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The show must go on

In-Depth

The show must go on

 

The production house was, once, a very defined roof under which a very defined set of people lived. They all knew their roles and their job was clear: to produce. As the old adage goes: times change. Digitization has forced the production industry to evolve and function in a much more collaborative way because today, there are so many methods in which to develop, distribute and consume content. Currently, the MENA region is in the midst of this evolution and the dust hasn’t quite settled, but there remains a communal sense of hope in the upheaval. Today, the equation between production, advertising, media and brands still boils down to one operative word: content. As Ali Azarmi, managing partner of Joy Films ME, blatantly puts it, “When was content ever not king?” Content may always have been king, but the word “content” has taken on a new shape and certainly a new size.

Gizmos and gadgets

The dawn of the digital age, as some like to call it, created an unrecognizable industry for production. The influx of digital technology spawned two major changes. Firstly, the technological devices used by the industry are continuously becoming better and cheaper – from the camera equipment to the editing software. Consequently, the production industry has been thrust forward into a new territory, as has the rest of the world. The evolution of devices surely benefits the industry, but it also brings with it a new set of players, which means that anyone can venture out with a relatively small deposit and invest in some quality equipment. As Layal Moukahal, managing partner at Film Pudding, says: “We are definitely at a stage where the quality of even your iPhone is pretty good.” However, the veterans do not seem threatened by the wave of new content producers brought about by the accessibility of equipment. Azarmi explains: “It just means a bigger pot of ideas and more likelihood of people coming in from other industries with completely new interpretations of how film should be done.” Piero Cozzi, CEO of Filmmaster MEA, agrees by saying, “Now, there are many people that can feed information and images into the game. There may be a lot of rubbish, but there may also be some brilliance and, before, these people had no possibility of expressing themselves.”

However, executive producer and director at Boomtown Productions, Shane Martin, shares a friendly reminder: “Technology has gotten cheaper, but making films is not about the technology; it’s about who’s pointing the camera, what’s it pointing at and why.” While technology has increased the number of filmmakers, filmmaking is as much about the art as it is about technology and this new talent may or may not make the cut.

Center stage

It is not only technology and equipment that’s changing the production industry, but also the screens and platforms consumers are using to access video content. Cozzi points out that creating content for today’s audience requires a change in the mentality of the production industry. “The content that is produced has to be invented and created keeping in mind the screens: the language you’re using for the screens needs to change for each [screen] – whether it’s laptop, mobile or big screen,” he says. Where the viewership is taking place has become a crucial element in the new mix and not only on the screens – but also the platforms with which consumers are engaging through different screens.

Ramzy Abouchacra, regional managing director of Initiative GCC, explains the benefit of different platforms for both the production and advertising industries: “Social media and video sharing platforms have opened up the market for advertisers that were not there before. These platforms will give them more access to clients that would have never thought of producing something in the first place.” One such platform that acts as a major game-changer for production is YouTube and Diana Baddar, head of YouTube partnerships in MENA, says, “People want content within reach, whenever they want it and this has helped propel us to the forefront; in MENA alone, with over 60 percent mobile penetration, people want to watch the content anywhere, at any time.” Screens and platforms must be taken into account during any production project; single-use production spots are a thing of the past.

Whose Tube?

The platform solely responsible for making the world believe that we are all directors of our own film called “life”, is of course YouTube. Baddar says that the platform is the second largest search engine and that’s because the audience is consuming video content at unprecedented rates. We may never know whether it was the chicken or the egg that truly came first: did YouTube cause the video revolution or did YouTube arise due to a growing demand for video content? Either way, the platform has forever changed video content. It alone is a contributing factor for a major piece of the evolution puzzle for production companies, because it is one of the most popular mediums upon which branded content can now occur and, therefore, advertisers are keen to capitalize on it. Baddar compares YouTube to a blank canvas: “You can do with it whatever you want and there’s room for everyone; from people who want to be scrappy to people who want to create high-end productions. It is now about the brands understanding that the revolution of video is coming and it’s up to them to decide whether or not they want to be on the platform.”

Opinions vary within the production industry. On one hand, as Moukahal puts it, the industry knows that “YouTube is heading in a direction [that will] take a portion of production’s workflow.” However, on the other hand, Cozzi highlights the positive, saying, “Because of YouTube, there is a lot of content you can have access to, both for us [the production industry] finding talent and for the audience who can watch whatever they want to watch.” Providing a third party’s perspective on the production industry, Abouchacra says that YouTube could be the promise to a brighter future of the production industry. “The production company will still shoot TVCs, but those won’t work on YouTube, so they will have to shoot a spot that is tailor-made for YouTube, so people won’t skip it. It’s an opportunity for them to produce more,” he explains.

