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Starz Play Arabia CEO Maaz Sheikh on Why Middle East Audiences Won’t Watch Tom Cruise Dubbed Into Arabic

Subscription streaming service Starz Play Arabia, which is now operating in 17 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, is the first Starz-branded service outside the U.S. It was launched in April of last year, beating Netflix to the punch in a region with a young, highly wired demographic and a population estimated at 370 million.

Earlier this month, Starz Play partnered with Vodafone in Egypt and Maroc Telecom in Morocco, with plans to expand into more territories in 2017. Variety spoke with Starz Play CEO Maaz Sheikh about the challenges of competing with Netflix in the fast-growing region, what Hollywood shows play well, and why Arabs don’t want to watch Tom Cruise dubbed in their own language. Some excerpts:

What have the biggest challenges been in launching this type of service, which is new for the MENA region?

The two big challenges in this part of the world are: No. 1, methods of payment. Credit card penetration is extremely low and willingness to pay online — even if they have a credit card — is even lower. The confidence and trust with online credit card payments just isn’t there. So that’s your No. 1 challenge.

Even though Hollywood product is universal, curating it and marketing it to the right audience, with the right message and language and interface so that they can understand it, is a whole other challenge. You can’t just put out a movie and expect for it to resonate with the [Middle East] market.

Is your Hollywood content dubbed into Arabic, or is it just subtitled?

It’s mostly subtitled, but animated content is dubbed. The reason it has evolved this way is that Hollywood has had a long history in [the Middle East], so people have grown up watching all the big movie stars speaking in English and watching their movies subtitled. They’d rather not see Tom Cruise speak Arabic. But on the animated side, all the big Pixar and Disney animation, we make those available dubbed in Arabic. Kids’ content is dubbed in Arabic, and that seems to work well.

In North Africa, it’s different: They prefer to see Hollywood movies dubbed in French.

Netflix launched in this region eight months after you did. How do you compete with them, and how does your content offer differ?

Netflix is basically trying to buy global rights. While they build this portfolio of global rights, they have these pockets where even some of their own original content is licensed to another operator in that market. For example, one of their top shows, “Bloodline,” which is an original Netflix production, is on the Starz Play platform. We have the rights [for this region] exclusively and they don’t. “House of Cards” plays exclusively on [pay-TV operator] OSN and not on Netflix. So they have this challenge not only with content from other major studios, but also with their own content.

I think after this whole big global launch, what they seem to be doing is focusing on some key international markets, because they realize they can’t take the global challenge head-on in all 120 countries. From what we see, the MENA region is not one of these markets yet.

Can you tell me how many subscribers you have attained in over a year?

The paying active base is over 150,000 now, and the total sign-ups in this period are over half a million. You have people that sign up with a [free] trial and then a certain percentage of them turn into paying subscribers, and then a certain number drop out after that.

Which U.S. studios do you work with?

We are working with several major studios, including Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, MGM, CBS, Showtime and Starz, of course, and we also work with independents and mini-majors like Lionsgate. We recently signed a deal with BBC as well.

Since launching, what are some of your top shows across the territories where you operate?

Original shows from CBS and Showtime, and Starz, which air on a first-run exclusive basis, day-and-date, generally speaking perform very well. In that category you have “Power,” from Starz, the Showtime show “Billions” is doing really well, and then “Vikings,” also day-and-date.

What about Saudi Arabia? They don’t have movie theaters, so digital consumption seems all the more important there.

Saudi is our No. 1 market, both in terms of active base as well as growth. Once we partnered with Saudi Telecom, which is the No. 1 operator there, our numbers grew significantly. What we offer is a service they can subscribe to and pay through Saudi Telecom.

What are some of your top shows in Saudi?

In Saudi, “The Walking Dead,” “Vikings,” “Power” all do really well. Some of the library shows like “Breaking Bad” also do really well. One of the shows that stands out in Saudi is “Ray Donovan.” It’s also a big movie market, because of the lack of movie theaters.

Do you have to tone Hollywood content down for Saudi?

We realize that there is a certain segment of customers in this part of the world that want to watch unedited and uncensored content, and we provide that. But we also realize that there is another segment of the market that does not want to watch some of the premium series with some nudity and sex in them, and they would like to watch these shows in a more family-friendly edited format. So we give consumers the choice. Being able to provide that family-friendly Hollywood content experience is also a big differentiator for us in Saudi.

How about Arabic content? What works?

In the past few years, the original content and series being produced in the Gulf region, specifically Kuwait, have picked up quite a bit. The ones we pick up from the Gulf market are some of the top-performing shows on our platform. They all tend to be family dramas. One is “Saq El Bamboo,” a classic family drama about a half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino young man returning to Kuwait to reconnect with his family. There is also a history drama, “Malek Bin Rayb”; think of it as the Arab world’s “Vikings.”

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