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Fadi Is­mail dis­cusses the launch of MBC Studios and why the new en­tity will usher in a new era of pemium con­tent pro­duc­tion

With the launch of MBC Studios, the re­gion’s largest me­dia group has em­barked on an am­bi­tious roadmap to cre­ate what they hope will be the pre­mium con­tent pro­duc­tion en­tity in the Mid­dle East. The foun­da­tion of MBC Studios is built on the strengths of O3 Pro­duc­tions, the drama and film pro­duc­tion arm of MBC Group. Fadi Is­mail, Gen­eral Man­ager of O3 Pro­duc­tions un­der whose ex­per­tise O3 be­came a re­gional leader, pro­duc­ing and dis­tribut­ing best-of-breed con­tent, speaks to Dig­i­tal Stu­dio ME and ex­plains why the launch of MBC Studios is a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment for re­gional film and TV pro­duc­tion.

Fadi Is­mail be­lieves the time is ripe for bring­ing to life a new vi­sion for film and TV pro­duc­tion in the Mid­dle East. The pri­mary rea­son for this is that a fun­da­men­tal change has oc­curred in re­cent years, in terms of con­tent con­sump­tion around the world. Peo­ple have ac­cess to en­ter­tain­ment be­yond phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers, which was hith­erto im­pos­si­ble. Bar­ri­ers are be­ing bro­ken down be­cause of dub­bing and subti­tling, and no­tions of con­sump­tion habits have been chal­lenged in terms of global in­ter­est and will­ing­ness to watch sub­ti­tled con­tent in for­eign lan­guages.

“It is ob­vi­ous that in the last few years the ap­petite for non-English con­tent has been opened wide,” Is­mail says to be­gin the in­ter­view. This is the pri­mary fac­tor driv­ing MBC’s new ap­proach to con­tent pro­duc­tion. “The world has changed and pref­er­ences have changed. What wasn’t pos­si­ble a few years ago in terms of view­ers ac­cept­ing to watch con­tent where they have to lis­ten to for­eign lan­guages and just read the sub­ti­tle, has gone from… while I hes­i­tate to says it has dou­bled or tripled, you can say it’s gone from zero to 100,” says Is­mail.

This ac­cep­tance of non-English con­tent says Is­mail, has forced con­tent pro­duc­ers to re­think their strat­egy. “It has forced con­tent pro­duc­ers to set aside pre­vi­ous am­bi­tions and plans to be put in one di­rec­tion: that is based on cre­at­ing con­tent based on com­pelling sto­ry­telling that can travel across re­gions.” With the for­ma­tion of MBC Studios, MBC Group just made a big state­ment – it

wants to be the name for pre­mium con­tent com­ing out of the re­gion.

“We be­lieve the MENA re­gion and in par­tic­u­lar Saudi is full of sto­ries that haven’t been told and I think that the de­ci­sion to cre­ate one en­tity is the best way pos­si­ble to achieve these dreams and am­bi­tions.” While he be­lieves the nor­mal Arab drama will still be the bread and but­ter of MBC’s pro­duc­tion arm, Is­mail says this new ap­proach is based on cre­at­ing con­tent for the re­gion and for the world.

“We want to in­crease the vol­ume and qual­ity of our lo­cal dra­mas and make the pro­duc­tion val­ues higher. We want to in­crease the pro­duc­tion value so we can reach out to an au­di­ence that hasn’t been in­tro­duced to Arab and Saudi con­tent, and make it so we can reach out to an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence.” MBC Studios ex­plains Is­mail, will “Push the bound­aries in terms of ac­cept­abil­ity of such con­tent.”

How­ever for con­tent to have an in­ter­na­tional ap­peal it is cru­cial for the pro­grams and films to find an au­di­ence in the Arab world. “Peo­ple have to love it here be­fore they love it out­side, so first we have 300 mil­lion peo­ple [in the re­gion] to sat­isfy their crav­ing for en­ter­tain­ment.” “Es­pe­cially in KSA we have such a huge au­di­ence.” Is­mail feels the huge ra­tio of young peo­ple un­der 30 in the Mid­dle East, is an im­por­tant fac­tor in the chang­ing con­tent pref­er­ences.

This mas­sive young de­mo­graphic is em­brac­ing the rapidly chang­ing me­dia and en­ter­tain­ment land­scape. The last few years have seen the rise of OTT plat­forms that have opened au­di­ences to con­tent that works across ge­ogra­phies, chal­leng­ing pre­vi­ous held be­liefs of view­ing pref­er­ences. Orig­i­nal con­tent on plat­forms like Netflix is the key rea­son why au­di­ences are more open to for­eign lan­guage con­tent.

“To give credit to Netflix,” he says, “it did break many bound­aries and made multi-lan­guage con­tent ac­cept­able.