Show and tell

YouTube has fostered the rapidly growing phenomenon of original content producers, more commonly known as influencers. Today, it doesn’t take long for advertisers to approach influencers, wanting access to their flock by making them brand ambassadors. Occasionally, the client or creative agency goes directly to the influencer to create content on their established YouTube channel. Speaking on the influence of YouTube’s original content creators, Baddar says that “a lot of clients will go directly to content creators, bypassing the production houses altogether, which has to do with the fact that they [brands] can see who these creators are touching, so it’s much easier to gauge on your own, how someone could fit in with your brand.” She continues to explain that YouTube functions like an audition, giving clients the ability to cherry-pick with whom they want to work. While this may have initially seemed like a threat to the production industry, this relationship has evolved to bring production companies back into the equation. In a recent example, brand ambassador Huda Kattan, an Instagram and YouTube beauty vlogger, starred in a Sephora spot produced by Joy Films. Simply because, as Azarmi says, “The part that we did for her is something she could not have done herself.”

Video content is currently sweeping around the media and advertising community, as more and more agencies are giving it a whirl. For instance, Nestlé’s “Maggi Diaries” – an influencer-led cooking channel – was developed in collaboration with MEC and created strictly for YouTube, as it allows for more flexibility in timelines and logistics. Similar to Joy Films’ role in the Sephora ad, local production house Blue Cactus filmed Season One of “Maggi Diaries”, collaborating very closely with the creative team. Explaining the appeal further, Fatima Shaikh, director of MEC Access – MEC’s sport, entertainment and cause-marketing business – says, “Digital gives us the opportunity to create further extensions for conversation and dialogue.” Another such instance of a brand capitalizing on established YouTube personalities is Initiative’s “World Cup – 5th Participation” campaign for Mobily featuring Saudi Arabian comedian Yousef. Speaking about influencers like Yousef, Initiative’s Abouchacra says, “You have some very successful YouTube channels in the region that are producing a lot of content; they are using basic production techniques that have a certain resonance with the local audience because they understand the market.”

One cannot argue against the value of influencers in today’s market and, yet, not everyone is convinced that they are here to stay. Boomtown Productions’ Martin openly shares his skepticism: “These influencers are like a fashion thing or a trend. If they build a huge following for being a credible critic and then they start taking advertising dollars, they are no longer going to be so credible. Currently, it’s a watchword on everyone’s lips.” Whether or not influencers who are creating their own content are a fad or here for the long run, they are taking some business away from the industry.  Despite that, everyone seems to know that some branded content needs to be polished and that’s why they continue to bring in the big guns – the production companies.

New kids on the block

Platforms that produce original content, such as Starz Play and Icflix, might be considered the most recent piece of the puzzle, at least in the region. These platforms began by purchasing previously made content, like movies and shows, but most recently, the endeavor is for these platforms to create original content. When asked if the production industry should be considering these platforms as competition, Maaz Sheikh, Starz Play Arabia’s president, explains that they are not currently taking business away from the industry because they still outsource the original content to established production companies. Moreover, content platforms that have recently started producing original content still remain tiny compared to their Western counterparts. “If you compare Starz in the US, which plans for 70 hours of original content in 2016, to major production players like Warner or CBS, who are doing thousands of hours of original content, our platforms are really not direct competitors to them,” he explains. Yet, platforms like Icflix and Starz Play are adopting original content production initiatives throughout MENA, resulting in content that will be exclusive to these platforms, while also creating unique opportunities for the production industry. “The platforms are one degree closer to the customer because they [production companies] are getting direct feedback on what’s working and what’s not,” says Sheikh.

It may seem like the tsunami of mediums on which to place content has created a world where everyone is infringing upon production companies’ space. However, the reality may actually mean that this wave has brought with it fresh ideas, out-of-the-box talent and platforms that have already generated or could generate new business for the industry.

