Interview with Pyramedia CEO Nashwa Al Ruwaini

Pyramedia has contributed immensely to putting Abu Dhabi at the forefront as a potential vocation for regional film and TV production talent. CEO Nashwa Al Ruwaini talks about her company’s evolution, shifting production trends, and being a woman leader in the industry.
Pyramedia, Abu Dhabi, Twofour54, Abu Dhabi Media Company

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Nashwa Al Ruwaini, CEO and founder of Pyramedia first became a household name in the Middle East when her self-titled talk show ‘Nashwa’ aired on MBC. The Cairo born media producer established her own consultancy and production company Pyramedia in 1998 after working in the media in London and Cairo. The company has since gone from strength to strength winning many accolades and she has consistently been recognized as one the most powerful women in Arab media. Among their many achievements, Pyramedia conceived and executed the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and this September, for the ninth year running hosted the prestigious International Emmy’s semifinal judging round in Abu Dhabi.

“The company started as a dream in a restaurant in London,” begins Al Ruwaini. At that point, she had worked most of her life in the UK media industry. “It’s the place to learn media worldwide. So I wanted to bring on the standards of western media to our Arab productions. And as I was working with MBC at the time, I headed MBC operations in the Arab world once we moved. We opened up the production and news offices in Cairo and we expanded from there.”

MBC Group’s coup in securing Arab rights to ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ which was first broadcast on MBC in 2000 is widely regarded as a turning point in the spread of formats across Arab TV channels. Al Ruwaini was able to convince the creators of the show, UK company Celador, to move the production of the show to the Arab world. Al Ruwaini recounts, “Celador was very meticulous about having the show sets made anywhere else. Part of their package was to do the production in their studios. But because we were doing so many episodes and we had a good relationship, we managed to get the show to be produced in Egypt.”

This move resulted in an important transfer of world-class skills and production values to the region. “They (Celador) had the best expertise…the best cameramen, DOPs etc. What I did was that I had Egyptian crews shadowing them on the production and within a fraction of time the crew was 100% Arab. This helped a lot with the budgeting of course,” Al Ruwaini points out. “But,” she adds, “It also created an army of talent that is of international standard. Most of these people are now heading the different channels in the Arab world at the moment. This core team of 120 people that was created in Cairo to produce for MBC - they have become the movers and shakers in the media industry of the Arab world!” In this way she became familiar with the concept of bringing formats and arabising them.

At that point she decided to do her own thing and as she felt her experience meant she now knew what it took to move forward with her own projects. “Also I was pregnant with my first born so I decided it was a sign to slow down first and then to start my own thing… 40 days after my delivery I was in Huesca, Spain being the media consultant for Kingdom of Heaven with Ridley Scott and Branko Lustig, so work started coming in.”

“I thought I would focus on cinema because it’s my passion and I wanted to pursue my Hollywood endeavours. But TV can never get out of your blood. I started creating my own formats and I sold them to TV. Formats like the morning show (Sabah Al Dar) and including one that featured me as the anchor,” she says. Nashwa ran for a few seasons on MBC. These were original formats but she wanted them to be made to international standards saying, “the benchmark for me was always international – so if it is ‘Nashwa’ the benchmark would be Oprah. Some of the formats created for MBC are still on air to date,” she says proudly.


Above: Million Poet (2005-2016)

“Then came the phase of ‘Millions Poet’ – it was a huge magnitude of production, much bigger than ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’.” The first TV show highlighting and reviving Arab poetry, it ran for 7 seasons and was keenly followed by millions of viewers in the Arab world. This was followed by talent competition ‘Prince of Poets’ broadcast on 4 satellite channels in the region and other formats followed. Al Ruwaini says, “We have diversified in a way that we cater for the local productions and we work with international entities that want to feature the Arab world. So we have a lot of collaborations with international entities for instance if they want documentaries, or they want casting or location scouting.”

