DUBAI: More than 94 percent of households in the Gulf countries have Internet access, according to Euromonitor International, and this is reflected in the time they spend online — from shopping to consuming content.
In fact, the average monthly consumption per user increased from 12 hours in 2019 to 19 hours in May 2020 on StarzPlay, according to PwC.
The rise in content consumption has led to a demand for not just more content, but also higher quality content.
Rise Studios officially launched last month and has been set up by former executives from OSN and Warner Bros. Discovery: Amanda Turnbull, former general manager at Warner Bros. Discovery Middle East, Africa and Turkiye; Emad Morcos, former chief content and commercial officer at OSN; and Amel Farag, former head of content commercial strategy at OSN.
Prior to the launch, the three spent time signing agreements with production studios from the region including Partner Pro of Egypt, whose past credits include “Finding Ola;” advertising creative house ASAP; and Lebanon- and UAE-based reality television specialist Different Productions, which launched “Dubai Bling” last month.
The studio has also signed agreements with Watan Network, a multi-channel venture, and Black Typhoon, which develops original Saudi productions, as well as a four-movie deal with Egyptian business Lagoonie Film Production.
Turnbull describes Rise Studios as an “entertainment company,” which means that its aim is to drive content investments across the region while being platform-agnostic.
Historically, free-to-air channels driven by advertising sales have dominated the region.
The entrance of streaming services and changing behaviors of a younger generation have shifted the ways in which content is consumed, and therefore, created. “We have gone from 30-60 episode dramas to eight-episode seasons,” Turnbull said.
She added: “There’s a different level of engagement, and so the content has to be good enough. It has to be premium.”
That’s true even for social media platforms, which have largely relied on user-generated content, with companies such as Snap and YouTube launching premium-paid subscription tiers.
“All the social media platforms are looking at how they monetize their audiences better and they’re wanting to put out premium content,” Turnbull said.
“They’re all having a really good look at the streaming platforms and replicating it in ways that are appropriate for their own platforms,” she said.
Meanwhile, streaming platforms are looking beyond their own models to either diversify their offerings — like with Netflix Games — or evolve to include an ad-supported tier.
This makes the ecosystem incredibly “complex” because “everybody needs something slightly different,” whether that’s different generations, geographies, or social and streaming companies, Turnbull said.
It also creates an opportunity for producers who now have a wide plethora of platforms to choose from — digital, social, free-to-air, and streaming.
“This is where Rise Studios can step in and support our producers to understand how their content has to be different for the different platforms,” Turnbull said.
The company is “really excited about and dedicated to finding, nurturing, and championing talent both in front of and behind the camera,” she added. And to do so, it works in several ways from producing and co-producing content to distributing it in the region.
As part of its commitment to regional talent, the studio is the platinum sponsor of this year’s Cairo International Film Festival, where it’s supporting the Bela Tarr Filmmaking workshop.
“We have only just launched so we’re at the beginning of our journey, but it’s something that’s important to us,” said Turnbull.
Traditionally, the time from script to screen has been fairly quick, Turnbull said. But, the demand for quality premium content that holds audiences’ attention as well as the global standards being brought to the region by international players is resulting in content creation taking longer than before.
Rise Studios’ goal is to support its partners with not only investment but also “all the heavy lifting in and around the distribution, the commercial deal, etc., so they can focus on their craft,” Turnbull said.
The studio works with different platforms to secure distribution for producers, and its next step is to secure long-term deals with platform partners, which would reduce the risks for both creators and platforms.
The deals would help platforms with a guaranteed content slate over a number of years, and producers would benefit from being able to retain their staff and having greater control over their projects.
“But in order to do that, we need to guarantee a volume of work and that’s our role as the studio for our production partners,” Turnbull said.
For now, the company is focused on English and Arabic content, but it is open to considering other languages over time, as well as replicating the current model in other high-growth markets in the future.
Turnbull explained that Rise Studios is working to tell stories with a twist that resonate with regional and local audiences, but its long-term vision is to amplify the stories from this region on a global stage.
If there is a “universality and relevance to the stories that we’re telling, then they should be able to work here but also travel globally,” she said.
Although the studio is headquartered in Dubai, UAE, it has partners across the region from Saudi Arabia to the US. The core team is intentionally small, Turnbull said.
The studio is hiring senior industry experts “who want to join the family” and share the company’s values, but “we’re more interested in investing in partners and content than in a heavy central team,” she said.
Turnbull, who has always worked in the media industry, has operated across high-growth markets such as Eastern Europe and Asia Pacific until 2003. But it was the opportunities and talent in the Middle East market that “absolutely energized” her, eventually paving the way for Rise Studios.
“There’s a reason why the studio is called ‘Rise,’” Turnbull said.
“Our long-term ambition is to rise up this region. This is our moment,” she said.