Lebanese production company moves into selling its rare Middle Eastern documentary footage

FOCAL International’s Sue Malden investigates the thinking behind Firehorse’s bold new expansion with Chief Creative Officer Mouna Mounayer.

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SM: Hello Mouna. Welcome to the world of clip sales! N ow I know you have had a very successful production company – Firehorse – making documentaries for many years. What made you branch into clip library sales?

MM: Thank you Sue, we are very happy and excited to be part of the Archive industry. My partner, Najat Rizk and I have been planning this for a long time and now we are up and running. Our company, Firehorse, is one of the top production and media companies in the Arab world and we are recognised in the region for producing landmark factual entertainment and documentary programmes.

Since our inception in the early 1990s, we believed that the footage we were generating was both a treasure and a valuable commodity, which should be built upon, expanded and eventually turned into an independent business. From our first production we planned and worked towards building our archive with the vision of both safeguarding the content and using it to create a future business.

When we were filming our progra mmes, we did it with an eye to the prog ramme but also with an eye to the fut ure use of the images we were capturing. And as documentarians, we have had unparalleled access to places and people in the region and the result is a raw footage archive, which is both rare and unique. I think the difference we bring to the archive industry is in the range and applicability of our content.

We feel that the Firehorse Archive will be a useful tool for regiona l and international filmmakers, journa lists, researchers and students of the Arab world, Africa and the East in general. The flexibility of use and the range of content we have is enormo us. Our footage encompasses social life, heritage, religious communities, landscapes and interviews with the common man, as well as community leaders, traditions, art, architecture and many other categories of life in the region.

No longer accessible

Najat and I both feel that this body of content has particular significance and resonance right now and in the coming years, because many of the places we have in our archives are no longer accessible, or are slowly disappearing, or being destroyed. No one will be able to capture these places or people in the same way again. We feel it is our responsibility to make this footage available to storytelling professionals around the world, helping them create their distinct and in-depth analysis on varying perspectives from the Middle East.

Today the Middle East is undergoing unprecedented change, brought about by shifting geopolitics, religious divides, revolutions and insurgencies. Media across digital platforms is closely following these changes, indicating a strong demand for Arab and Middle Eastern content. Yet there are less than a handful of dedicated archives in the region with both the expertise and the access with which to provide profession al content to global digital channels and filmmakers. So to answer your question, I think we branched out at exactly the right time.

SM: What kind of footage do you hold? For example with the activities of ISIS in the Middle East destroying places like Hatra, Nimrud and Palmyra, do you have footage of these historical sites that now would have more than just a commercial value?

MM: Our categor ies of footage encompass: society, culture, lifestyle, history , archaeology, architecture, landscape, religious traditions and communities, cur rent affairs, interviews with personalities from across the Middle East and North Africa. We believe that the Firehorse Archive is an essential resource today for media professionals requiring raw video clips of Middle Eastern culture and heritage – most especially the disappearing heritage that is being systematically looted or destroyed in places like Iraq and Syria.

To give you an example; we were the last people to film in the Iraq National Museum before it was looted in 2003. Our footage of the Sumerian rooms is the last anyone ever filmed before many of those artefacts disappeared or were destroyed or sold to foreign collectors. Our archive also contains comprehensive footage of many of the most important Sumerian sites like Eridu (known as the first city on Earth) , Ur with its magnificent ziggurat , Warka or Uruk the kingdom of the legendary king, Gilgamesh.

For Syria we have many sites including Palmyra, Aleppo, Damascus, the dead cities as well as Greek, Roman and Aramaean sites and treasures that no one will ever see again. I think the importance of the Firehorse Archive is not only that we have this content but also that we have built on it by aggregating content from private individuals, independent producers and directors, government entities and corporations.

SM: What do you see as the cur rent major challenges in these difficult times for our footage industry in the face of the credit crunch and general downturn in business?

Time is right

MM: While setting up the Firehorse Archive, we were thrown in at the deep end in terms of the challenges facing the industry, from digitisation to storage, back-up, hardware , software, technology platforms, video asset management systems, increase in competition, smaller production costs, marketing and distribution and so on ad infinitum.

We could have been easily put off starting this business but we strongly believe that this is the right time to invest in a new endeavour, which is not a mainstream business but is focused in an area at the heart of every single media channel. On a macro scale, it can be considered as a revival of a business in an area that is still largely untouched and unexplored by the archive industry and on a micro scale, we are a niche boutique archive that can be of service to all players because our product is excellent and our prices are competitive. We are small, mobile and fast with exclusive and exciting material presented in digital media formats.

SM: So, how are you planning to grow the business in the face of reduced production customer budgets?

MM: My partner and I started our production company on a shoestring with insurmountable odds, in a region that is vast and complicated to manoeuvre , so we are used to the challenges. As entrepreneurs, we believe in our vision and mission regardless and having said that, we also know that multi-media assets are no longer the prerogative of the broadcasters alone, so our strategy is to spread our reach across different business sectors and industries. We are fully aware of the budget constraints and the impact this has had on product ion and on buying of archive and that is why we are targeting multiple types of customers and of course we are also betting on the uniqueness of our raw footage, our access and the speed at which we can deliver bespoke assets to our customers.

SM: Do you think there will be a need for significant changes in the archive world in the face of these issues in the near future? For example at the FOCAL International seminar in Dublin, many of the speakers announced “the death of the clip footage business”. Do you agree?

Unexplored areas

MM: This may be correct for the West but don’t forget that in the Middle East, Africa and further East, this is not quite true. These areas are largely unexplored in the industry and we believe that the potential here is huge. Arab content, for instance, is in great demand, not just by the West, but also by Arabs themselves. So, in answer to your question, I think the clip footage business in the Middle East is just about ready to bloom and I think we are entering the market at the right time.

SM: What about High Definition (HD) commissions? How prepared is the archive world for this technological change.

MM: Whether we are prepared or not, HD is here to stay, but there is no doubt that challenges to the industry are big. Initially we struggled with the changes, both as a production company and now with our archive. The learning curve, the budget increases and the investment needed to make the changes could be crippling. Middle East broadcasters made the transition to HD slowly and so we were able to lay down a strategy to gradually move from analogue six years ago and all our recent footage is in HD.

SM: The looming threat of piracy has hit the music business so hard. Is Internet piracy a serious threat to audiovisual footage?

MM: Yes, I think the threat of piracy is a real menace to the industry and I know that millions of dollars are lost each year from video clips being used without paid licences. In the Middle East, piracy is a big problem and governments have only recently begun to implement piracy laws across the region. Having said that our technology and licensing partners T3Media watermark and can digitally track all our assets, which goes some way to protecting them.

SM: How can FOCAL International membership help your business?

MM: It is in large part thanks to FOCAL International that we began to lay down the strategy for our business and our knowledge network, which in turn led to the launching of the Firehorse Archive. The help you gave us at the beginning and the introductions you made led to relationships, which were indispensable to us in the setting up and launching of our business. I do believe that an organisation like FOCAL International is essential for networking, knowledge, research, visibility and the growing of our business.

Mouna Mounayer
Partner, Chief Creative Officer
Habib Center, Sin El Fil Boulevard
Dekwaneh, PO Box 16 5226 Beirut, Lebanon
T/F +9611 203064, +9611 203056 Ext 710
M +96170 608560