I think that any­way in this re­gion we needed the mo­ti­va­tion and the shock to change – be­cause the con­tent wasn’t go­ing to where we would like it to go.”

“Our con­tent is al­ready on Netflix and is be­ing ap­pre­ci­ated by a di­verse au­di­ence. We are chang­ing the game al­ways in terms of sto­ry­telling – the 30 episode Ra­madan series should not be what we rely on and we are plan­ning series which do not fit into that for­mat.”

O3 Pro­duc­tions as a sub­sidiary of the MBC Group has been a pow­er­house in the re­gional pro­duc­tion scene. Fadi Is­mail’s lead­er­ship has al­lowed O3 Pro­duc­tions to cre­ate in­ven­tive pro­gram­ming and O3 has in­no­vated with many firsts, such as the first 15 episode TV for­mat.

Its ex­ten­sive li­brary now con­tains thou­sands of hours of pre­mium con­tent in­clud­ing Saraya Ab­deen, Al Qaserat, and the Arab his­tor­i­cal series, Omar. One of the most re­cent and suc­cess­ful pro­duc­tions of O3 is “04”, a half-hour series air­ing on MBC 4.

Is­mail knows the need of the hour is to raise the bar in vol­ume, in qual­ity, and in com­pelling sto­ry­telling but knows it will take time. “I think this is a brave new world, and we need a lit­tle bit of time to put our house to­gether. MBC studios is just an­nounced and we are work­ing on a slate of films and series that re­spond to those new KPIs and to the new think­ing that we have. We have plans and ideas for sto­ries are de­vel­op­ing sto­ries that make such plans and am­bi­tions re­al­is­able.”

“We are not ex­per­i­ment­ing any­more. We are not talk­ing about it, we are do­ing it!” Is­mail adds em­phat­i­cally.

MBC STUDIOS: A new era of con­tent

The MBC Group said in a state­ment, the pri­mary ob­jec­tive of MBC Studios would be to fo­cus on lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional film and TV drama series that would res­onate with au­di­ences in MENA. Apart from O3 Pro­duc­tions, the new en­tity will also amal­ga­mate the re­sources of Sadaf, a Saudi based com­pa­nies and O3’s sis­ter com­pany in Is­tan­bul O3 Medya.

“Con­tent is the fuel that drives the suc­cess of both MBC tele­vi­sion and Shahid. net, our VOD plat­form,” said MBC Group CEO Sam Bar­nett. “Build­ing on the Group’s suc­cesses in drama, we are now ex­pand­ing our am­bi­tion and widen­ing our hori­zons yet fur­ther. I am de­lighted to wel­come Peter Smith to MBC Group.”

Peter Smith com­mented on the op­por­tu­nity for Mid­dle East pro­duc­tions to find a wider au­di­ence: “The fu­ture is cer­tainly pos­i­tive for MBC Studios es­pe­cially in terms of lever­ag­ing the sig­nif­i­cant trend for non-English lan­guage tele­vi­sion con­tent to travel to more global mar­kets.”

MBC Studios will take on projects to produce com­pelling sto­ries from the re­gion for con­sump­tion on cin­ema, tele­vi­sion and on-de­mand plat­forms. In the com­ing months MBC Group hopes to an­nounce a slate of new pro­duc­tions. While de­tails of the first pro­duc­tions from the new en­tity will take a lit­tle while to emerge, Is­mail is con­fi­dent that these will be the, “best ever pro­duc­tions seen in the re­gion be­cause we have taken our time.”

Is­mail is sure that hav­ing a leader at the helm with the ex­pe­ri­ence of green­light­ing suc­cess­ful con­tent at a ma­jor pro­duc­tion com­pany like NBCUniver­sal will be a great as­set. “Peter Smith will use his wide ex­pe­ri­ence and con­nec­tions to take MBC Studios to a much higher sta­tus in the short­est pos­si­ble time and I think he can do that.”


Is­mail says that the re­gional in­dus­try will need to “rely on lo­cal ac­tors and pro­duc­ers, but this will take time and we will work to in­cu­bate and trans­fer knowl­edge – in ksa and in the wider re­gion.”

This fo­cus on trans­fer of skills is im­por­tant to quickly de­velop lo­cal tal­ent he thinks. “At the end of the day, there is no one that can re­place lo­cal tal­ent but we need to make sure the ecosys­tem for pro­duc­tion is built on a solid foun­da­tion of in­ter­na­tional stan­dard. Is­mail knows this will take a bit of time but he is con­fi­dent that the skills trans­fer will gather pace.

