“We would like to position Dubai, and the Middle East as a whole, as an innovator at the front of the conversation about emerging media,” Omar Butti, executive director, innovation programs, at Dubai Film and TV Commission — the event’s organizers — told Arab News.
“I think one of the beautiful things about digital media is that no one’s quite figured it out yet,” he said. “With TV and film, the language is so established that it’s quite hard to break out of that mold. There’s a lot of emulating as opposed to innovating (in the region) — looking at what other people are doing and getting ourselves up to that level. There’s value in doing that, certainly. But we have a unique opportunity to help create the language around digital content or immersive reality experiences, because that isn’t established.”
There is enormous interest in digital content in the region, Butti stressed. And huge potential, both creatively and financially.
“There are currently 50-plus channels in the Arab world that have over 1 million subscribers on YouTube,” he said. “We have a very young population, incredible mobile phone penetration, and I think the region ranks second in the world in terms of views per day, around 310 million.”
When traditional, old-media companies look at the region — if they look at it at all — it tends to be for novelty value he said.
“It hasn’t really been an approach of looking at it from a long-term perspective and wanting to get involved with the creative community here,” Butti said. “But that’s not the case with digital companies. They see real numbers and real support and real, huge, potential business behind digital content creators. So I think that’s a big shift.”
The Gulf region, in particular, has not had a particularly strong presence on traditional media platforms. TV and film schedules are generally dominated by content from other Arab countries. But Butti said there are plenty of stars emerging from the GCC online.
“This year, (VIDXB’s) focus is on the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” he told Arab News. “We’re trying to offer something specifically for the Gulf and for the region in year one. But the long-term plan is to expand that. And even in year one, we’ve got people coming from Morocco, Egypt, the US and the UK, so it will be a global conversation about content.”
Alongside international stars including American vlogger Casey Neistat and UK pop star Conor Maynard, VIDXB will also welcome some of the biggest Arabic-language content creators, including Noor Stars, Saudi Reporters, Esswara, and Dyler. And Butti expects huge numbers of fans will turn up to see them in the flesh. Despite the fact that, generally speaking, regional online content creators are not household names, the adoration they generate from their fans is comparable to traditional media stars.
“You think no one’s watching,” Butti said. “But (for youth), these are your top-tier celebrities. These are the people that you look up to, follow, and watch. Something I think is maybe not taken into consideration is that these people are often creating content on a daily basis, so their audience genuinely feels like they know them; that they’re connected in a way that is much more direct than with any movie star or TV star, because of the level of access they have to their daily lives. Even though it’s curated content, they still feel like they’re there with them every single day. So the adoration and the engagement are on another level. It can feel a little under-the-radar, until 5,000 people show up to see this person and you’re, like, ‘Where did they come from?’”
Butti said the closest analogy he could draw to VIDXB would be VidCon in the US. “It’s the idea of marrying an industry conference with a fan event,” he explained. “People who are in the fan community today may be future content creators, and we want to encourage them. They might come to this event just to see Dyler, or whoever, but they’ll actually get to hear them talk about the creative process and how they got started, or why they do what they do, and maybe hearing directly from their heroes could be the little push they needed. That’s what we want – we want to find ways to encourage the youth to actively create and do something beyond just being passive viewers.”
From the industry side, he said, the hope is that VIDXB will show brands, particularly “the impact, the importance and the power of these creators.”
Butti said, “We should be taking them seriously on all fronts — supporting them creatively, working with them to make sure that their content is as good as it can be, but also treating them in the same way as we would traditional mainstream celebrities, because they do have that value.”
Beyond establishing a digital-media industry in the Arab world, the emergence of regional content creators could also play a significant cultural role, Butti believes, by breaking down the stereotypical portrayal of Arabs in traditional global media.
“I think one of the most important things we can do in the Arab world, whether it’s here in Dubai or anywhere, is find ways to get our stories out there and express the fact that there’s all sorts of diversity and different understandings of the world here,” he said.
“We are basically in a position where if we start creating amazing content, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t get that content out there,” Butti continued. “And one of the most important things that we can do as a society, I think, is start exporting our culture.”