With numerous OTT video streaming services entering the Middle East and North Africa market in the past three years or so, attention has been taken away from the first company, Icflix, to launch an SVOD service back in 2013.
Upon its launch, with a massive billboard advertising campaign in countries including the UAE, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, there were plenty of naysayers who predicted the audacious move by the company’s founders was destined to fail, perhaps within a year or two of launch.
But four years on, the service is doing well and has obviously taken advantage of its first-mover status. It was the first SVOD to start producing original Arabic series and films, and is also the first player to tap the international Arab expat market with its Arabic content.
The company has taken on board the many lessons learned during its four years of operation, and renewed its focus on Arabic content over and above pricey Hollywood films and series. With this strategy, founder and CEO Carlos Tibi expects the company to move to profitability within about 18 months to two years.
With numerous other SVODs now in the Middle East and MENA market, including Starz Play, Netflix and more recently iflix, Tibi believes original Arabic content is a key differentiator. “A lot of competitors have entered the market whereas when we first started it was only us,” he says. “We’ve learned so much about the market and today we strive to make ourselves different from any other player and I believe that we differentiate ourselves by being a local company. We’re not an international company and we’re not supported or funded by an international studio.”
Icflix has certainly put significant resources into becoming a local player, opening offices in Morocco, Egypt and Tunis, in addition to its Dubai headquarters.
“When we started icflix we always said that we want to be close to our customers, not only from a company perspective but also to understand taste by territory in the region. That’s why we have offices across the region.”
Having boots on ground in the region’s biggest markets has helped to understand each country better, including the tastes of the local population and how to go about producing content tailored for those countries, Tibi explains.
“Since opening these offices our focus has been local production,” he says. “We’ve already produced multiple products starting with Morocco where our movie, called Burnout, is coming out in theatres by October.”
Directed by Nour Eddine Lakhmari, Burnout is the final part in a movie trilogy formed by Casanegra and Zero. It is co-produced by Nel Films, Icflix, Filmhuset AS Umedia, according to information compiled by IMBD.
Icflix had already tasted success with its own or co-produced local content. Icflix started producing its own content in 2014 with two Egyptian movies, HIV and Makida and has since worked on a steady flow of series and films. During Ramadan earlier this year it aired three original series, Zel Al Raes, Caramel and Ward Joury.
“We’ve already done three titles in Tunis which were released in the cinema, one of which, Borders of Heaven, won an award at Dubai International Film Festival in 2015. We’ve already done six titles in Egypt which all did well in the cinema, and then we’ve done kids’ programming in the form of animation.”
By producing numerous films and series for the region, including various series for Ramadan this year, Icflix has also gained a better understanding of the nuances of each major market. “We’re not just working on one product for the MENA region; it’s actually localised by territory for the MENA region. We’ve learned that a product produced in Lebanon or Egypt does not necessarily appeal to an audience in French speaking North Africa and that’s why we have dedicated Tunisian content, Moroccan content and now we are exploring Algerian content, both movies and TV series. Everything is available to all subscribers.”
Interestingly, drilling down into each major local market has helped to open up the international Arab expat market for Icflix. This has happened more or less organically, without any conscious effort from Tibi and his team. “What we are seeing as we are releasing those local products is that we are not only gaining popularity within the local markets, but our service is actually slowly gaining momentum with the expat communities living in Europe, particularly countries like France, Germany and Belgium where you have a huge French speaking North African community,” Tibi says.
He adds that people accessing the site from outside the MENA region will see only Arabic content, as Icflix only has the rights to show the Hollywood and Bollywood content in the MENA region. However, if anything, this has helped boost the service’s appeal to Arabs outside the Middle East as it makes the content package far more tailored for them to consume content in their native language.
“Expats are subscribing to the service as a result of those localised productions, so slowly it’s gaining an international outside subscriber base,” Tibi says. “If you look at it, we are the only SVOD platform that has Arabic content in the capacity that we do available globally. Today we have over 5000 hours of Arabic content available globally, including our own original product. Hollywood has always been a secondary product for us in terms of targeting Arab viewers. We want to drive subscribers through our Arabic content and then make Hollywood available as an additional product where it’s complementary, and a similar thing with Bollywood and kids’ product.
Looking at the demographic of the MENA region, this strategy appears to make sense. Icflix caters to a potential market of more than 400 million Arabs, and if a certain proportion wants Hollywood content, there are numerous other players, both legal and illegal, who can offer it.
“Four years ago when we launched Icflix we launched all three products; Hollywood, Bollywood and Jazwood, and we have experimented with all three and the one that performed best for us was Arabic, and particularly when we released our own original product. When we released Hollywood blockbuster content it did not do that well. And believe it or not a lot of the blockbuster Hollywood content that will work well in Dubai will not necessarily work well in big cities like Cairo, Algiers or Casablanca.”
Icflix’s strategy is also based on more than just a hunch. The company, which developed its own platform from scratch, has an engineering department that is skilled at gathering anonymous data that shows how many people are watching specific content from each country. The company has also developed algorithms to see what is trending on illegal streaming services, and this also helps provide rich information about what people in the MENA region want to watch, and how they watch it.
Another good indicator of viewing trends is YouTube. Tibi points out that Saudi Arabia is the second biggest viewer of YouTube content globally after the US. The site provides some insights into what the new generations want to watch. “If you look at what people watch on YouTube it is short form videos, locally produced. They’re made for millennials by millennials.”
Tibi is keen to stress that Hollywood content is important and has a place in the MENA region, but the primary focus for Icflix is producing quality Arabic content with a view to developing a market for Arab content.
“Today, more than 70% of the Arab population is below 30, population wise. It’s one of the youngest populations today on the planet,” Tibi says. “It is the most underserved population when it comes to locally produced content and that is where we see the potential. Our product is actually talking to those millennials.”
This is reflected in the type of production that Icflix is producing or co-producing, which take on more edgy subjects that are usually not broached in the region. For example, Icflix is currently working on a series in Morocco called Familiar which focuses on drug trafficking among the youth. “Drugs are a huge problem and nobody even mentions it or speaks about it on TV shows or movies,” Tibi says. “We’re talking about taking normal people like college kids and demonstrating how drugs are actually trafficked and who’s doing it. This is the type of show that people want to watch. It takes real life events and fictionalises them.”
Icflix’s aim is to build up a library of its own Arabic content, and grow its production capacity, to a point where it can slowly lower its dependence on acquiring Hollywood and Arabic content. “We want to get to a place where we can produce 1000-plus hours of Arabic content a year, and that is where we are heading from an Icflix perspective. We want to be known and branded that way.”
Tibi adds that much of the Western content that Icflix acquires is independent as this also acts as a differentiator. “We have a lot of independent films from countries including France, Germany, US and Canada. This is the type of content we acquire and put on our platform. We don’t go with the major studios.
Tibi adds that Icflix hopes to showcase “a title or two” at Dubai International Film Festival this year. He added Icflix also aims to show Burnout at Toronto Film Festival and Sundance.
Tibi adds that film festivals are important for Icflix for a number of reasons: They are good for marketing films, they help inidicate the quality of work, and they help to motivate the filmmakers inolved in the films and series entered for the festivals. “They also give greater awareness of our productions internationally and help to give the audience confidence in our product.
“They are a great awareness tool for us that we want to leverage. Hopefully as time goes on we will get to a level of 1000 plus hours of our own intellectual property. We aim to help establish an ecosystem of actors, producers and directors.”