Content Creation Production Features

Big plans for small screens

Saraya Abdeen (The Palace) behind-the-scenes.
Saraya Abdeen (The Palace) behind-the-scenes.

TV drama is a fast-evolving genre in the MENA region, and increasingly viewed as a major revenue generator. With their eye on a larger share of the pie, leading broadcasters are now investing more to produce international-standard drama series. Vibhuti Arora and Vijaya Cherian explore the rise of TV drama in the Arab world

Arab television drama, often also referred to as musalsal, took centre stage in the Arab world this year, with 41 new shows airing during Ramadan. Traditionally, the holy month has been high season for TV viewing, and Arab drama has maintained its lead as the highest grosser over the years. Broadcasters, however, are now looking to replicate that success across the year by investing more heavily in dramas that can be viewed daily and for a longer period of time, as Arab viewers seem to have developed an appetite for stripped programming.

Fadi Ismail, Group Director of Drama Production and Distribution at MBC, and one of the most respected figures on the regional production scene, says TV drama is “a crucial offering on any screen that seeks high ratings and audience loyalty”.

“Arab drama is witnessing a renaissance in quality and its appeal is now stronger than even Turkish or Western drama. Two years ago, we produced Omar, which set a new benchmark for drama in the region, and we continue to achieve more production milestones with new series,” says Ismail, who is also the General Manager of O3 Productions, the production arm of MBC.

Game changers

The ratings of MBC’s latest offering, Saraya Abdeen or The Palace, a period drama set in 18th-century Cairo, made it one of the top three Ramadan series in the Gulf and Egypt this year. The USD 20 million series upped the stakes in terms of scale, quality and production value, making it a game changer for Arab television.

MBC claims that the drama, written by Hiba Mshare Hamade, a young but established Kuwaiti writer, and directed by leading Egyptian cinematographer Amr Arafa, is the first in the region to make such extensive use of VFX and 3D graphics, thanks to its partnership with Hollywood’s Stargate Studios.

“We used 3D sets extensively with VB [Virtual Backlot] technology to allow seamless filming virtually that appeared as real palace indoor sets, wings and hallways. The end result was absolutely stunning. What’s noteworthy is that we produced all the special effects in Stargate Studios in Dubai, which is a 50/50 joint venture between Stargate Los Angeles and MBC,” explains Ismail.

With a cast of more than 120, The Palace was primarily shot in Cairo’s Adel Moghraby Studios, although 20% of it was filmed in real locations in and around the city.

There is no doubt that Egypt continues to be the seat of creativity in the Arab world, and it has often made its mark at the Cannes film festivals.

“Creatively, artistically and technically, Egypt is the most suitable base for drama productions in the Arab world. In this particular series, for instance, many of the actors are Egyptians and many of our crew members are based there. Moreover, the story is also based in Egypt, so having an Egyptian base made complete sense,” says Ismail.

For The Palace, Egyptian creativity, Hollywood technology and MBC’s regional television expertise were brought together to create one of the Arab world’s biggest success stories. The first season was broadcast this Ramadan, and the 12-episode second season will be filmed soon and is expected to air in 2015. This is one of MBC’s most ambitious projects and boasts the biggest A-list cast in Arab drama.

Risk assessment

Pay TV operator OSN has invested just as heavily in TV soap operas in recent years, although its approach is slightly different. It does not produce Arab soaps the way MBC does, but rather dictates various elements of the production, all the way from who will direct the show to who will star in it. Khulud Abu Homos, Executive VP of Programming and Creative Services at OSN, who plays a key role in leading the acquisition of such content, justifies this approach as a crucial element in risk assessment.

“We may not produce the drama, but we are involved in the production right from when the script has been written. We have a team of directors and producers that read and assess the scripts. At present, we are assessing 40 different scripts. If we like the script, we go further to pre-define the actors, the directors, the art directors and even the technology that should be used to the production company. If they are willing to take our requests on board, do we then move forward with that project. This is important to safeguard our investment,” she says.

Collaboration ensures survival

While this approach might seem bureaucratic, production houses and broadcasters are increasingly seeing huge value in this collaboration. The input of broadcasters is invaluable, as they know which actors and stories drive up the ratings. Collaboration is the key word here.

