“We have to coexist; we don’t have an option, neither them nor us.” This was what the chief commercial and marketing officer of VOD at the MBC Group Natasha Matos-Hemingway told industry peers at a panel on the challenges and the future of streaming in the Arab region, hosted by Red Sea 360°, the industry talks arm of the Red Sea Film Festival. “If I was them, I would focus on what they are good at, which is Western content that travels well. For us, our regionals perform incredibly well because we can do justice to our local stories, while the international streamers don’t,” she continued, speaking at length on the dichotomy between local and global streamers.

This is a sentiment echoed by Rohit D’Silva, chief business officer for Middle East and South Africa at VIU. “Streaming is a growing category, it doesn’t matter the market you are in, so competition is inevitable. If you stick to your lane and focus on what you’re good at, and you have a serious amount of capital to back you up, you’ll be competitive. In the Middle East, there’s a huge opportunity. And it will become more competitive, not less.”

While the young market is of great appeal to streamers wanting to venture into the Middle East, many industry heads have mentioned the difficulties in setting up subscription tiers as one of the biggest challenges in the region. “The consumer in the Middle East is used to getting extremely high-quality content; they have the ability to pay, but because they’ve been getting high-quality content for free for years, they don’t want to,” continued D’Silva, concluding by saying, “It’s hard to grow a streaming ecosystem when there’s no subscription.”

“Subscription is an issue for us,” said Karim Safieddine, founder and executive producer at Lebanon’s Cinemoz. “When we started, half the customers in Egypt didn’t have a credit card. We were just waiting for the market to evolve.”

Cinemoz is an ad-based streaming service with free subscriptions, with its revenue coming from premium advertising for on-demand services. It is currently the fastest-growing premium VOD platform in the Arab region.

“We don’t look at viewers as consumers, we look at them as an audience that is alive. The challenges are behind us. The main challenges now are for global streamers in [the Middle East and North Africa],” said Safieddine, highlighting the importance of understanding the nuances between different countries and cultures in the region.

“The challenges will be the burden of the global players, and the local players will have to compete. The streamers destroyed the studio system, but nothing has changed. Everything that is in the value chain is exactly the same. Us having local knowledge and a proximity to our audience will give us a chance,” added Safieddine, with Giacomo Durzi, the head of development at Italy’s Picomedia adding: “To me, content has to be a keyword, especially for commissioners, writers and producers. We are talking about business strategies, but we are wasting our time. We need to understand what the audience wants from us. We should be a bit braver, all of us, a bit more enthusiastic and passionate and look for new challenges in storytelling.”

Original content and fresh storytelling are a great drive for Matos-Hemingway, whose MBC group produces around 20 big originals a year. “We do have drama as a base but, as we’ve grown, we started looking at different audiences and producing content to talk to them and attract them.”

D’Silva added: “Drama and comedy do very well. We are seeing a growth in niche content such as Korean content in Arabic. With movies, the more produced the better. Innovation will come from places you least expect. It’s a moving goalpost, so it’s about local, well-produced, unique stories. You don’t need to compete dollar for dollar with Hollywood.”

The opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia has not spooked streamers. On the contrary, says Matos-Hemingway. “The cinemas being revived in the Kingdom allow us to consume content in a different experience and then relive it on streaming.” The changes in the region are exciting to Safieddine, too. “[Red Sea Souk] is our first market so it’s been great to put faces on the names. Saudi could become the studio entity of the Middle East, where you have the facilities, the budget and the commissioners — that locomotive that will pull the rest of the train.”

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