Leading content owners came together at the BroadcastPro Summit to highlight the state of content in terms of acquisition and distribution, and how it is affected by market trends and digitisation in the region.
Content may still be king, but will it be recognisable in the new world of digitisation, OTT protocols and the power of big data to dissect viewer preferences and customise new genres and formats? How will the tastes of Generation Z impact the content providers and the dynamics of commissioning new product?
These were the factors addressed in a powerful panel debate at the recent ASBU BroadcastPro Summit. Titled The Content Owners: Content – a mixed bag for new-generation viewers?, the panel featured Asim Altokhais, a Saudi-based award-winning scriptwriter and co-founder and GM of 3rd action, Inc; Ben Ross, Chief Content Officer, Image Nation Abu Dhabi; Serge Zabbal, Business Director, Empire Entertainment; and Wesam Kattan, Vice President – Content at Viu.
Moderator Rony Mitri, Head of Non-Theatrical Distribution – MENA, Empire Entertainment, was keen to investigate how current market trends are affecting not only the appetite for certain styles of content and the genres that are preferred, but how – in an increasingly digital environment – the availability of viewing data and demographics are being used to shape the actual commissioning brief.
Given that together the panellists represented a 360-degree understanding of the sector, they were able to provide a remarkable snapshot of the current state of play, especially after Mitri’s opening remark: “Acquisition and distribution: the aim is to provide a content roadmap of the region. Where do you place your bets?”
Ben Ross commented that from an Image Nation point of view, “It is all about movies and narrative TV shows. It’s all about stories; when we find a story we love, that’s what we focus on.”
Kattan concurred, to a degree. “We focus on drama series and movies. We’re very focussed on what type of drama series we commission. We want to take the non-traditional route when planning these series. For example, we’re going away from the 30-episode formula. The young today simply don’t have time.”
When asked if Asim Altokhais took any of this into consideration when writing scripts, he said: “I have to look at it the business way, at what trends in drama people are interested in. Sci-fi, thrillers, crime – these are all interesting for the new generation.”
The debate then highlighted that while it’s one thing to talk about trends and viewer preferences, the question remains as to how ‘scientifically’ these changes are understood – which is vital if all parties involved are to create content that is an accurate fit to market need. For example, is there any kind of database that can help define these preferences?
“There are two ways in which we use data,” remarked Viu’s Kattan. “Firstly, through market research on what pulls Generation Z to the screen; and then, when we onboard a concept, we make sure that we retro-engineer all these topical themes into it.”
When the same question was posed to Empire Entertainment, as “cinema-owners, distributors, producers”, on whether analytics play any role at all for a cinema distributor, Zabbal responded in the affirmative. “We have to talk to the scriptwriters and the production houses to ensure we have this. As distributors, we have to be on top of the trend. The line is open…”
But it’s not mandatory to follow wherever the analytics lead, commented Ross, stating that “you have to go with what you believe to be a good story”.
Kattan agreed, saying you have to go with “your gut feeling”.
“So many times when I’ve met great producers, they’ve said their biggest successes would never have happened if they’d only followed the analytics.”
While for many viewers, regional content is forever associated with locally created Ramadan TV blockbusters, there seems to be little doubt that local content plays a larger role across the complete broadcast mix. It’s become a priority even for those businesses whose forte was typically a box office hit-list.
With this dynamic up for discussion, Viu’s Kattan said: “We want to be seen as a local provider for a local audience. We focus most of our licensing efforts to provide content for that local audience – but there simply isn’t enough Arabic content to provide premium viewing.”
Mitri pointed out that Empire Entertainment had recently decided to go into regional production, and questioned the rationale behind it.
“We want to have quantity when we distribute, and although the scale of the international content is greater, it’s important to grow local content too. Our plan is to leverage the balance to 50/50, with maybe even more weight to regional content. Saudi Arabia may turn out to be a very interesting influence here,” commented Zabbal.
Ross stated, however, that the scriptwriting element may be a stumbling block. “Scriptwriting is a complex issue. Much of what is being created doesn’t fit with what Kattan and Zabbal actually want – the 30-episode Ramadan series just doesn’t work anymore. Remember, it all starts with the script: without that, you have nothing.”
A question for many is whether the shift to digital will eventually lead the cinema industry to implode altogether. It became evident from the panellists that the ‘black-white’ version of the change to digital is largely inaccurate – the market is big enough for all eventualities, and even if content is reshaped and generically altered for an OTT audience, that doesn’t mean the box-office mix is automatically faced with a ‘change or die’ scenario.
Indeed, when Mitri asked Zabbal if this is likely, he replied: “It didn’t impact audiences, because people still want to experience going to the theatre. That experience of eating popcorn and having a night out can’t be replaced. OTT has its own charm, but it’s one that complements people wanting to go to the theatre, go to the mall and so on – it doesn’t take its place.”
Kattan added: “We’re here to coexist; nothing is about to replace going to the cinema.” (Urged by Mitri to elaborate, especially when many are pushing for first window on OTT, he said: “You better ask the people doing it!”)
Ross offered an alternative view. “Some OTT companies want to put the theatres out of business, others don’t. I personally think they can coexist, because many OTT viewers would want to see a movie they missed at the cinema. Meanwhile, some movies are simply better suited to going straight to OTT, because sometimes the cinema channel costs are not worth the expense for that particular asset.”
Another powerful change agent is the advent of public cinema in Saudi Arabia. This has effectively brought a new audience of 39.9m into the viewer mix – a substantial number that surely can become a powerful lobby whose tastes and buying power will influence the commissioning and production agendas of GCC providers. Yet here, the panel again took the view that the likely changes are a good deal more nuanced than the rather dramatic picture mooted by many industry pundits.
Commenting on the impact, Zabbal’s view was: “Obviously, revenues will grow, plus Saudi audiences will be continually exposed to fresh content and this will encourage local content providers too. I hope we can see the birth of a second Egypt, a place where we see a completely new machine for production.”
Ross added: “What can be really important here is that we get a clear understanding of what a local Arabic audience wants, in a way that we can’t do in the UAE, where the market demographic is much too complicated. In Saudi, the market can be closely understood and modelled.”
As to whether this will really lead to a boom in local output, Kattan offered a more philosophical view: “If we can see content that is sought-after by the audience, this will benefit every content provider in the region. But we need to be patient: we need to give the Saudi audience time, because they’re simply not used to seeing Saudi movies. It needs time for the Saudi industry to develop, and we need to see every aspect of the crew grow there and get much stronger.”
Altokhais seemed less optimistic. “The industry is just not there. 90% of the people who get involved in the industry are amateurs; there is no recruitment with international companies at all.”
A telling – and chastening – view came from Kattan: “Local talent has to grow there, because you can’t get a foreigner to tell a Saudi story.”
Ross took this further, stating that Image Nation does “a lot on mentoring by bringing Western scriptwriters to advise local writers and help them build their work. But here’s the problem: what’s edgy in the Western market is very different from what’s edgy in the Saudi market. What Western companies will do is far too edgy – you can’t ever get the right fit by coming from outside.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from the panel was that while it’s a sure hallmark of market development to have international product shifting through theatres and OTT alike (and it’s likely that the two approaches might well be complementary, not exclusive), the real work – generating a wealth of topical and inspirational local material – is only just beginning.