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.”
FAST TRACK TO EXCELLENCE
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.
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.. ZERO TO 100.
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.”
PARTNERSHIPS & PRODUCTIONS
“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.
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 KPI’S AND TO THE NEW THINKING THAT WE HAVE. WE ARE NOT EXPERIMENTING ANYMORE. WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT IT, WE ARE DOING IT
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