OSN, for instance, now works with a number of FTA players to ensure it has the first window for premium dramas, even if they are commissioned by these broadcasters.

“We tend to buy most of the premium dramas that come to the market because they will have a pay window. Sometimes we partner with free-to-air broadcasters such as Dubai TV, Abu Dhabi TV, Saudi TV, MBC, CBC and so on,” explains Abu Homos.

OSN recently partnered with Egyptian broadcaster CBC to broadcast Al Isheq Al Aswad, a hit series shot in Istanbul and Rome. OSN has the first window for this series, and CBC has the second. Reliable industry sources say that an average of USD 600,000 was invested in each episode of this series.

OSN did a similar deal with Abu Dhabi TV, which produced Al Ikhwa, a Syrian drama for which the pay TV operator will serve as the first window. In fact, the two broadcasters are now collaborating even further and Abu Dhabi Media’s subscription-based channels are available exclusively on OSN from this month.

Abu Dhabi is one of the rising centres for TV drama with its 30% cash rebate incentive and support from twofour54 intaj. It was recently home to two mega Syrian drama productions, Hammam Al Shami and Al Ikhwa; the latter premiered on OSN in April before being aired on other FTA channels. Filming for its next season is underway in Abu Dhabi.

Gulf productions

For 2014, OSN has commissioned nine Gulf or Khaleeji productions and five Arabic dramas, while for 2015, it has already invested in 12 Gulf series and nine Arabic dramas. Clearly, the numbers show greater investment in Gulf productions, though these are yet to have the pan-Arab appeal of Egyptian, Turkish and Syrian dramas.

Jeff Youssef, Associate Partner at Oliver Wyman, which recently brought out a report on local Arabic content production in the MENA region, says the development of Arabic film and TV content is significantly below par. However, with better understanding of consumer preferences, the market share of Khaleeji content is set to double in five years. It presently accounts for 11% of broadcaster spend, and is likely to reach 22% by 2019. The broadcaster spend on other Arabic content is expected to grow from 22% to 32% in the same period.

One important player in the mix is Dubai-based Sabbah Pictures, which specialises in producing Khaleeji content for pay TV and FTA networks across the MENA region.

“Around 90% of Khaleeji productions take place in Kuwait,” explains Suzy Karajian, Assistant General Manager at Sabbah Pictures.

“We work with Kuwaiti writers and directors for our drama series. This year our production Thuraya, which aired on MBC 1, was among the top five series during Ramadan.”

According to Karajian, cultural nuance sets Khaleeji productions apart from other Arabic content.

“The body language of the actors, the dialogue, their dialect and their general demeanour define Khaleeji shows. Nowadays, a lot of productions have a mix of Khaleeji and Turkish or Syrian elements to attract bigger audiences.”

Saudi TV has entered this mix with a new Saudi soap titled Endama Youzhir Al Kareef, which will premiere on OSN on September 9.

“We have partnered with Saudi TV for this so we have the first window,” says OSN’s Abu Homos. “We believe this drama will be the turning point in what we have seen in Saudi and Gulf productions. It has been written by two Turkish writers, Sama Tansi and Irfan Sarokhan, who have scripted some very successful dramas. They spent eight months in Jeddah.

“The language, the script and the writing are all Saudi Arabian but it has the quality and tempo of a Turkish drama. The look and feel of a Turkish drama is very premium and those production values have now been adopted to create a slick-looking Saudi drama series,” explains Abu Homos.

This trend towards big-budget, larger-than-life television productions with better storylines and technical finesse has also seen a significant contribution from MBC. In addition to home productions such as The Palace, O3 Productions has produced two big-budget drama series this year, Cactus Alliance and Matrimonio. The broadcaster has acquired and aired several other Arabic dramas in recent years and plans to create more local content.

Cactus Alliance, a thriller, is a large production shot in three cities – Dubai, Cairo and Beirut – with a large international crew. All 15 48-minute episodes have already aired on MBC 4. Matrimonio, on the other hand, is a 120-episode telenovela that looks at the lives of six couples.

