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Wider vision

Lebanese production taps into new territories

In January 2012, post-production house The Gate announced it was closing its, and Lebanon’s, only Kodak Cinelab, and stopping the resale of Kodak film stock, marking the end of an era in Lebanon’s production industry. “We have been postponing this decision for as long as we could. However, the actual volume of film shoots doesn’t justify keeping such a facility operational. We are happy to have contributed to the development of our industry for over 10 years and remain committed to continuing to provide services to digital high-end productions in Lebanon and the region,” stated Boutros Tarraf, general manager at The Gate, in the shutdown announcement.



Open opportunities. The introduction of digital alternatives to traditional production, the most groundbreaking of which was the Canon 5D Mark II camera – which currently retails for an average $2,000, and has been used in the making of some US shows and movies such as Saturday Night Live and Marvel’s The Avengers – has made the film industry accessible to all those hoping to break into it with low budgets and limited resources; and Lebanon’s filmmakers are quick to pick up the worldwide trends. “If you get to a point where you can produce a film for $100,000 [thanks to digital technology] and it makes around $300,000 or $400,000 at the theater, then it becomes viable. But by the time you market the film and do the soundtrack, and the proper editing, it’s expensive. Even if shooting becomes cheaper, it represents 20 percent of the cost,” explains Nabil Issa, general manager at Signature Productions.

Still, online platforms, which have proven their success in turning amateurs into Internet sensations and user-generated content into real projects, could well serve as free distribution platforms for filmmakers wishing to spread the word about their work, and even as alternative channels to showcase their pet projects. “You can shoot with a 5D, post on YouTube. It is no longer about the technicalities anymore, it is about the content,” explains André Chammas, director at production house, Clandestino.

The film industry is unlikely to make a radical shift to online in Lebanon, at least in using it as a primary channel of showcase and distribution, because, says Paul Sabbagh, managing director at Wonderful Productions, the Internet speed does not accommodate one-hour features; but web series coming out of Lebanon and averaging five minutes per episode are growing increasingly popular in the local market, and even regionally. Such was the case with producer Katia Saleh’s web series Shankaboot, which won an Emmy for best digital fiction program in 2011,
having already clocked up, by then, some 600,000 YouTube views and close to 30,000 Facebook fans across the region since it’s creation in 2009.

Following Shankaboot’s success, local web series such as Beirut I love you, (I love you not), created by young Lebanese directors, Cyril Aris and Mounia Akl , and Mamnou3, a mockumentary on the inner workings of the Lebanese censorship bureau (see page tktktk), spread like wildfire among online communities. “The best thing about Mamnou3 is that it can’t be censored. It is out of the authority of the censorship bureau. It’s on YouTube,” says, creator, Nadim Lahoud. “[the censorship bureau] know about it now, and they weren’t very happy. We filmed it secretly – without all of the permits you would need in Lebanon – in one apartment. They only found out about it when it was too late,” he adds.



No cheap shot. But even though Issa says that self-publishing online could run on small budgets and compromise quality, Sabbagh says webisodes such as Shankaboot would have never seen the light of day had they not brought in some sizeable funding from the big guns. “BBC World Trust Service, now BBC Media Action, wanted to do something for youth in the region on the web, but they didn’t know what the format would be. When they approached me, I suggested
doing a series on ordinary people and their trials and tribulations on a daily basis, and it could be daring because it had already secured financing. We were given more leeway than we would on TV to do whatever we wanted,” explains Saleh.

Likewise, Lahoud’s Mamnou3 project, which would have, understandably, never passed through the censorship bureau to make it to broadcast TV, was entirely funded by the Samir Kassir
Foundation, an NGO dedicated to freedom of press in Lebanon, under the umbrella of the European Union; but Lahoud still had to make do with a relatively small budget, a challenge despite the “friendly rates” proposed by big
production houses he approached. “They are used
to doing advertising, and they have massive budgets. They don’t even think of how to do things for less money. One of them suggested we needed three electricians and we’re only filming in one location, we probably didn’t need any electrician,” he explains, adding that an online media and marketing strategy, as well as web-hosting activities have to be accounted for when
budgeting for web series.



Monetizing online. In order to sustain, web productions need monetizing opportunities, one of which could be found in none other than traditional channels, through the sale of copyright and distribution rights to TV stations. Such was the case when the team behind Beirut I love You (I love you not), released what was supposed to be a one-time short film, and turned into a series that ran on both TV and web after a producer at LBCI approached them. “She said she would like to turn the short film into a web series, that would also be broadcast on TV. We were quite free to create the story we wanted and talk about any social issues that Lebanese youth faced on a daily basis. So we decided to take the protagonist of the film, create their entourage and follow their daily lives, their friendship, their struggle in a city they love and hate at the same time,” says Aris.

Saleh wasn’t as impressed with offers from local TV stations, as she said they fail in valuating web series, especially award-winning ones like hers, even though she is really keen on taking Shankaboot to TV. “They either want to buy it for peanuts, which certainly does not work for an Emmy award-winning series, or they want to blatantly just take it. I think their problem was that it was a series of five-minute episodes, and that it was accessible online, not exclusive to them. But what they don’t realize is that they would be getting an entirely different audience. TV stations are a bit old-fashioned and not adapting well enough to new technologies,” she
explains. Instead, product placement has proven to be a great source of advertising revenue for Shankaboot, as Saleh secured some “very good brands” to support the series.

