Starz Play Arabia was launched in 2015 as the first Starz-branded SVOD outside the U.S. Now available in 20 countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan, the service until recently had been growing at a steady rate. After COVID-19 struck, much like other streamers around the world, Starz Arabia has seen a major growth spurt that’s set to grow further thanks to additional distribution through Apple TV channels starting this month.

The company’s co-founder and CEO Maaz Sheikh spoke exclusively to Variety about how he plans to sustain that growth and why the prospect of Disney Plus possibly launching in the region doesn’t serve as an “existential threat.”

You recently released figures pointing to strong growth during the coronavirus crisis that in the Middle East overlapped with Ramadan, which is always peak TV season for Arab audiences. What are your key indicators?

In terms of consumption, we grew about three times our previous average, if you will. From January 2020 to the peak of COVID-19 in April, we tripled in a matter of four months.

To give you perspective, at least for our business, we grew more in 8 weeks in terms of consumption, than we did in the last 5 years since we started the company. It’s a very shocking stat, but it’s true.

Okay, that’s in terms of consumption. What about subscribers?

We are currently at 1.8 million. And we started the year at about 1.2 million-1.3 million. So, it’s been a good year for us. We’ve grown very nicely.

Didn’t the competition also benefit from lockdown in terms of subscriber growth? And how stable is this growth?

I think in terms of paying subscribers, the jury is perhaps still out for some of the other platforms. But definitely Netflix, Starzplay (Arabia) and OSN benefitted a lot in terms of paying subscribers.

The one thing I’ll say on paying subscribers…this is true for us, and I’m assuming it’s true for other platforms as well: No one really knows what’s the stickiness of the subscribers that have come during this period. We, for one, have definitely experienced an increase in churn as the lockdown eased. So I’m still hesitant to say and declare victory on financial and paying subscribers in the long term as an effect of COVID-19. Certainly, consumption was through the roof. Subscriber growth was there. Now how long they stay, it’s too early to tell.

What are some of your top Hollywood shows?

If you look at our programming today, it comes from almost all the major studios. To give you some specifics: “Big Bang Theory” and “Friends” — both from Warners Bros. — are two of our top shows, as far as binge-watching and minutes (of consumption) are concerned.  Then you look at “The Office” from Universal, it’s up there with them in terms of consumption. Then you move on to Disney shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” which comes from ABC, it’s still one of our top shows.

From Sony we have “The Good Doctor,” a new show that’s doing really well. From MGM we’ve got “The Handmaid’s Tale”…then there is Showtime which has been our partner from day one and continues to be our partner. “Billions” continues to be a top performing show.

What about Arabic content?

During COVID-19 and Ramadan, we saw five times the consumption of Arabic content that we saw during previous years. We’ve also been experimenting with different genres of Arabic content, including comedy, drama, and even action, and we carry Arabic movies.

Talk to me about your Arab originals

We started with “Baghdad Central,” which we’ve called our original, though it was in collaboration with Fremantle and Hulu.

Our first original that we are producing locally is “Urban Legends,” which we are looking to release in early 2020/2021 since things got delayed because of COVID-19. And then in 2021, by the end of that year, we are looking to produce two more shows, and then 4 more in the following year. That’s our roadmap for original content.

Will your recent distribution pact with Fremantle lead to more originals with them?

That form of collaboration with a leading Western studio, that can bring in some of the Western Hollywood talent, and mixing it with Arabic and regional leads is a very successful formula for us. So, yes we are looking to do more of that as well. With “Baghdad Central” what worked for us was that the show was shot in Morocco with (U.S. star) Waleed Zuaiter as the lead, so it gave us all the anchors we needed for it to be a regional show, but at the same time gave that quality our subscribers have come to expect of a Western show. It was the best of both worlds for us. We are looking to do more of that with Fremantle and other studios of that size.

How has “Baghdad Central” performed for you?

We aired it in mid-February, and we had the opportunity of hosting the lead talent, including Waleed Zuaiter and the producers in Dubai. That definitely helped us establish the show locally and make it more relevant to the region.

Within six weeks, it became our top performing Arabic show, and one of our top 10 shows overall. Even though it’s six episodes — it’s not big box set — it was one of our top 5 shows during March and April. And it really helped us acquire new customers, which is where it was really most effective.

Why do you think Disney Plus hasn’t launched its service in the Middle East yet?

Disney has quite extensive licensing partnerships here, going back 20-25 years. And their revenues aren’t simply content licensing, but are also associated a lot with merchandise sales as well as theatrical. For them, it’s not just about licensing content or Disney Plus. It’s a much bigger picture here…Also I think that the Middle East has its own complexities and needs for any platform to be localized…from ability to monetize with methods of payment (credit cards aren’t as widespread) and telco integration to perhaps the range of languages — if you will — between Arabic, French and English that are spoken here.

Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume that Disney Plus will launch its service in the region in the next two years. We have to be prepared for it, and we assume that they will.

What makes Starz Play Arabia stand out? What is its specific identity?

The identity part for the foreseeable future will remain a mix of premium Hollywood and Arabic content. Yes, Disney Plus might launch in the region. But we still see plenty of opportunity in licensing Hollywood content to be able to build and curate a very powerful service that can compete with the likes of Disney Plus and Netflix. The reason we say that is because even today we see a very balanced consumption on our service among the different studios and also in terms of different genres.

We don’t see Disney Plus as an existential threat. There are plenty of other studios that we have access to and are working with that do not plan to launch direct-to-consumer services in the MENA region, and we have that assurance because we have partnerships with them for multiple years.