A recent such casting project was for the movie ‘Aladdin’ and here she touches on the topic of Arab talent breaking through in the western media. “Unfortunately Aladdin was not an Arab. We had amazing talent from the Arab world but unfortunately they were not chosen – but then all the people we have casted - they are in the Disney database so who knows - they can be chosen in the future.”

She thinks the crossover of Arab talent is definitely increasing since her first experience casting for Kingdom of Heaven. Al Ruwaini describes the experience: “For the role of the actor playing Salahuddin – there was a Pakistani and Turkish actor nominated. And I said to (producer) Branko Lustig – we have our Arab Salahuddin, you just have to try them out!” “He agreed and we had to fly them over to Europe on short notice. They had no visas which are very difficult to get for Syrians and Egyptians. Just to have the actors travel within 24 hours, Ministers had to interfere on our behalf. In the end he chose three actors for Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Anything we do, it has to have an edge,” she says, explaining how the movies and documentaries they decide to produce usually have a cause. Al Ruwaini cites the example of a documentary about a campaign to identify the remains of Iraqis killed in the war so the families can get a proper burial, in which the likes of Amnesty and the UN were involved.

“We are launching a new show – it’s a big production called (beautiful old times in Arabic) it’s a talent show based on recreation of the old music genres and the old music tycoons of the Arab world. It’s open for all ages and we are doing it with Abu Dhabi TV. We are launching the promos today so that’s a scoop!” says Al Ruwaini with her trademark laugh. “I’ve never been a fan of producing talent shows because everyone does it, but this one is different because it’s about the old times to dig into your past and I want to let the new generations know all about us and never forget us. We’re also doing music redistribution for old songs by new talent.”

GARNERING SUPPORT

“If it was not for the support of the Abu Dhabi government and H.H Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, none of the projects I have spoken about would have seen the light,” she tells us. When you go with a program about poetry like for Millions Poet most broadcasters are not buying. “We were turned down by everybody,” says Al Ruwaini. Support from people such as the late Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, an adviser to the Crown Prince and the former chairman of Abu Dhabi Media Company was critical to getting the media and cultural hub in Abu Dhabi off the ground she explains.

“Because God rest his soul, Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei was a believer in this, and he and myself went and presented for Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed and His Highness gave us the go ahead, that day there and then! Then we approached with Prince of Poets and we got the go ahead, and we approached with the fi lm festival in Abu Dhabi and we got the go ahead. For the film financing circle same thing, and for feasibility studies for the New York Film Academy we got a go ahead. So it was one project after another.”

“There was a vision for Abu Dhabi to become a media and cultural hub and this is what we worked for and we worked very hard to make it happen. I tell you, things that would take seven years took seven months,” she says of the efforts that went into creating the Abu Dhabi media hub. Now Abu Dhabi is reaping the fruits such as hosting the International Emmys for 9 years running.

She first proposed to host the judging round in Abu Dhabi in a meeting with the Academy in Cannes. Al Ruwaini says there was a lot of back and forth with the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences thanks to the comprehensive process of assessing the strengths and capabilities of potential partners. Thanks to the support of board member Camille Roizen who presented it to the International Academy board, they agreed for one year and “now we have been here for 9 years!”


Above: Abu Dhabi Emmy judging round in progress

There is more to come soon she adds: “We are working on similar initiatives that would bring in more media into Abu Dhabi - it has to do with awards. I cannot disclose the details now because that will be a big media hype.” Pyramedia has also arranged an alliance between the Abu Dhabi Media Company and National Geographic to launch a free-to-air Arabic channel. “With Nat Geo, it was very tough to convince them to go free to air with the channel says Al Ruwaini. She feels this is one of her greatest achievements because through the agreement “we were able to cherry pick from the vast amazing library of content they have. It was worth it and Nat Geo Abu Dhabi is one of my favorite channels.”

