of Cinemas in Saudi, we see this becoming a real opportunity.”

Gianluca Chakra concludes, “While we cover Western and Arab film distribution, Asian and specifically Filipino content is indeed a natural progression. With the partners in place, this could only prove to a significantly interesting move in satisfying a vast audience that has never been properly served in region.”