Egyptian producer and director Amr Koura is a social entrepreneur in every sense of the word. Seizing opportunities missed by others, he has used media to deliver inspiring, educational content that promotes positive social change.
Success seems to come naturally for Koura, who in the summer of 2000 made "Sesame Street" accessible to millions of Arabic-speaking preschoolers in Egypt and Lebanon through an Arabic-language adaptation of the popular US children’s educational TV series. Just months after it premiered in Egypt, the local "Sesame Street" co-production named "Alam Simsim," which literally translates into "Simsim’s World," was already among the top five most-watched children’s TV shows in the country, reaching some 12 million children. The Egyptian cast of "Alam Simsim" muppets provides much-needed role models for the young children, encouraging them to take pride in their culture while inspiring them to pursue their academic interests and fulfill their aspirations.
Following the success of "Alam Simsim," Koura produced the Arab World’s first TV teen drama serial titled "Al Jamaa" ("The University") targeting teenagers. Seeking to promote diversity and tolerance, the TV drama also tackled many of the problems faced by young people in the Middle East and North Africa.
More recently, Koura has broken new ground, setting up the Creative Arab Talent agency (CAT) in Cairo, the Middle East’s first and thus far only talent agency. The concept of creative talent agents is little known in the Middle East, and initially there was a great deal of skepticism toward the work of the new agency.
“The biggest challenge we faced when we launched in April 2015 was convincing talent to sign up with the agency and to trust us with their talent. It took a while for the artists to warm up to the idea of a 'middleman' as they had previously only dealt directly with producers,” Koura told Al-Monitor. “We also had to convince producers that we were not there to push prices higher but rather were there to help them by suggesting the best talent for the roles and intervening when there are problems on location.”
Pitching talent to producers and the market as a whole, CAT agency negotiates the terms of the artists’ contracts on their behalf. It also advises them on the best choices to make, helping them plan and develop their careers.
The agency’s clientele made up mostly of Egyptian actors and actresses has steadily grown in the first year with the company currently boasting a 30-strong roster; dozens more are on the waiting list. Koura said that he is picky and handles only “top and promising talent." Among those who have entrusted the agency with administering their business affairs are Egyptian superstar Yousra, Jordanian producer and actress Saba Mubarak, and budding actress Amina Khalil. The agency is not limited to solely handling acting talent but caters to a variety of artistic talent including writers, satirists, stand-up comedians and film directors. Koura announced in a Facebook post on April 23, “Very proud to have the Master Illusionist Ahmed El Bayed to our select group of talents #CAT.”
CAT has also recently signed a marketing and promotional agreement with Egyptian comedian Ahmed Amin, which will take him on an international tour that includes the United States, the United Kingdom and the Gulf states.
"We have signed more than 25 contracts for our various clients ahead of the month of Ramadan, which is a great success for year one,” Koura said. The fasting month is traditionally a peak time for TV viewing in the Middle East and the Gulf states with the screening of new soap operas, some of which are produced especially for broadcast during the month of fasting.
A little over a year after establishing the agency in Cairo, Koura is opening CAT's new office in Los Angeles. He hopes it will help Arab talent penetrate the Hollywood scene and vice versa, acting as a “cultural bridge between East and West.”
While Koura acknowledges it may be difficult to introduce Arab talent to Hollywood, he said, ”This is not impossible.” He added that the late Egyptian superstar Omar Sharif made his English-language film debut with "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962 before starring in "Doctor Zhivago" three years later and then featuring in other American and British productions.
In recent years, a handful of actors from the Middle East have also managed to make a name for themselves in Hollywood, including Egyptian actor Amr Waked, who played the policeman in Luc Besson’s American-French science fiction film "Lucy" and also starred in Netflix’s historical epic "Marco Polo." Palestinian actor Ali Suliman has made appearances in several American movies, including "Lone Survivor" and "Body of Lies." Furthermore, a number of Arabs have worked or are currently working off camera in big international productions, including as videographers and lighting and sound technicians.
When the demand for Arab talent arises in international markets, Koura hopes that he would be “the point of contact in the Middle East.” He believes there is also a growing demand for foreign talent in the Arab film industry, and he wants his agency to recruit that talent when and if it is needed. He also hopes to help in the creation of Arab-international co-productions and other joint venture projects that involve collaboration from both sides. It is to this end that Koura is currently meeting with heads of some of the main Hollywood agencies such as UTA "to knock on doors" and "probe prospects of cooperation with them" during his two-week visit to Los Angeles that ends on June 12. On the agenda is a meeting with Netflix’s Ted Sarandos to discuss the latter’s proposal to create "a really well-scripted series about contemporary life in the Middle East."
“We have a distinct advantage as we are located in the Middle East and have access to the top writers and directors whom we can recommend, so that this project can see the light,” Koura said.
Koura believes that there are a number of advantages to cross-cultural collaboration, not least among which is clearing misconceptions and doing away with the stereotypes.
“The world is becoming one big village. Cross-cultural content is being aired all around the world, and we need to put our talent and our stories to the world to remove the stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists. When you see a good piece of drama or film from a certain country, it reflects positively,” he said.
At this time of political turmoil and violence in the Middle East, CAT’s work takes on added significance and can go a long way in fostering tolerance and mutual understanding and bridging the cultural gap between the Arab world and the West.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.