With a subscriber base of just under 5 million and a $90-million infusion from such investors as Sky and Liberty Global, iflix recently expanded into the Middle East and North Africa through a joint venture with Kuwait-based telco Zain. Like Netflix, iflix is diving into local content, including co-producing the first high-end Arabic online series, “Tough Luck,” a comedy set in a Cairo tenement and featuring an all-star Arab cast.
Variety spoke to iflix Head of MENA Nader Sobhan about challenges in the region.
Producing an original show in Arabic as part of your Middle East launch certainly differentiates iflix from Netflix in this region. Can you talk to me about your launch strategy?
We’ve gone live in eight countries. We went through a soft launch to make sure that the platform worked, and now we’re beginning [to gather] the advertising and getting all the users on board. The way “Tough Luck” fits into this is definitely part of our ethos. We took a gamble on something that could resonate with people on the ground and show that we are actually here to stay. Our three pillars are: localization of content, which is particularly important to us; international content, because we want to make sure we have a lot of good international and Hollywood content that draws people into the service; and lots of regional content such as Turkish and Bollywood shows, which perform really well over here.
What else are you doing to engage with local audiences?
A lot of people look at the MENA region and see it as monolithic. We actually dig deeper and look beyond even the cultural clusters, such as the Gulf, Levant, Egypt, Maghreb, and French-speaking North Africa. We go down to the country level; we look at each one as entirely separate and entirely different. That is why we have a team in every country. We’ve particularly targeted certain countries: Saudi [Arabia], Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt.
A big challenge in the MENA region is to get people to use credit cards to pay for things, so it’s key to hook up with a telecom. Was that the logic of your partnership with Zain?
Our entry point with Zain was a marriage of needs where we saw a strategic partner that had a lot of reach in the region and gave us a great starting point, a kind of base anchor with which to reach a wide array of users. Southeast Asian countries are places where they don’t have credit card penetration; they don’t have particularly stable Internet, and data can be quite expensive. Also, most of the population have a pretty low willingness to pay. So we looked at that in Southeast Asia and realized that those aren’t just their problems; those are emerging market problems.
Are Hollywood shows on iflix subtitled, or are they dubbed?
We’ve built a language center in Jordan to ensure that all the content is subtitled and acceptable to our viewers. We want to effectively reach the widest number of users, and we know that certain types of content work better in different ways. Turkish content, for example, works better when it’s dubbed, but it has to be dubbed in the right kind of Arabic. A lot of the time, even when content is dubbed, certain [streaming] services will dub it in standard Arabic, which feels antiquated and inauthentic.
How are you dealing with censorship?
We fundamentally believe in the rights of countries to set their cultural norms. At the same time, what we want to do is work with them to find the right balance. If you censor too heavily, you end up driving people to piracy. If you don’t censor at all, then you are exposing families and people that don’t want the uncensored version [to potentially objectionable content]. We are working very hard on finding that right balance and working with government regulators. In our expansion in Southeast Asia, where we’ve worked in countries that have a high level of censorship, like Indonesia and Pakistan, we’ve learned to come up with a certain standard that really allows you to tell the story while respecting standard cultural boundaries. That’s something that is continuously evolving, and we need to evolve with it.