Premium video-on-demand is beginning to help independent and local film-makers find an audience in a region dominated by free-to-air broadcasters and internet portals. Colin Brown reports.

In the football-crazed Arab world, the countdown to next summer’s World Cup provides a perfect sales window for regional pay-TV operators to rush out high-definition product packages and all-you-can-eat banquets of on-demand viewing in a bid to bolster subscriptions.

But it may take until Qatar hosts the region’s first ever World Cup in 2022 before premium TV commands the same level of consumer adoption as seen in the US or Europe - by which time television itself may have been eclipsed as the medium of choice.

The geographic expanse and socio-economic disparities are so great across the Middle East and North Africa that television viewing across this region is still very much dominated by free channels delivered mostly through satellite dishes. According to Arab Media Outlook, just 8% of Arab-speaking households pay for television packages from the likes of OSN, Al Jazeera or Abu Dhabi Media - a low percentage that sets a natural limit to how much movies can depend on Arab pay-TV as one of their financial lifelines.

Even in the wealthier enclaves of the region, where households have the resources to pay monthly subscriptions, there is no end to the freely available diversions competing for attention. Saudi Arabia, for example, has the highest number of YouTube views in the world per internet user, followed by Egypt, Morocco and the UAE, according to Google. Averaged out, every single Saudi resident watched the equivalent of seven YouTube videos every day last year - with three quarters of that activity carried out on smartphones.

Such massive uptake has not gone unnoticed. The Rotana media conglomerate is among the companies to have launched internet platforms that offer thousands of hours of Arabic-language video content across computers, tablets and mobile devices. That this is being offered for free, on an advertising-supported basis, throws a gauntlet down to those smaller web portals that have been relying on subscriptions for their premium offerings, including their prized films.

Reaching 400,000 homes

It is against this backdrop that the nascent Arab VoD marketplace, seen as independent cinema’s potential saviour from the DVD doldrums, is now playing out. For an independent distributor such as Gianluca Chakra, CEO of Front Row Entertainment, the creation of a Premium VoD window for his titles not only helps address piracy but also the problem of high theatrical turnover in the UAE.

“There are seven to 10 films released weekly and many of the theatres want to show the exact same films,” Chakra says. “As a result, titles that need word-of-mouth to build their audience, are removed from theatres after just two weeks. By the time people hear about the film, it isn’t available anymore in cinemas. The solution we found was to launch these titles on a premium basis - almost the same price of a cinema ticket - and the results are showing. These are films that may get one screen in cinemas to showcase their work but can reach roughly around 400,000 people in their homes.”

Documentary features stand out among the VoD surprise success stories so far.

“We’ve released titles such as Marley and The Imposter day-and-date in cinemas and on premium VoD where the theatrical results were good - based on one screen - but where the VoD revenues tripled those cinema grosses,” says Chakra. “Their combined revenues are close to what would be seen at an average cinema, depending on the location, for a blockbuster.”

Front Row created this window with OSN, the pay-network. Intigral, the content aggregator associated with STC (Saudi Telecom, the Arab world’s largest telecoms giant) is among those working closely with Front Row to secure up-to-date releases. So too is ondemand!, the London-based content aggregator for both DU (the telecom operator in the UAE) and Q-TEL (the telecom operator in Qatar). Also active is Etisalat, the UAE’s biggest telecom operator that owns a stake in Saudi Arabia’s second largest phone company, Mobily.

Chakra acknowledges some VoD providers still need persuading when it comes to prioritising independent titles over those from Hollywood. For this reason he is excited by the prospect that Apple - whose UAE corporate office in Abu Dhabi has been busy recruiting - is preparing to let independent distributors from the region offer their titles for sale and rent on the Arab version of the iTunes digital storefront.

“This would mean the only true medium for independent releases and emerging film-makers will definitely be on iTunes,” he suggests. “Maybe their launch could teach a lesson to the remaining VoD providers within the region to start following in their footsteps.”

How well Arab feature films will stand out in this new world of endless choice is anyone’s guess.

Arab drama series remain the most reliable source of employment for storytelling talent in the region. Known collectively as ‘musalsalat’, these serialised Arab melodramas are similar in style to Latin American telenovelas, except they often revolve around historical epics about Islamic figures or love stories involving class conflict and intrigue.

Many more are being made now, and at greater cost, in a bid to compete against the overwhelming popularity of Turkish soap operas on Arab television.

The number of series produced for Ramadan - the ratings pinnacle - climbed to 160 in 2012, double the number made in 2010. According to the Pan Arab Research Center, the amount spent in 2012 for Ramadan television advertising exceeded $420m, more than a fifth of the entire Arab television advertising market for that same year.

Not surprisingly, given their commercial allure, average production budgets have shot up, rising from an average $200,000-$500,000 per series just three years ago, to between $2m-$4m. Omar, MBC’s hugely popular 2012 Ramadan series on the life of the second Caliph, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s best companions, is said to have cost $53m in total. (Omar is not to be confused with Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian drama of the same name, which was the opening-night film at DIFF.)

In all, $1.2bn is spent each year producing and acquiring content for the estimated 650 Arab TV channels across the region, according to Nabil Kazan, CEO of pan-Arab TV consultancy K & Partners. Of that, $400m is spent producing programming including Ramadan drama series and reality shows. Another $550m is spent licensing sports rights and $250m acquiring imported content including Hollywood movies and Turkish serials, which can cost up to $100,000 per episode to buy. Chances are those figures will keep climbing.

“New channels are mushrooming at a rate of one per week,” says Kazan, with 154 launched since the Arab Spring. And that was last year. To put that number into perspective, there are 21 television channels that show only movies in the Arab-speaking world.

Q&A: Fadi Ismail, O3 Productions

As the general manager of O3 Productions, a subsidiary of Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) Group, Fadi Ismail selects, buys and distributes Turkish, Indian, Korean and other drama content, adapts scripted telenovela formats and produces local pan-Arab and regional drama series in-house.

He is the executive producer of Omar, the biggest Arab historical drama series ever produced.

Headquartered in Dubai, MBC Group was the first private free-to-air satellite broadcasting company in the Arab World when it launched in 1991.

MBC boasts the top four most watched TV channels in the UAE.

As one of the key stakeholders in the region’s media industry, how do you rate local feature films produced out of the six Gulf countries (GCC) in terms of their appeal to broadcast networks like your own?

TV exposure and TV promotion might make a difference and allow GCC films to enjoy a level of popularity that is missing. One of the issues for any TV network when it comes to airing a particular genre is consistency in quality and in volume.

Another challenge is stars: where are the Gulf stars in films? A TV network might experiment with a film here and there, but none have a regular, dedicated slot. For that you need to have a predictable quality and volume as well as a mix of fresh faces and established stars.

A few years ago, MBC co-produced The Circle, a crime drama by UAE film-maker Nawaf Al Janahi that premiered at Dubai’s Gulf Film Festival in 2009 before playing at DIFF. Despite such attention, Emirati features have been unable to make back their production costs so far.

How do you think GCC can build a viable business model for locally made features?

It’s not going to be easy. They will have to go a step higher in quality, especially in terms of storytelling and production values. And then they have to aim for a full cycle of windowing, which means theatrical release and then pay-TV, free-to-air, plus digital etc. The entertainment in GCC is TV based and not cinema based in terms of how we consume Arabic fiction and drama.

From what we understand, MBC Group is planning to produce or co-produce feature films soon. Do you anticipate any GCC film projects being part of those initial film-production plans?

We are styling options and strategies based on appeal and ability to reach the widest possible audience. Nothing is final.