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Redefining regional content: Arab Format Lab

From left: Khulud Abu Homos, CEO and co-founder of Arab Format Lab with Chief Operating Officer Mustafa Alaidaroos.

Khulud Abu Homos and Mustafa Alaidaroos are geared to experiment with every content recipe that has worked: international adaptations, content incubators, a market for pilot episodes and even crowd-funding a whole film. In conversation with the dynamic duo.

Rough market statistics indicate that 60% of the students that join media programmes in Middle East universities today are female, and yet we see fewer than 2% of them in the media or agencies, reckons Khulud Abu Homos, CEO and co-founder of Arab Format Lab, who is in that miniscule percentage.

Abu Homos left the comfort of a corporate media job three years ago to pursue a more challenging calling when she launched Arab Format Lab with business partner and Chief Operating Officer Mustafa Alaidaroos, a prominent Saudi producer. Their vision was to create socially relevant programmes that were entertaining and worthy of export to international markets, while simultaneously ensuring that they identified and engaged with new talent in the region.

Although this may not have sounded like a commercially viable vision at the time of launch, with three pilots to be filmed by the end of this year and a fourth in pre-production, as well as several initiatives across the region, the duo may have pulled off the first part of a very tough journey. Perhaps what has propelled them forward is that the team has first looked to create Arabic adaptations of established, strong, well-scripted and award-winning international formats.

The Arab Format Lab team.

“Our weak point in this region has been content,” explains Alaidaroos. “So we decided to work with scriptwriters, and we started with formats because there is already a strong and good script that we can adapt in the Arab world. Our ultimate target, of course, is to make a format ourselves so that we can export that to international media.”

But how did their paths cross?

Abu Homos met Alaidaroos six years ago at the screening of the pilot for his docu-drama series Saleem, when she was working for OSN as Senior VP of Programming responsible for acquiring Arabic content. In the following four years, Alaidaroos successfully produced 120 episodes of Saleem, which ran for four years on eight Arabic channels including the MBC and OSN bouquets.

“I was impressed with the outstanding production quality and the out-of-the-box concept of Saleem, which was essentially an inspirational journey across various countries and cultures and their definition of peace,” recalls Abu Homos. “Mustafa and I discovered then that we were both passionate about talent development and socially relevant content. One year after I created Arab Format lab, we decided to put our strengths together.”

Alaidaroos’ journey has all the makings of a film. A Saudi national, he graduated with a degree in medicine from Sharjah University back in 2005. But with no desire to spend the rest of his life in a hospital, he decided to follow his personal passion of making films.

“Saleem was an inspirational social experiment and it appealed to our audience here. When I met with Khulud, I had already worked on several series, TVCs, and wanted to move to the next level. She also wanted to focus on social relevance but wanted to work with Hollywood studios and other international names, so we could link our production here with the rest of the world, especially in Saudi Arabia. I knew then that I had found the right business partner to take that dream forward,” he explains.

“It’s also perfect timing because Saudi Arabia has taken this big step in media and cinema with the 2030 Vision. In the next five years, I think Saudi Arabia will be the number 1 here for content and I want to contribute to that future.”

Arab Format Lab first made headlines with its debut series Red Band Society, an Arabic adaptation of a Spanish teen medical comedy-drama series. It received some outstanding reviews when it debuted on Abu Dhabi TV last Ramadan, says Abu Homos, adding that it was the second most watched programme in the 9pm slot, according to IPSOS.

Arab Format Lab first made headlines with its debut series Red Band Society, an Arabic adaptation of a Spanish teen medical comedy-drama series.

The plot revolves around a group of six young patients in a hospital, each suffering from a serious illness, and the positive attitude with which they approach life. The adaptation shows the lives of children and teenagers from different social backgrounds, united by their challenges but also their optimism. The first season was shot in Egypt, and the team is now looking to film the second anywhere in the Arab world, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE the primary choices.

Arab Format Lab has also been actively involved in workshops, roadshows and other initiatives aimed at discovering new talent. In March this year, it launched the Arab Format Accelerator with DISCOP Dubai, inviting regional talent to pitch original ideas to senior executives driving the TV business across the Middle East. 20 up-and-coming creators and established producers pitched original ideas – at least 80% of them from Saudi Arabia, reveals Abu Homos.

