The MENA region’s first online streaming media service, icflix, which launched last summer, has already started reading scripts with a view to producing as many as eight Arab-language movies a year intended for theatrical release.

Echoing the original programming push that has re-defined Netflix in the US, Dubai-based icflix is looking to partner up with Arab production houses in order to supplement its line-up of ‘Jazwood’ titles (the name it coined for Arab-language content). Icflix already has Arabic content supply deals with both the Egyptian Radio & TV Union (ERTU) and Arab Radio and Television Network (ART).

Speaking at the DIFF Forum this week, icflix CEO Carlos Tibi said he would also be engaging directly with young actors from the region under an initiative known as the Jazwood Academy designed to cultivate new talent. “We want to ensure that Arab content is of the same entertainment and production quality as our Hollywood and Bollywood films,” he said. The films in which icflix invests will not be necessarily exclusive to the platform.

Also making waves on the panel was David Hanson, head of digital producers at the region’s dominant pay-TV player OSN. Recognising the difficulties that Arab film producers face in accessing cinema screens across the region, Hanson argued for the creation of a “virtual theatrical platform” – essentially an ultra-premium video-on-demand service where producers could offer their films on limited runs to demonstrate market demand for interested theatre owners.

“Collaboration is key here between distributors and producers,” said Hanson. “I would like to see greater commitment from theatre owners, either forced or voluntary, to carry Arab content on screens. I am not for quotas per se, but a certain amount of screenings per week or month could be set aside for local films.”

“What we lack in the region are small arthouses,” continued Hanson, who pointed to a recent crowdfunding campaign for a series of pop-up cinemas across the region as one solution. “I think this will need someone to be a little guerilla about this and get the established theatre owners to sit up and take notice.”