Content rules

Today, “content” no longer means the content material itself, but has grown to incorporate the idea behind that content, as well as the story through which it is conveyed. And industry members unanimously agree that it is this content that is the most important aspect of their jobs. There was a brief period where it could be argued that the tech or special effects overshadowed the content. “The first time people saw a projection on a building, for example, they thought ‘Wow, this building is magic’ and now what they’re projecting is more important than the technical effect,” says Cozzi. He further explains that this kind of cool content has been done and that it has created a certain benchmark in terms of quality, which means that production agencies are now back to focusing on the actual content rather than the technology used to create it. As the charm of cool technology fades or at least fails to impress the way it used to, the industry is getting back to the basics of good content.

Advertisers, production companies or influencers all seem to have their own definition of what content actually refers to and they’re all keen on expressing it. Martin admits, “Content is far too broad to describe it. You’ve got high-end branded content and then you’ve got a YouTube video made by your little brother, of a cat running around a kitchen. Content describes both these things, but they’re obviously not the same.” He goes on to explain that advertisers these days are interested in creating content that has a purpose, for which, he says, “production value, writing, acting and direction are all important elements”.

Some seem to identify content as any form of advertisement that brands use to get their message across to their consumer. More recently, the concept sometimes refers to branded content that does not come in the traditional form of the TVC. This could mean anything from online video content to a TV show such as Coke Studio Middle East, which was produced by Film Pudding. The company’s managing partner, Moukahal, explains that the “client [Coke] came to us because they wanted this piece of branded content to be upscale, not like the lower standards of a regular TV show”.For the time being, digital content is making a big impact in the regional production industry, as advertisers, media agencies, production houses and influencers attempt to wrap their minds around what exactly it is and how to do it properly. Azarmi takes it back a step, with the reminder that “the word ‘content’ is not the property of the digital era. It has always been there, but it’s being thrown about a lot these days as if it’s been invented by the digital people.”

The bottom line with content, as Azarmi puts it, is, “The public doesn’t distinguish between all these layers, they don’t care whether it came from a media, production or advertising agency.” Abouchacra also buys into this notion that it’s really about the consumer. He asserts that consumers “don’t really know who is producing what; they care about the content and our job is to produce engaging content that benefits the brands and gets them closer to these consumers.”

Toe-stepping

Technology has been the wrecking ball against the barriers that once existed between advertising, media and production companies. In the past, everyone knew and valued their place in the scheme of things. But now, as audiences consume content across multiple platforms and mediums, each sector has taken upon itself to unravel digital content. This somewhat chaotic situation could mean that digital content is single-handedly evolving the production industry. Media and advertising agencies are trying their hand at production; production and media agencies are becoming a larger part of the creative process and influencers are coming in and mixing the creative bag even more by developing their own original content that clients want to cash in on. Not only is there integration across sectors, but also within the production industry. Starz Play’s Sheikh suggests, “The entire value-chain has become more integrated, platforms are beginning to produce their own content and production companies are beginning to own more of the studios and facilities; the chain is consolidating.” This begs the question: is this actually a consolidation or an expansion where industries are grappling to find a new way? MEC Access’ Shaikh confirms this, explaining, “Agencies are doing content already. If you look at a media agency like MEC, we’ve already started creating content, we’re involved with social media and digital and we understand the art [of creating content].”

Occasionally, this line is crossed in a collaborative way, wherein media and production agencies sit together at the creative table. At other times, the agencies just venture directly into one another’s territory, as is the case of media agencies opening up in-house production departments. So far, the crossover is so chaotic, with every sector trying its hand at new things, that no one is feeling infringed upon just yet.

While media and advertising agencies are experimenting with the creation of digital content in-house, it’s mostly low-budget content. When these agencies need premium content, they go to the specialists: the production companies. Perhaps there is a feeling that because no one knows exactly what they are trying to achieve, there is more room for in-house interpretations. Some even seem excited about the opportunity to test the waters; after all, this business appealed to many of its experts because of their passion for the creative. Shaikh says, “Right now, it’s about understanding the ropes on content, which are still evolving; the trends are constantly changing, so it’s about keeping up with the trend and having the right partnerships, while creating it in-house at this early stage.”

Offering a more practical reasoning as to why the lines are blurring, Cozzi provides a real-life example of where the confusion stems from: “Before, the barriers were very clear: this is an event and this is a film. Now, depending on the circumstance, it could be an event with films. So this line that defines where the production companies end and the ideas start is not so defined.” He continues modestly, but with a sure glimmer of hope: “Soon, we might have clients coming directly to the production companies.”

The production companies appear excited about the prospect of working on new content, not just for business, but because it will return the opportunity to stretch their legs. Moukahal says, “We do enjoy working on branded content because we have much more leeway for creativity and experimentation. We are given more flexibility than in the 30 second commercial; clients trust us more to lead.”

