The revolution was never meant to be televised, but streamed. We speak with Egyptian industry pros about how these new opportunities helped put Egyptian productions into the international spotlight.
In 2007 Netflix tentatively introduced its streaming service, allowing audiences at home to access movies and television shows directly over the internet. Fifteen years later, streaming has become the lingua franca of content consumption with all major studios and networks begging for your bingeing with an actual constant stream of original and exclusive programming.
The Middle East is of course no exception. Pan-Arab streaming platform Shahid was launched by the omnipresent MBC Group in 2008, and - after Netflix demonstrated the potential of original programming produced by the streaming platform itself like ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend’ - released its first original production in 2019. Egypt-born platform WatchIt threw itself into the slipstream in February 2020, premiering its first original show, ‘Shadid Al Khotoura’, less than a year later.
The revolution it seems was never meant to be televised, but streamed. And like all revolutions it has rocked the foundations of the old world order. It’s no exaggeration to say the entertainment industry will never be the same again. And while plenty has been written about this new golden age of global television we would like to take a moment to close up on the impact it has had on our local Egyptian filmmakers and storytellers, many of whom have leveraged these new opportunities to thrust themselves into the international spotlight in ways that was never before possible.
HOW STREAMING PUTS CREATIVES FIRST
While strictly speaking ‘streaming’ refers to the way the content is aired, not the content itself, the format through which streamed media is presented has put the entire industry on its head. Consider the traditional 30-episode series format that’s still used in the production of Ramadan series, for example. Ever thought that last-minute plot twist was a little too rushed? That’s because - compared to international industry standards - it actually was. Many of the episodes in our Ramadan shows contain scenes that are literally shot a day before they’re aired. Actors aren’t given time to study their roles, decor and scenery are cobbled together with bubblegum and faerie dust, and scripts are hastily written on the spot during filming - which could run until the very last day of Ramadan. It’s normal and even expected for only three to five episodes to be scripted before actors are signed on to a particular Ramadan project.
Part of it is the ‘star-centric’ model that many Egyptian studios have adopted as the common commercial production model, wherein the celebrity actor comes first, and then the story and script are tailored to them. With streaming however it’s the other way around. Projects come with a complete script, and actors are selected in accordance to the roles that have already been written.
International streaming conglomerates like Netflix, known for their deep dive into the MENA region, have introduced new labour practices and a standardised process to the media industry. “Netflix has a process that is more complicated, sophisticated, and professional,” Amr Salama - the award-winning director behind ‘Paranormal’, the first Egyptian original production on Netflix, tells CairoScene. “They also require a more hands-on approach to the creative process, which is the direction that studios are moving towards worldwide.”
NEW WAYS TO CONSUME MEANS NEW AVENUES FOR STORYTELLING
Many projects have recently ventured into new storytelling territories with more diverse themes and flexibility in terms of episode and season length. Cairo’s bustling streets are no longer empty during the 7 PM mosalsal slot as families glue themselves to their living room TV. Instead, individuals are bingeing a 10-episode premium drama in a single day. This pattern of consumption means that binge-watching sessions result in an inevitable slew of opinions making their way to social media, leading to a frenzy that only dies down with the emergence of a new show. However, this shift also entails a stark difference in our understanding of drama in the region.
This notion of importing international practices might not be ideal given cultural and industry differences, but it is a step towards a much-needed change in Arab media production. Given how rushed pre-production is, not only does it downgrade projects artistically but it is also a much less efficient use of resources that are already limited, especially in comparison to international budgets.
The streaming platforms’ format has also managed to break the tradition of mostly releasing series in Ramadan, further easing the urgency and time sensitivity posed by the high season, as well as increasing the flow of work opportunities, particularly for youth. Star-centric productions persist, yet now more than ever we’ve been seeing projects that are led by rising youth actors and even first-time directors, examples of which include ‘Rivo’, an Egyptian series about the local 90s band of the same name, that has recently been released on WatchIt.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT - FOR NOW
‘Rivo’ piqued the interest of a broad audience with their nostalgic yet experimental take on the story of the titular band. Playing with musical and 90s aesthetic elements, the project has been in the works for more than 10 years. It was not until WatchIt provided the show-runners with a suitable context for this type of story that it was allowed to come to life with a vibrant and youthful cast.
“The biggest sector of consumers on these platforms are youth,” Sedky Sakhr, an emerging actor who stars as one of the main characters on ‘Rivo’, tells CairoScene. “So casting young actors with social media presence definitely helps with viewership. Rivo’s advertising, for instance, was mostly dependent on the following of their featured actors and the resulting word of mouth.”
