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Arab TV Expands Beyond Soaps and Adapts Western Formats

Driven by still nascent streamers and pay-TV platforms in the region, Middle East producers are rethinking formats and storylines for Arabic TV dramas, adapting some Western shows and venturing beyond the constraints of so-called Ramadan soaps and skeins that have long been the bulk of their output.

Netflix, after entering the Middle East market in 2016, recently announced its first Arabic original series, “Jinn,” in which the lives of a group of present-day teenagers in the ancient Jordanian city of Petra are disrupted by a supernatural being who is their age.

The six-episode show will be directed by Lebanon’s Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, whose dark comedy debut “Very Big Shot” made a splash, and written by Bassel Ghandour who penned Jordan’s Oscar-nominated “Theeb.”

Leading Middle East pay-TV operator OSN recently picked up groundbreaking show “Qalb Al Adala” (“Justice”), inspired by “L.A. Law,” but based on real cases from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Dept. It is written by Emmy Award-winning U.S. producer William Finkelstein in collaboration with a local team and produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi in tandem with L.A.-based Parkes/MacDonald Prods.

OSN and Netflix in February announced an agreement under which OSN subscribers will be able to access Netflix content across the Middle East and North Africa. The unusual deal marks the U.S. streaming giant’s first partnership in the region. Though the announcement did not mention the prospect of a production partnership, that may be a next logical step.

“Everyone [in the Middle East] is interested in expanding their production scope outside Ramadan to reach viewers throughout the year,” says London-based analyst Constantinos Papavassilopoulos, principal research analyst at IHS Markit.

“This is easier said than done,” he notes, because broadcasters currently dedicate 50% of their budget just for one month (Ramadan) and they have to cover the other 11 months with the remaining 50%.

“And that’s where the online subscription services come into play,” he says.

Total online subscription video revenues for 2017 in MENA were $144.4 million, according to IHS Markit. That’s 43.5% over 2016 when, for the first time, revenues crossed the $100 million mark. So they are starting to gain traction.

Lebanon’s Cedars Art Production, the prominent film and TV company that recently scored a massive hit across the MENA region with TV show “Al Hayba,” is ramping up and reconfiguring its scripted content output with its first two high-end shows conceived for OTT play, one of which involves the fictional creation of a special pan-Arab investigative unit to fight ISIS.

“We are preparing our first original content specially made for OTT players,” said company president Sadek Anwar Sabbah at December’s Dubai Film Market, which has opened up to TV.

Sabbah said “Al Hayba” helmer Samer Al Barkawi is set to shoot “Ressort” (which can be translated as “Spring” or “Coil”) in which a couple “somewhat similar” to “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” will travel to a different MENA country in each “fast and edgy” episode.

The Middle East’s top free-TV broadcaster MBC has produced “Black Crows,” the first series set in the world of the Islamic State, which dramatizes life under ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Six months after launching into the Arab world, streaming service Iflix, which has a lower price point than Netflix, has made a splash with its first Arabic online original, a Cairo-set comedy of errors titled “Tough Luck,” packed with local stars. Though geared strictly for local audiences and aired during Ramadan last May, “Tough Luck,” which is set in a run-down tenement where residents are struggling with a crumbling wall, is being touted as a game-changer because it brought together a new OTT player with a prominent indie film distributor, Front Row which produced. It also marked the first time an Egyptian series comprised more than 40 of the Arab world’s biggest stars.
High-end subscription streamer Star Play Arabia, which is the first Starz-branded OTT service outside the U.S., has yet to venture into Arabic originals.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s TVision Media Production, the company that makes an Arabic version of “Saturday Night Live,” is set to produce a localized adaptation of “Suits,” USA Network’s long-running legal drama series, to be set in Cairo.

Produced by Tarek el Ganainy, the head writer is Egyptian multihyphenate Mohamed Hefzy, the prominent indie producer and scribe who runs Cairo’s Film Clinic shingle (festival hits “Sheikh Jackson,” “Clash”).

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