DS: What is the Arab Format Lab and its mission?
Arab Format Lab is a startup company. We spent one year to analyze the gap with countries where there is a strong media industry and look into ways of producing Saudi content with an international appeal. We study what is successful around the world with formats and ideas, and the goal is to bring these formats and match them with the expertise to develop local talent. We match the gaps that we find with the relevance to the Arabic world. Our mission is that we are going to create Saudi local content with positive social messages on an international level. We need content that has meaning and we cannot also be boring.
One of our goals is to create content that travels out of the Middle East. We need to start producing things that travel. The stereotype of Arabs is not going to change until we start producing things that change those perceptions. And we can monetize this content because if we invest in content because the ROI of sales is limited to the Middle East. If we enlarge our vision and make alliances in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, and producing content that can travel across the Arab speaking world, we will have new revenue streams.
DS: What are the gaps in the regional media industry that need to be developed?
You just look at the facts that will force people to wake up. There is a 55% decrease in viewership for western Hollywood dramas, and even with the mediocre content that we have there is an increase in local content viewership by 40%. Ad revenues are going down - only 10% of what is produced is generates 80% of advertising revenues. So lot of is produced but not making anything.
I’m hoping we will give the opportunity to get the industry thinking that when you bring in new formats and ideas, it is going to change the industry. Formats is about proper structured analysis of the market where you have proper advertising. If ten percent of what is produced is generating 80% of the revenue, then there is a lot of waste - so why not keep the 10% and start to diversify. Let’s respect local talent and invest in it on a longer term basis. Everyone now is looking at how we change Arab content to represent our national identity and local issues - not just by investing in technology but also in talent. Technology can be bought but talent needs to have a long term vision and investment.
DS: What are some of the initiatives you are working on?
We are doing a multi-platform digital platform that we developed with Microsoft for talent development and it will be the first user generated movie in Saudi and the Middle East. We are launching the Arab entertainment experience along with a broadcasters and a telco which will be a talent TV show going on air over 36 weeks where you will have a user generated Saudi movie or an Emirati movie coming out of this show. This will be the first multi-platform initiative and there will be a coaching sessions on specific specializations of making cinemas.
In theater we are working with sources from Broadway talent and Egypt theater and we are starting the Saudi theater that will move to different places around Saudi Arabia.
We are starting an initiative as part of DISCOP with partners from Los Angeles, where we are launching the Arab Format Accelerator. Over three days, licensors and local producers are invited to pitch their ideas and I am the chairwoman of this initiative. I’m on a tour now in the Middle East with some consultants now where we advise local people to come and teach them how to present their ideas. So we will have broadcasters and investors sitting and evaluating these ideas whether western ideas that are suitable to be localized or also developing ideas for investors who want to pick some good Arabic content that represent the Middle East properly and taking them out of ME. So it is exciting times!
DS: How do you find the development of local talent progressing?
I am so touched by the talent. When we started doing casting for theatrical plays and comedy shows, I could not believe the talent. People are leaving their jobs because they always dreamed of being in theatre and the sense of humour that they have is amazing. So I think there is a lot of talent with a thirst for attention and for years we have snubbed local talent. As part of Vision 2030 we really need to local industries and create local and that’s what we are doing with writers group.
This is why we are working on creating the infrastructure and we are starting with the writer's room so we have created various writers room in Jeddah and Damman and Riyadh and we have brought people form the BBC and LA to work with these writers and actually train these writers.
We have more than one writers room with acclaimed international senior writer and we are going to see the results in the long run. It will focus on the art of making cinema and not just acting it will focus on writing, directing, design, editing and other aspects of making cinema.It’s time for us to go back to create the infrastructure and invest in local talent. If we want talent we need to go and approach them – we are doing a tour in the ME with my company and we invite young people who have ideas and help them to present those ideas. Help them to reach from idea to the broadcaster.
DS: What kind of content do you think performs well in the Middle East?
Content producers need to go back and analyze and stop repeating ourselves. For example we don’t have an Arabic kids movie in 120 years of cinema. If you look at Nollywood’s example, you can see how they developed the kids content there. We need to change some of the ways of doing things which are illogical. Even with teen dramas - there are hardly any teen dramas in Arabic.
Today when people here see a Game of Thrones and a House of Cards, then they will not want to see something mediocre. It’s a must more than anything else to create things that are financially viable, and not just following the audience but leading the audience. And this is where the new genres of content can come into the region.
We have a lot of programs where we have brought rights for the Middle East and we have a three years plan to produce these shows and bring them to market. We are doing a local version of Parenthood, the first long term Hollywood format in Saudi and we are doing a local show, a sitcom about a Saudi woman who opens the first driving school for women. Our focus is on creating Saudi / Gulf content with a focus on women and youth oriented content.
We need to look at not just selling content in the region without developing it and the market. So not just selling a House of Cards locally, but developing a local House of Cards and selling it internationally. In the future you will see more investment even from international producers, because if done properly it will be an immediate revenue stream because the viewership demands the content.