As a result, the team began to focus more of its initiatives on the Kingdom and launched the Saudi Format Lab in late June. It has now brought nine Saudi start-up media companies and young talents from Riyadh and Jeddah under one umbrella for content development and audio-visual production.

With so many creative talents working across different parts of the region, the company has now gathered enough steam to produce its four projects. Interestingly, all four demonstrate how content can keep in mind the cultural sensitivities of a region, while also being entertaining.

Parenthood, the first of these pilots, is the team’s first Saudi comedy drama studio format.

Parenthood is a Universal Studios format produced in association with Universal Studios and will be shot in Saudi Arabia. The story talks about an extended family who discover in the first episode that one child in the family is autistic. What follows is a dialogue between different generations and the challenges that parents face when dealing with autism. We will do a pilot before the end of the year,” says Alaidaroos.

“Hollywood producer James Kramer worked with our writers’ room in Jeddah to develop the Saudi adaptation of this series, combining his international experience as a Hollywood writer and producer with their young creative writing talent and knowledge of Saudi society,” adds Abu Homos.

The second pilot, Mokhtar, also being filmed this year – in Medina, Cairo and Italy – is produced in conjunction with an Italian production house. Alaidaroos, the man behind this production, explains the connection.

“The protagonist is a PhD student who has a lot of questions about religion. He approaches a scholar, who advises him to go on a journey of self-discovery and is challenged to live another person’s life to find the answers to his questions. So the protagonist heads to Italy, where he lives with a family. What ensues is a long romantic drama and a dialogue between cultures and religions. This is the first mixed production we are undertaking, but again the concept hasn’t been tackled in this manner because, essentially, Mokhtar is a discussion between various religions cloaked in the guise of entertainment.”

A third pilot to be shot this year, Dagget Boori (Car Honk), is a Saudi comedy original being developed in-house. It revolves around a Saudi businessman who runs a driving school. With women now permitted to drive, he persuades his wife, who cannot drive and does not know how to manage a business, to open a driving school. His main aim is to control the business through her, but she surprises him with her entrepreneurial skills. Together with her team of pan-Arab female teachers, she learns how to drive and becomes a better manager than him.

“In our market, there is no clear commissioning process and many broadcasters request pilots. This is a big investment for small production companies” Khulud Abu Homos, CeO and co-founder, Arab Format Lab

On the non-scripted side, Arab Format Lab is working on the Arabic adaptation of an Emmy-winning format from Warner called Sorry about That, which also recently secured the Rose d’Or Award.

“I can’t say too much about the Arabic adaptation at this stage, except that this is a new trend in talent shows and we believe this will really be successful,” Abu Homos says, cautious not to reveal too much

“We are just in the pre-production phase. It’s a Belgian format and has done extremely well in all the countries that it has debuted in.”

While the first three pilots are being shot in Saudi Arabia, the last will be shot across different MENA countries, with three episodes in the UAE, three in KSA, three in Egypt and two in Beirut. Unlike most talent shows, where people assemble in one country to participate, Sorry about That will take the moving studio approach, with studios rented in different countries and dressed in identical fashion.

With four projects in the bag, Abu Homos has one main concern – pilots.

“Most broadcasters in the Arab world do not invest in pilots,” she laments. In essence, a pilot becomes the yardstick to determine the pulse and reception of a programme with an audience.

“Internationally, you submit a screenplay together with the treatment. If the broadcaster likes the screenplay, they will invest in a pilot and once they see how the audience reception is, they will commission the programme. Here in our market, there is no clear commissioning process and many broadcasters request pilots. This is a big investment for small production companies and hinders new talent and small creative companies, and contracts often go to big companies. The only way to break this cycle may be if broadcasters announce a clear commissioning process that allows fair opportunities to new talents,” she says.