Matrimonio is a long format, first-of-its-kind telenovela produced in Dubai, using the very resourceful telenovela production workflow that makes it possible to do almost one episode each day. It will be aired on MBC 4 before the end of 2014,” explains MBC’s Ismail.

Cinema versus drama

Arab soaps received a huge boost when some of the talent migrated from cinema to drama. This has enhanced its quality, adding a cinematic dimension.

“With drama, there is more money, more continuity and less seasonality compared to cinema, as a result of which a lot of good actors and directors have moved into drama,” explains Abu Homos.

“The Arab world produces under 20 movies a year… out of that, two or three may do well at the box office and that determines their success. With dramas, there are more windows to generate revenue. You have the pay window, free-to-air, online, second screen, the possibility of reselling, dubbing and subtitling, and even the ability to sell that content to other countries where there is a shortage of content. Also, with drama, our expectations are lesser than cinema as people are used to seeing it on smaller and smaller screens, not necessarily HD. The hook is the quality of the story and the actors. Therefore, it has a lot of advantages,” adds Abu Homos.

Perhaps another important side to Arabic drama production has been producers exploring calmer shores than Egypt and Syria to film their dramas in peace. This is where the UAE and Saudi Arabia have stepped up their game. In the UAE especially, we have seen both twofour54 intaj and Dubai Studio City aggressively pushing their locations by building state-of-the-art infrastructure and offering attractive incentives.

Multiple powerful factors have driven up supply and demand for high-quality Arab dramas. The increasing appetite for Arab soaps as stripped pieces, collaboration between producers and broadcasters, co-operation between pay TV and free-to-air players, and the availability of cinema talent in drama are some of the key ingredients that have helped make Arab dramas a more viable commercial proposition for all the stakeholders involved. Arab dramas now mean more work, more formats, more production – and therefore, more money.

The Palace – a visual feast

MBC’s The Palace was shot entirely on three Sony PMW F-55 cameras, using pre-visualisation techniques and technology that enabled the director to view the filmed scenes complete with the 3D set backdrops composited in real time.

   “The Palace is truly a milestone in visual technology,” says Rehan Malik, GM of Stargate Middle East.

With one of the biggest green screens in the world, the soundstage has made the impossible possible from a production point of view, claims Malik.

“This is the first time live compositing is being used to this extent in a TV series. MBC wants to produce world-class shows. The writers and directors can think bigger. And the cost stays the same, it doesn’t cost more but it improves the scale of production.

“We have used workflows developed over years in international productions… that are more efficient and give directors more room for creativity. The majority of work is being done here in Dubai but any overflow goes to Los Angeles or Malta,” he says.

“Although some clean-up is required in post, most of it is ready for the director to view as soon as it is filmed. We’re working towards achieving most of it in camera. The F-55 is extremely well suited to this workflow.”

The VFX production team in Cairo operates the pre-visualisation system and sends it to Dubai for any clean-up, recompositing and additional VFX. The footage is managed by Stargate’s patented VOS system. The footage can then be accessed and worked on from Stargate locations across the world. This is useful for any overflow or specialised work. The processed footage is then sent back to Cairo for editing on Adobe Premiere Pro.

VFX Supervisor Ragui Hanna, who oversees the post-production for this series along with four other compositors and two 3D artists, says that the VFX team working out of the Stargate Middle East office in Dubai has about two weeks to complete each episode and the new workflow streamlines the process substantially.

“We have to create about 45 minutes of footage per episode and work on more than 2600 charts of visual effects, which translates to 70 terabytes of files for the VFX part alone. Simply put, you can get very close to the finished product on location complete with VFX and 3D. This kind of set-up is used traditionally in news, but to use it in a series means using the technology on a much larger scale. The workflow of a series is very different from that of films,” says Hanna, adding that the secret is to customise the software for each workflow.

“For each production, we tailor-make the software to make it a perfect fit for the story. The 3D sets for The Palace, for instance, were created in the pre-production stage two years ago but required more fine tuning in post.

“The workflow gives us the foreground and background separately. The background is created entirely in 3D and doesn’t require further work. For the foreground, if we require to adjust sets, we use specific VFX shots that need 3D rendering.”

– Vibhuti Arora and Vijaya Cherian