Streaming platforms are devising new ways to capture a slice of the global audience, with Netflix banking on local productions. But this can spark a backlash – as it has in the case of Jinn, its first Arabic-language Original. Kelly Luegenbiehl tells Rachel Dawson about the making of Jinn and the rest of its MENA line-up.
Jinn, the first Arabic-language Netflix Original, premiered in Amman, Jordan at a red-carpet event on June 13. The series, shot over 55 days in Petra and parts of modern Amman, stirred controversy among Jordanians following its global debut, on grounds of being too modern and unrepresentative of Jordanian culture.
In response to critics, Netflix MENA issued a statement: “Jinn seeks to portray the issues young Arabs face as they come of age, including love, bullying and more. We understand that some viewers may find it provocative, but we believe that it will resonate with teens across the Middle East and around the world. We’ve invested heavily in creative communities around the world – supporting local storytellers and production in many different countries. Jinn shows the beauty of Jordan and the wonders of Petra. And we’re excited to bring both familiar and new perspectives to international audiences that may not know much about the Arab world.”
Kelly Luegenbiehl, VP International Originals, Netflix, tells us about the streaming platform’s content choices for the Middle East and its vision for local productions.
What were some of the guiding decisions behind Netflix launching with Jinn as the first Arabic-language Original? How is Netflix positioned within the region, with shows such as Al Rawabi School for Girls and Paranormal lined up for the coming months?
Honestly, that was the sequence in which they came to us, in terms of the production timeline. We love each of those stories for different reasons and we think that they are going to speak to different audiences, not just in the region but also globally. So for us it’s about having a little bit of something for everyone through these different series, and hopefully through the ones we will do in the future.
Tell us a little bit about the incubation process of this series.
I was involved in the process, but we also had a team in LA and a team in Amsterdam – everyone was working together to sort of help bring the story to life. I think for us it’s really exciting to work with people like Elan and Rajeev Dassani, the writers of the series, and directors Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya and Amin Mataqla, and to support them through that process of getting the ideas that are in their head ultimately onto the screen.
What kind of market research did Netflix conduct before entering the Middle Eastern market?
We’re always doing studies and consumer insight testing, but it’s not necessarily facts and figures-based; it’s just listening to people and learning about them, their culture and the kind of stories that they want to hear. In the case of Jinn, we did hear from young adults and teens that they hadn’t seen themselves necessarily reflected on screen, speaking their language in their country, in this way before. So for us, it was a great opportunity to give them that mirror moment to see themselves on screen in a unique and new way.
“I think production is just a crazy wild beast and you can never completely tame it – and that’s also the fun of it,” Kelly Luegenbiehl, VP International Originals, Netflix.
Since filming began last August, how has the experience been collaborating with the Dassani brothers and Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya?
The Dassani brothers brought us the idea originally, and they’ve been working a lot in Jordan. They had this idea about young adults with a sort of sci-fi element to it, and then when we connected with Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, he sort of brought to life the stylistic vision and tone, and was really able to pull out something special with these actors – a lot of whom didn’t have a ton of experience but who were instrumental in giving their characters that voice, that specificity. I think these kids sound like real kids, and I think that’s something the world is going to respond to. Just having them be such active participants in the creation of their characters was a really fun and exciting experience for us.
What were the challenges of working in the region?
The only challenges we faced were typical production challenges. I think production is just a crazy wild beast and you can never completely tame it – and that’s also the fun of it. I think that’s the magic of what you see on screen. In that way, Jinn isn’t different from any other production we do anywhere else in the world. What was really great was the crews and the teams here and how amazing they were to work with. That makes it more exciting to do more in the region.
What kind of audience does Jinn seek to cater to?
Well, definitely when we make a local language series, we want members from that country or region to love that show. But what’s so exciting for us is to see how that local language series can travel globally. We just saw that recently with The Protector from Turkey; it was well loved in Turkey but then we saw that the show also appealed to people in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. That’s really our hope for a show like Jinn; and so, the idea of Arabic-language programming can transcend our 190 countries and 27 different languages.
“In the case of Jinn, we did hear from young adults and teens that they hadn’t seen themselves necessarily reflected on screen. So for us, it was a great opportunity to give them that mirror moment to see themselves on screen in a unique and new way,” Kelly Luegenbiehl, VP International Originals, Netflix.
How has your experience been with giving fresh talent a platform?