While projects like these expose a hidden cache of young talents all throughout Egypt, attempts to mine them and bring them to the spotlight have nevertheless been mired by the increasingly frantic environment in which producers and film crews must operate.
“The speed of emerging new talents is much slower than the demand and scale of new projects,” Mohamed Hefzy, the leading producer who founded Egypt-based Film Clinic and presided over the Cairo International Film Festival for four years, tells CairoScene. “Everyone is working all year long now, not just during Ramadan, and we don’t have enough talents or technicians and crew members to match that.”
Questioning the quality of storytelling at this pace is essential, wherein platforms compete on new releases appealing to consumers who pay monthly for new exclusive content. Yet, Hefzy suggests that recent competition will enhance the quality and diversity of storytelling, and encourage creativity, resulting in subscribers who are primarily loyal to the content of the streaming platform.
WHO FILMS, WHO CUTS, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY?
On the other hand, while untold, forgotten and marginalised stories might still not see the light of day, some have made it through due to this new era of opportunity. Platforms can afford to take more risks, and - as Hefzy suggests - they MUST maintain their share of the increasingly crowded market, so new voices to galvanise the audience have become a necessity.
Worldwide, overdue conversations surrounding representation and diversity have become louder, and likewise in the MENA region, to an extent. With streaming platforms taking the initiative, they’ve organised workshops and provided funding or grant opportunities to marginalised artists. The ‘Creative Equity Fund’ is a collaboration between Netflix and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), in which they give a one-time grant to five Arab women filmmakers and producers to help kickstart their projects. Netflix also recently launched a curated list of Palestinian films as well as other productions directed by Arab female filmmakers, amplifying the voices of Arab artists.
Such opportunities also bridge the gap between ‘local’ and international markets. Now, we get to see Egyptian household names like Menna Shalaby nominated for an Emmy for her performance on ‘Fi Kol Esbou’ Youm Gomaa’, a Shahid production. This new medium allows women like Shalaby and many other talented local and regional artists to access different audiences and opportunities, and allows the world to see what the MENA region has to offer, just by turning on their subtitles.
“Things don't have to be rigid anymore, and that gives us room for more stories to be told,” Egyptian actress Sarrah Abdelrahman, another ‘Rivo’ star, tells CairoScene.
Netflix's first Jordanian production, ‘AlRawabi School for Girls’, perfectly illustrates how new stories can toe the line of traditional possibilities. The all-female production garnered a lot of controversy for tackling daring social issues such as bullying, sexual violence, and teen relationships in the context of a strict girls-only conservative Jordanian high school, racking up engagement and becoming one of the most watched shows in Jordan.
However, the controversy instigated discussions on representation and how platforms play into spotlighting taboo topics that standard production models have failed to do. Yet, questions about the authenticity and representation of Arab societies have also been raised, especially since international platforms are a red flag for Arab audiences. This sentiment is echoed heavily across social media as audiences debated Mona Zaki’s role in the Arabic remake of ‘Perfect Strangers’, which caused a stir amongst Arab viewers, a number of whom claimed it did not represent ‘Arab family values’ - a broad, vague term that artists often see as stifling.
IS THAT A WRAP FOR TRADITIONAL PRODUCTIONS?
The natural course of development of the media landscape has fully embraced streaming platforms, paving the way for a new era of drama and, eventually, cinema. The way we interact with “content” - a word that doesn’t sit well with many artists because it is so commercialised - is constantly changing. With shorter entertainment cycles, fifteen-second TikTok clips, subscriber-based models, and daily releases of star-studded dramas, there is so much more to consider artistically and commercially.
The impact on films in particular is beginning to be felt, according to Egyptian actor Sedky Sakhr, who has starred in multiple streaming programmes including ‘Rivo’ and ‘Leh La2’. “Films made specifically for platforms, I feel, are cinematically worse,” he shares. “Cinema is an immersive experience and that can’t happen on a TV screen. Of course, the availability and accessibility of films on platforms are great, but I still fear for cinema in its classic sense, especially since there has already been a recession due to restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
These new industry dynamics have not only impacted the means of production but essentially the marketing tools as well; shaping the story and affecting who gets to tell the story. The influx of opportunities, however, created an unintentional downside, where the current infrastructure of the industry isn’t equipped to handle the high demand and the constant need for TikTok-attention-spanned-content. Entertainment cycles are faster and more diverse than ever, and projects are having trouble keeping up.
While there are plenty of perks provided in terms of storytelling and highlighting emerging talents, including the fact that we don’t have to run to the bathroom during ad breaks anymore, it’s important to question the constant commercialization of art, and how it’s affecting artists’ vision at large amidst the endless streaming.