Arab Format Lab is changing that with a two-pronged approach. For the first prong, it continuously strives to convince regional broadcasters that investing or co-investing in a pilot is better than commissioning a show based on what they see on paper: “It’s better to spend a few hundred thousand [dollars] on a pilot and make a decision based on audience response, than pay millions for an entire series that you have only read about on paper.”

The second prong is to organise an annual screening of pilots in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, inviting broadcasters, advertisers, prospective investors and media partners. Although this is customary in most international markets, it has not yet been attempted in this region.

“We hope to announce a screening by mid-November. Once we shoot our pilots, we will aggregate other pilots from other content developers as well and screen them together. This is how it is done in international markets. If a pilot is picked up, it naturally becomes episode one of a series,” says Abu Homos.

“We started with formats because there is already a strong and good script that we can adapt in the Arab world. Our ultimate target, of course, is to make a format ourselves” Mustafa Alaidaroos, Chief Operating Officer, Arab Format Lab

“It is important to invest in pilots. They always cost more because they are initially a one-off show, but it’s better to invest in a pilot than a whole series. Once a show is picked up, the investor will get a proportional share of overall distribution revenue because we aim to give a percentage of the revenues earned from a show back to the investor.”

Arab Format Lab hopes to have these screenings in September in the UAE, though the inaugural edition for 2018 will be later in the year.

“Hosting such a screening is one of the primary ways to make sure new companies and writers gain the visibility they need,” says Abu Homos.

In the meantime, Arab Format Lab has already announced the Emirates Entertainment Experience initiative along with Sharjah Media City (Shams), to inspire Emirati talent to spread their wings here.

“This is a digital platform where cinema meets TV meets social media. It is a crowd-sourcing platform where we invite people of different skills like acting, directing, lighting, sound design, set design, and they will be led by a dream team of nine inspirational figures like an iconic director, producer, musician and so on,” explains Abu Homos.

“We will start with giving the platform five minutes of a movie, and in every phase – which is every four weeks – we will ask the audience to propose the next ten minutes of the movie. This will happen over a period of 36 months, when we will assess the script and ask them to make their own version of the movie. By next September, we will have a user-generated Emirati movie, and on the platform you will have various versions of the same.

“Master classes will be conducted every four weeks live on social media. The best way of training talent is on an actual project. If they are doing a movie and we are assessing their scripts and what they are doing, we will be able to direct them and train them. This is our commitment to genuine talent development and training.

“The platform itself is designed to connect you with others in your vicinity. For instance, when you enter your profile, location and skills, the system will propose people with the other specialties that are near to you geographically. We will have awards at the end of the project for best direction, best acting, best production and so on. Essentially, we are creating a pool of new talent in the region.”

A soft launch of the platform is expected later this month. Arab Format Lab has also put forward a proposal in the emirate to make this entertainment experience part of the graduation project for Arab universities, so that they genuinely benefit from it.

For anyone who thinks the duo may have had it easy, Abu Homos points out that she did 26 pitches for one project before it received a positive response. While these projects are both a passion and a commercial dream, revenue is only trickling in.

“It has been a bumpy two years, but we are seeing results now. A lot of investors like our ideas, but quality doesn’t come cheap. You want to be able to benchmark yourself against international standards, and that requires significant investment. I signed deals in Egypt and I even paid for the rights. When the deal didn’t go through, I had to bear the financial brunt and it really impacts your morale. The biggest challenge last year was the continuous changes to management structure across most broadcasters and media companies in the Middle East,” she points out.

But if there have been setbacks, the team has also seen rewards, with their initiatives in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon gaining momentum and nurturing young talent. One big win, Alaidaroos says, has been the ability to identify a lot of women writers in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia, through their writers’ labs.

“We have more women than men in our team of scriptwriters in Saudi Arabia and they are headed by a woman,” he points out.

In the meantime, Abu Homos says gender disparity has never stopped her from ambitiously moving forward to achieve her dreams.

“Some women see themselves as victims within the work environment. It starts with ourselves; I don’t say it’s easy. I was and am always surrounded by men, but it has never stopped me from pushing forward to achieve everything I have wanted to achieve. You need to have the perseverance to match your ambition. Like they say: ‘If you want more, you need to be willing to do more.’”