A pretty penny

Production companies are not threatened by the blurring lines and feel they could gain a lot from a reinvention spurred by digital content. However, the real struggle arises from the expectations of agencies and clients with regards to the production of content. Since digital media is far more cost-efficient than traditional media, agencies and clients believe that producing content for digital should also be equally – if not more – cost-efficient. However, from the lens of producers, the production quality doesn’t change much, irrespective of the medium. Of course, there are different things to think about from an artistic perspective, but all the things that go into production of a TVC, for example, are usually in place for the production of digital content. Martin expresses his frustration when he says, “Digital content very often is thought of as cheap and it shouldn’t be. They [clients and agencies] should be thinking about good. If you want the best production values, that’s never going to be cheap, because good people aren’t cheap.” Because, according to Martin, when considering of good, fast and cheap, “you can only ever have two of these things. Good and fast won’t be cheap, cheap and fast won’t be good.” Moukahal, too, says that brands want to be on these digital platforms and they know they will get to pay less, but from the production perspective, standards are still standards. “With digital content, clients also expect a massive viewership and that doesn’t come easy and certainly doesn’t come without a good production value,” she says.

Probably unsurprisingly, clients and agencies are looking for cost-efficiency when it comes to digital content. For instance, the “Maggi Diaries” project was done on YouTube due to cost and logistics. Shaikh says, “Compared to television and the cost and investment it requires, digital gives us more opportunity to experiment.” Abouchacra confirms the production companies’ concerns by explaining that he too is less willing to take a financial risk regarding online content, saying, “You can’t really know before you air any content whether it’s going to be successful or not, so the cost of production has to make sense, because every time a client goes into this, they’re taking a risk.”

Why can’t we be friends?

Naturally, the theories from clients and agencies differ from those who are actually in the production industry. Abouchacra suggests that production companies do have much more competition today. “A few years ago, clients had to go to a big production company for any audio-visual needs that they had, but today, they don’t have to do this,” he says. He compares this challenge to the transformation media agencies had to go through when social media came to fruition. Many currently feel that the right path forward for the production industry is full integration. “Once we get past the stage of competition and move into real integration, that’s when we’re going to start producing really engaging content,” predicts Abouchacra. The partner industries are hopeful and excited about the evolution of production. Shaikh even goes so far as to say, “They [production agencies] are becoming even more important than they were in their traditional role; some have evolved and are already extending their services. They need to be more involved; it’s about helping the agency with how the storytelling could be evolved from a production standpoint.” This involvement of the production companies in the creative and storytelling process is of benefit to both: themselves and the advertising agencies. Understanding the nuances of production and the audience helps agencies to take risks they normally wouldn’t have, says Shaikh. Abouchacra reinstates the value of production agencies when he says that his agency leans on the production company to “understand the entertainment value and get people hooked”; he even says that in the past, his agency has completely changed direction, based on input from production.

Members within the production industry also understand and embrace the need to exist as more of a partner to agencies and clients. In the traditional model, the client and agencies would develop the idea almost fully before going to the production house. Now, because the audience has changed and the digital landscape has created room for much different content with a higher consumption rate, it makes sense that production companies are brought into the process at an earlier stage to help build the idea and determine if it’s feasible and at what cost. Cozzi indicates that the first step would be to bring in the production agency in the planning phase, but he wants the integration to go even further: “to deliver more of a well-rounded operation of experiential marketing”. Confirming the importance of initial collaboration, Azarmi says, “We should actually be part of the conception process to determine what’s doable; what we can add to the conversation is different than input from the other players.” However, Martin is a bit cynical of this integration, cautioning that “We would need to be careful that value is still placed on ideas; I’d be worried that clients would think ideas would be a free resource during the collaboration stage.” He eventually draws back on this speculation, suggesting that this scenario is unlikely.

Construction zone

If the industry’s major export changes, of course, the business will change. In the case of the production industry, the commodity of that export is content and it seems that the old-form TVC is not replacing the new-age digital content, but merely joining the club.