Al Ruwaini tells us her philosophy on getting projects off the ground: “I never take no for an answer. I do not find it hard to knock on any door asking for what I dream of, or what I am assigned to do. You can get one thousand “No’s” but there would be one “Yes” that would be worth all the effort.” So all the projects that came out of such hard negotiations have been fruitful.

“When we started 14 years ago there was not much talent in the market. None whatsoever - if your cameraman got sick, he cannot be replaced and you just put the camera on static! But we had the clear instructions of the hub – TwoFour54 was created and the talent started to come in. Convincing the talent was the difficult task because they need to know if they will come here, they will have work.”

They hired 150 people to start with, but as a company you cannot do that because it totally drains the budget. But in order to do productions out of Abu Dhabi it was needed at the time. “That’s why the budgets are high. If you do the same production out of Cairo or Beirut it will not cost that much. But to create a hub – you needed to get the talent to come here and do the production out of Abu Dhabi and it happened. Now if you lose a cameraman you can get three. We have a good pool of talent now.”

“The work is still not as much as it should be and this will be the next challenge. Because in order to sustain the talent and keep them with you, we need more work. I want to reach the day where we say all our productions are done out of here and at an extremely competitive price. But still, we need to work on our pricing in order to attract productions. We have to be more competitive.”

“Why are people filming in Mexico?” she points out. “Because it’s where you get the talent, cheaper prices and good incentives.” It’s really as simple as getting these three things in place for a production sector to thrive she feels: “We know what it takes. You just need to make sure it happens. The talent will come and stay if there is more work. We need to increase the productions.”

SHIFTING SANDS

Getting to the shifting TV and film production sector with the changing consumption of video on demand media content from the likes of Netflix and other regional players. “Yes it is shifting and Netflix are hunting – they have hunted quite a few people from my team,” says Al Ruwaini. “It’s flattering!” she adds with a laugh, before saying: “This is what I am saying about sustainability and you have to make the right alliances to sustain your people and continue.” But I can say confidently that Pyramedia is one of the top production companies in the world and what we are capable of doing is worth being recognized.

The industry is shifting towards digital content and Al Ruwaini says this has changed the way they work. “I anticipated the demise of print a few years back. As much as it breaks my heart – this is the future no one can change it. Even with our productions when we do a production digital is a big part of how we structure the production and the content. Before we used to have print on our minds during a production – thinking about how to present the show in print. Now the bigger team is in digital media – people watch the segments on Twitter and Instagram more than on TV. So we need to grab that audience.”

“TV in the Arab world is good to go for the next 50 years – it’s very difficult to change people’s habits. The 40 plus generation will watch the same way they are used to with the remote in their hand.” The younger generation is a totally different ball game she says: “Unfortunately its taking longer than expected for media orgs to acknowledge that we still have a problem with the programming – the programmers are all 40 plus and still thinking for the 40 plus audience and when you start talking to them about the youth they say... oh they have the kids channels.” “They don’t watch kids TV… they stopped when they are 8 so you have to think of a different way of handling them.”


WOMEN EMPOWERED

The media is one of the most difficult industries for women Al Ruwaini believes, and the Arab world was worse when she started out. “Because media was seen as trivial or the job of the jobless. I’ve had to work 100% harder than my male colleagues to prove I can do it. You are always guilty until proven innocent. I would get the odd title of iron woman but they stop looking at you at one point and just deal with you as a professional taking care of business.”

She recalls: “When I moved to London it was even a bigger morale booster because when they spot a talent they invest in it – so they gave me everything I needed to grow. I worked on myself so it was not just about being on screen – look good and know what you are going to say. I learned all the aspects of media production – budgeting, improving the cost structure, how to create the best team.”

She says when she saw the production standards in UK and in Hollywood, “You get this professional jealousy when you see how they do it there and you say we can do it too. And when the BBC acknowledged Millions’ Poet, I was on top of the world.”

“We are being empowered every day by our leaders. I keep saying if you are a woman in the UAE you have everything you need to succeed. This is a country that acknowledges women and gives women the power to succeed.”

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