What I love about series and my whole career in television is that you can make stars in television, in a way that you can’t in almost any other medium. We’ve seen that happen globally – the kids from Elite, our first young adult series from Spain, they’ve become global household names just like the cast in La Casa de Papel, Quicksand, The Rain. I think the kids from Jinn are really going to find that global audience. We don’t have to have stars to make that happen; we just have to have super talented people.
Can you tell us about scoring for the series? I believe you worked with Mashrou’ Leila, a famous band in the region, for a couple of songs?
Music is something that can help bring a story to life. When we can, we work with local bands and artists to add that extra layer of authenticity. Lynn Fainchtein, our music supervisor, has helped us all over the world to tap into the up-and-coming from that region or from that country, and I think she did that in Jinn as well. I’m hopeful everyone will be clicking on Spotify and listening to the playlist.
Is it true that Netflix searches for the most authentic story of a region? Tell us about that in the context of Jinn.
We really do believe that the authenticity and specificity of a story is what makes something universal. In the case of this story, it’s a very specific group of kids in a very specific place in Jordan itself. And through that specificity, we hope that teens and people who love young adult shows all around the world will respond and find a little bit of that relatability with the struggles of kids in terms of love, friendship, school and parents. There is something very relatable in the show that doesn’t just speak to people from Jordan, Italy or Korea – there are these universal elements within that which sort of make human connection possible.
What kind of investment in MENA is Netflix looking forward to in the coming months? Is it planning to open an office in the Middle East?
We don’t currently have plans to open an office in the Middle East. We’ve just opened an office in Madrid and will be opening one in Paris and Berlin. So I think we’re quite excited to see how our office expansion works in terms of our business and working with our creative talent on the ground. But even without an office, we have plans to continue to invest in stories from this region. The history and tradition of storytelling from the Middle East is so strong that just very few of them have been seen globally before.
For us, this offers a real opportunity to filmmakers to tell local stories on a global scale in a way that they haven’t, and it’s something we’re passionate about as a company and something we’re working toward.
So we have Jinn, Al Rawabi School for Girls and Paranormal as the first three series, but we definitely plan to do more.
“We really do believe that the authenticity and specificity of a story is what makes something universal,” Kelly Luegenbiehl, VP International Originals, Netflix.
With the entry of Amazon Prime and Disney+, what is Netflix’s strategy to counter competition?
For Netflix, we just need to stay focused on what we’ve done in the past and what we want to continue to do well in the future, which is tell stories our audiences are going to love. I think for us, staying focused on that will be the most important thing. Personally, I’m curious to see the shows that are made by these different companies. I used to work at Disney; it’s a great company and I think just as a viewer it’s exciting to have stories coming from all these different places and all these different creators.
How can storytellers pitch a story to Netflix?
There are different ways that we connect with storytellers. First, we’re just fans of some people’s work and we reach out to them. Then there are those who know us and will reach out to us. We spend a lot of time going to film festivals, film schools and book fairs. We were chatting with the Royal Film Commission (RFC) on the film festival they’re planning in Jordan. That seems to be an exciting way to connect with storytellers. So for us, we’re always looking for new ways to connect. We’re also all on LinkedIn. People generally figure out how to reach us if they have a great idea.
How instrumental has the RFC been in the making of Jinn?
RFC has been a fantastic partner, and the series wouldn’t have been possible without their support. As we look forward to our next series in Jordan with Al Rawabi School for Girls, we’re continuing to have conversations with them and partner with them. We’ve spoken to Princess Rym al-Ali, Managing Director-Interim of the RFC, about how we can continue to grow the great ecosystem and infrastructure here in Jordan, but also across the region. I think it’s an exciting time to be a content creator in the Middle East right now.
How do you hope this series adds to Arabic-language drama overall?
The legend and the history and tradition of Jinn was something that was really fun for our creators to get to play with in a way that was unique to this story. So I think, for them, it was important that it be brought to life through the lens of these young characters. For me, Mira is my favourite; she’s just such a strong, young, empowered woman and it’s an opportunity for her to save her friends and be a hero. To have a girl that you can root for and who’s doing all that in the midst of everything else that is going on in the world – I think people are really going to respond to a character like that.
Can we expect more Netflix releases in the region in 2019?
Yes, we’re working on them right now. We’ve just been doing a tour around the region, meeting with filmmakers, hearing their ideas, and then we’re going to figure out which ones make the most sense for our next few series.