When the digital content shake-up occurred, most industry experts thought it was about time. Azarmi says, “Something has to come in and stir things up, otherwise anything mainstream stagnates.” He goes on to explain that the creative people in the industry should be able to come up with creative solutions, but he notes that things are still very unclear: “The unknown territory is a great equalizer; the industry is being flooded with alternative ideas and everything is up in the air and gradually things will come together to create a new form.” Although Azarmi is hesitant to give all the credit for this period of evolution to digital, he does admit that the style of content has changed; the current generation wants more raw, transparent forms of advertising and yet, he says, “These are visual trends that come and go with each decade. So I don’t know if the digital era is responsible for it or if the digital era simply reflects that desire.” His solution was to create a separate production entity from Joy Films called Streetwise, which he refers to as a guerrilla-style production house: “A small crew with the right approach.” Using a metaphor, he compares the mainstream agency to a classical orchestra – structured and, therefore, not agile – and the guerrilla-style company to a jazz trio – improvisational and accessible.

Certainly, the production industry is in a phase of exploration and when it comes to covering any unchartered ground, everyone has their own way of navigating. This evolution is occurring currently and hasn’t fully manifested. Some industry members are treating this transformation with more emphasis, like Cozzi, who warns that “If traditional production doesn’t evolve, doors will close in a few years.” However, he doesn’t believe there is one right answer: “Filmmaster MEA is a mix of more than one product, we have content, events and production divisions; we’re doing it one way, but there are a million different ways of doing it.” Martin is thinking ahead as well: “We have to be proactive; production companies are now becoming places where the creative ideas have to commence.” But he warns that this is a slippery slope because at what point are you invading your client’s territory? “There’s a fine line, because you could risk stepping on your clients’ toes, so there is a balance”, he says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are still industry members that crave the good old days and aren’t sure if shifting things beyond recognition is the right way forward. While Moukahal admits that her company should and wants to do more digital and branded content, she says, “We should keep the structure of the agency, production house and client because we don’t do marketing or strategy; I want the lines to remain clear. I’m all for creating the content, but the strategy, for example, is not our job.” She continues that even if it weren’t up to her, she’s not sure that the rest of the sectors want this shift: “I don’t think agencies want to deal with what we do, we’re at the bottom of the pyramid.”

Casting call

Overall, the feeling is that the production industry in the region is getting better since Communicate’s story back in June 2013, in which experts described the industry in the UAE as a very slow-moving ship that was undeveloped, lacking both talent and help from the surrounding industries. Two years later, it’s safe to say that there has been an evolution, although it’s slower than the global production industry. Moukahal indicates that the one aspect of the regional scene that has shown improvement is the supply of talented directors. She says that two years back, there were hardly any regional directors and now the region has several. Additionally, experts feel that local Saudi talent would go a long way, specifically to reach the Saudi consumer. Thankfully, then, the Saudi Arabian YouTube scene is growing rapidly and providing the production industry with homegrown content personalities. Martin describes his desire to work more with this type of talent, saying, “These young influencers have the zeitgeist and the real pulse of the people.” He’s also keen on employing young talent because “they have not become cynical and still believe in film-making as an art and they are coming in with a new way of doing things and an established understanding of the platforms”. Martin believes that, as it looks currently, Lebanon and Egypt are the life-blood of the regional production industry. Azarmi suggests that with the industry opening up, he has hope that “newcomers will join without any classical or conventional training and their interpretations will be as valid as any”.

Where things stand

Production companies and agencies alike have indicated that TVCs are still a huge part of the regional production scene and are often a main source of revenue. Martin even says that right now, “a lot of the big advertisers are actually taking money out of digital and putting it back into broadcast advertising, because there is a guaranteed ROI”. With the evolution, Cozzi notes that Filmmaster MEA’s largest source of business, presently, is its events division, which requires significant planning and production value.

Whether digital content is being done in-house at agencies or through production companies, or both, the regional production industry has confirmed that more and more clients are asking for agencies to take them there. With regard to video content on YouTube, Baddar says, “Brands are starting to understand that there is a storytelling factor that they can’t necessarily get out there on television, but which they can continue to evolve on the platform.” Abouchacra summarizes the full scope of the regional production evolution, saying: “The lines are becoming blurry, creating a much greater need for everyone in the circle to work closer. We need to get our minds together to be able to talk to the consumers.”

In the end, the main agenda from agencies – both media and advertising, influencers and, of course, production houses, is to create content that the consumers will want to watch. With the digital revolution came an excess of content and a call for quality that had never been louder. Consumers on the digital platforms have the ability to skip advertising content all together and it is up to all the sectors involved to ensure that they are engaging viewers. The regional production industry is going through a cleansing transformation that should reenergize and inspire those that hang on for the ride. After all, even Hollywood – the Rome of the production industry – wasn’t built in a day.

 

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