There is a gap,” he ad­mits. “Es­pe­cially if the am­bi­tion is to go up­wards, there will be a lit­tle bit of an up­hill strug­gle. The only thing the re­gion needs to fo­cus on is to just put the tal­ent in a sys­tem that helps them and us.” By re­cruit­ing the tal­ent, and train­ing and work­ing with them says Is­mail, this will only grow the avail­able pool of tal­ent he ex­plains. “It’s like a snow­ball ef­fect,” he points out.


He rec­og­nizes the need to fast track tal­ent de­vel­op­ment. “We don’t want to waste any more time, there was so much time wasted al­ready.” While MBC will have its own pro­grams for ed­u­ca­tion of tal­ents and there are many ini­tia­tives tak­ing place to train and to in­cu­bate tal­ents, Is­mail feels get­ting lo­cal pro­duc­tion peo­ple to shadow in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tion teams, is crit­i­cal at this stage.

“We will also rely on work­ing on the ground with tal­ent and bring­ing them to shadow and learn and work with in­ter­na­tional tal­ent be­cause we can­not for years and years of classes and aca­demic pro­grams. It is im­por­tant to have an aca­demic ap­proach, but in the mean­time we want the tal­ent to shadow more ex­pe­ri­enced crew from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, so that trans­fer of knowl­edge can hap­pen with tal­ent from all over the world. It’s a fast track for learn­ing.”

Com­ment­ing on the need for build­ing pro­duc­tion in­fra­struc­ture in the form of studios and fa­cil­i­ties, Is­mail says: “I thinks this will be a must but it is step two. You can al­ways film some­how and one can use makeshift re­sources. We need hu­man re­sources, the phys­i­cal re­sources will come and I’m not wor­ried about that.”

“The chal­lenge is not to build big phys­i­cal real es­tate projects and call them studios and say we have what we need. What we need is hu­man re­sources and cre­ativ­ity and the abil­ity to cre­ate the best sources of sto­ry­telling. When we do that, the studios will come. When you start do­ing big pro­duc­tions, the studios and back lots will au­to­mat­i­cally come. We are not go­ing to wait for big back lots and stu­dio cities, pro­duc­tion can go on with­out that.”


“We have many part­ners re­gion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally and we are re­sort­ing to the best of cre­ative tal­ents. If we don’t have good sto­ries then we don’t need to talk about pro­duc­tions. The ba­sics is good sto­ry­telling and if we have that, we will have many many projects and films.”

“We don’t need to be alone. We be­lieve we can work with part­ner who have the same am­bi­tion and will help us reach our con­tent to a wide in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. Our con­tent is be­ing ap­pre­ci­ated by part­ners,” he adds. Is­mail says they have built strong in­ter­na­tional part­ner­ships with the likes of Prop­a­gate, Anony­mous Con­tent and Betafilms. They have an ex­ten­sive part­ner­ship with Im­age Na­tion, co­op­er­at­ing on many projects and series in­clud­ing some about to be an­nounced. With Betafilms, Is­mail says there are 4 projects and hope to soon be able to pitch them to­gether and get them off the ground.

Anony­mous Con­tent, in 2016 inked a deal to consult with MBC Group. Anony­mous Con­tent works with 03 Pro­duc­tions to ad­vise them on de­vel­op­ing and pro­duc­ing both Arabic and English-lan­guage con­tent. The deal al­lows MBC ac­cess to Anony­mous’ cre­ative know-how, ex­pe­ri­ence and, in spe­cific cases, tal­ent ros­ter.

Is­mail says they al­ready have a good slate of projects un­der pro­duc­tion pick­ing out Al Asouf which he de­scribes as the big­gest Saudi drama ever pro­duced. “It will be in its sec­ond sea­son, we are pre­par­ing for the new sea­son.” ‘Al-Asouf’ is a Saudi drama se­rial de­pict­ing Saudi life and so­ci­ety in the 70s. The flag­ship MBC show, aired daily dur­ing Ra­madan, with the first sea­son filmed two years ago in twofour54 Abu Dhabi.


The series, aired on MBC net­work dur­ing Ra­madan ear­lier this year, caused a stir in Saudi so­ci­ety as it en­thralled view­ers and at­tracted re­ac­tions from many Saudis. Those lik­ing the se­rial said they en­joyed it be­cause of the high qual­ity pro­duc­tion and the way the mes­sage of the in­ci­dents is de­liv­ered.

A youth tar­get­ing 15 episode series about a fe­male boxer is be­ing filmed as we speak, he men­tions, and the Im­age Na­tion co-pro­duced series and film based on the pop­u­lar Saudi novel HWJN: “We are de­vel­op­ing it with the best tal­ents. Many writ­ers are work­ing on this. It is tak­ing time but time equals qual­ity. That was one of the prob­lems be­fore [with] do­ing 30 episode dra­mas in 3 months.”

Is­mail say the plan is to grad­u­ally but surely in­crease the vol­ume to sat­isfy the re­quire­ment of MBC group of chan­nels, and for the ris­ing the­atri­cal mar­ket open­ing in Saudi Ara­bia and the MENA re­gion, and from there to the world. MBC group will only get stronger with more ca­pac­ity build­ing and more vol­ume on a re­gional scale and in­ter­na­tional scale. The group Chair­man’s five year vi­sion is about reach­ing out con­nect­ing and be­com­ing a player on a big­ger scale than it is now. There­fore a five year strate­gic plan is needed – in terms of pro­duc­tion, con­tent, plat­forms. “We are all ex­cited about that!”

Is­mail knows that be­com­ing a player in the global pro­duc­tion like many of the lead­ing pro­duc­tion houses and studios around the world will mean, “Hav­ing a lot of con­tent not only for your plat­forms but also for oth­ers. We want to ex­cel in pro­duc­tion and in pitch­ing pro­duc­tions and con­tent that is open for any­body who wants to work with us, whether it is a co-pro­duc­tion, com­mis­sion­ing con­tent, part­ner­ships, or any of the busi­ness mod­els that can work.”

Al­though it’s not his area of ex­per­tise, Is­mail be­lieves that it is in­evitable that any growth strat­egy will have to take in to con­sid­er­a­tion OTT plat­forms. “This is es­sen­tial,” he says adding that MBC’s Shahid ser­vice will have pre­mium con­tent soon. “With­out that it’s dif­fi­cult to have a growth strat­egy. Good quan­tity and qual­ity of pre­mium con­tent will make it ap­peal­ing to sub­scribers.”


Dur­ing his time Is­mail says there have been two ma­jor shocks to TV pro­duc­tion. “The first was when Turk­ish con­tent came to the re­gion in 2008, in which we were pioneers in bring­ing that [for­mat] to the re­gion.” MBC was the first to in­tro­duce Turk­ish soap op­eras dubbed in clas­si­cal and col­lo­quial Arabic to the Arab au­di­ence start­ing in 2008. This caused both a shock and re­sponse from the broad­cast in­dus­try says Is­mail.

The dra­mas were so pop­u­lar that they had a huge ef­fect on not just TV pro­gram­ming de­ci­sions, even Arab tourism to Turkey in­creased as a re­sult. At the height of its pop­u­lar­ity the Turk­ish soap “Noor” gar­nered nearly 92 mil­lion view­ers in the Arab world when the series fi­nale went on air. Is­mail says the best thing that hap­pened to Arab drama is Turk­ish drama be­cause they had to im­prove their qual­ity.

Re­cently, the sec­ond shock hap­pened when the Turk­ish shows dis­ap­peared, and Is­mail says, “There was no lux­ury of wait­ing any­more. There is noth­ing bet­ter than hav­ing lo­cal con­tent.” In March of this year, view­ers no­ticed the halt of sev­eral Turk­ish series on MBC chan­nels. There was no for­mal ex­pla­na­tion for the move, how­ever part of it was aimed at end­ing the years of pro­mot­ing Turk­ish con­tent.

“We have stopped air­ing the Turk­ish drama on the dif­fer­ent chan­nels of MBC, in­clud­ing MBC 1, MBC 4 and MBC Drama,” said MBC spokesper­son Mazen Hayek at that time. “Let this de­ci­sion be an incentive for all of us to produce more pre­mium con­tent Arab drama to broad­cast it across the board on our air­waves,” con­tin­ued Hayek.

The de­ci­sion was aimed at en­hanc­ing Arab pro­duc­tion of dra­mas, the al­lo­ca­tion of bud­gets for pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing, as well as hir­ing writ­ers and direc­tors to produce dra­mas that sur­pass the qual­ity and stan­dards of Turk­ish soaps, felt MBC.

“There is a gap and a need and noth­ing to stop us from fill­ing that gap for view­ers who are used to watch­ing Turk­ish or in­ter­na­tional con­tent. That’s the plan and that’s why MBC Studios as an en­tity has been cre­ated.

Re­gard­ing where he sees the com­pe­ti­tion for MBC Studios com­ing from, Is­mail says re­gion­ally at least there is no one, “For now there is no­body who has the vol­ume and am­bi­tions and plans and the ca­pac­ity and re­sources to do what we would like to do.”

O3 Pro­duc­tions has worked closely with twofour54, film­ing ‘Al Asouf’ in Abu Dhabi in 2016Bab al-Hara, one of the most pop­u­lar TV series in the Arab world, ran for 9 sea­sons

Peter Smith and Sam Bar­nett at the launch of MBC Studios

Peter Smith will use his in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence to launch pre­mium projects

Omar, one of the big­gest Arab pro­duc­tions for O3 cost US$53.3 mil­lion

His­tor­i­cal epic Saraya Ab­din is cur­rently one of O3 Pro­duc­tions big­gest series

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