Wadih Safieddine, partner at production house Né. à Beyrouth, also sees advertising money pouring into online content creation – rather than the traditional banners and popups – if not now, in the very near future. Only recently, Safieddine struck a deal with his cousin, Karim Safieddine, CEO at Cinemoz, now the region’s first video-on-demand Arab platform, to make Né. à Beyrouth an official distributor for Lebanese films and documentaries on Cinemoz, “which means regional viewership for local productions and, in turn, a lot of advertising money, hence profit for the filmmakers,” explains Safieddine. That is, however, provided productions are on the right platform.

Since Shankaboot’s international success, Saleh has received quite a few offers for similar projects – even developing one for a multimedia platform for a magazine in Cambodia – and, more recently, was approached by Yahoo! Maktoob for a series, targeting Arab women in the region, to be viewed exclusively on its platform. “We came up with Fasateen, a web series that showcases the daily struggles of Arab women in the region, and decided to stir debate and discussions online by proposing two endings for each episode, and have the viewers decide [on one],” says Saleh.

Although she is more or less satisfied by the response from the region, Saleh’s disappointment with the Yahoo! Maktoob deal is obvious. She says, “Yahoo! Maktoob’s platform is technically poor, not yet accommodated to receive a high number and high quality of HD formats. We’ve been discussing this since the launch of the series, but they haven’t done anything about it. I don’t know if it is lack of expertise or nonchalance. It certainly is affecting our numbers since we are all over the press now.” According to Saleh, Yahoo has since also failed to deliver on advertising revenues they had promised two months prior to filming Fasateen, and even conduct proper marketing for Fasateen, “by outsourcing the campaign to a third party.”



Trust issues. For business-minded Sabbagh, Yahoo’s nonchalance, or even failure to successfully launch its own creation, boils down to a constant that is hard to shake: when it comes to advertising, clients in the region will still allocate the biggest chunk of their budgets toward TV, a medium they have come to trust as a primary channel of communication, even their own, let alone that of content they consider sponsoring. “The penetration of TV in the MENA region still stands at 95 percent, and thank goodness for that, because we work in production. Clients don’t have the luxury to go everywhere, and when the cost [of online production] becomes too high to handle, they would much rather spare the extra cash on booking air time,” says Sabbagh, adding that even the Saudi market’s online penetration, which stands at 50.7 percent as of June 2012, according to the kingdom’s Communications and Information Technology Commission, is only high compared to the rest of the region, and not the international markets. “Really good webisodes in the Saudi market have five to ten million views, and they have generated web stars in the kingdom. I recently shot an ad for 7Up in Saudi, and the lead actor was a YouTube sensation,” he adds.



High risk on low returns. For smaller markets, however, Sabbagh says content providers, as well as clients must manage their expectations, especially when it comes to just how viral their viral films can get. “You have to go
in-depth with your market study, because on TV, you are guaranteed to hit your target audience, whereas online it’s a different case.” And, in that regard, even Shankaboot has stumbled to find the right audience, even though it was
successful in the region and targeted a Pan Arab
audience. “But, with time, some felt it was maybe too Lebanese, while others related to it.
In Saudi Arabia, we had a huge audience; in
Qatar, not so much; in Egypt and Jordan, huge. And then Brazil and Canada where Lebanese expats are concentrated. Maybe people were put off by the language, and some characters and topics that were not relevant to them, like the use of arms and weapons among students,” explains Saleh.

Even though Marc Hadife, CEO at City Films, says a viral film he produced for Batelco had cost him in production even more than a TVC would, normally, he realizes many agencies on the local front often try to promote digital media as a cheap alternative to traditional channels for clients, who in turn are willing to compromise the quality of production for online campaigns. Rolly Dib, owner and producer at Olive Tree Productions, says variables such as the camera and editing systems can often skew budgets dramatically downward. “Very few people ask for high-end production for viral, which doesn’t usually happen. It has never happened with me personally.  But now, we do some special edits for online. When we do a 30-second ad for TV, we do a special one-minute for online because it is free, and you will reach the people that don’t watch TV,” explains Sabbagh.

Clandestino’s Chammas says a lot of communication mishaps have happened in explaining to clients’ production requirements for viral films, which some years have resulted in “catastrophic online campaigns that were executed as poorly offline,” but they have made clients more comfortable in taking risks they normally wouldn’t have on TVCs. “All of us love these projects. You can take a bit more risk with them, because there is less responsibility, smaller budgets; like the latest campaign we did for The Outbox Film Festival, which was a series of trailers showing the absurdity and randomness of short films.” Indeed, the interactive nature of online platforms has made it impossible for advertisers and content providers to ignore user-generated content, often a key to success online. “For Shankaboot, we took a risk on directors, writers, and actors that were not really known in the industry. We even launched a competition online for whoever had an idea to just pitch it. People didn’t have to be professional scriptwriters,” says Saleh, an impossible option, had Shankaboot been on TV.

All about content. Whichever channels they choose, advertisers can no longer communicate the traditional way, and certainly not dump online content offline or the other away around. Production houses, on the other hand, will have to adapt to this new reality by actively participating in the creation process, rather than acting as equipment and crew suppliers. Signature Productions recently created Sister Soup for OSN so as to increase its portfolio of original content creation, which already makes up 50 percent of its company’s projects. “It requires a lot of television experience in developing content that works. Sister Soup is one of the highest-rated shows on OSN. So obviously our original content works. We had another show, Hikmat nisa2 (Women wisdom), on Abu Dhabi TV, also one of the highest, if not the highest-rated shows on that channel.
You have to understand the strategic requirements of the station, the audience, the format, and the structure,” explains Issa.

Similarly, Dib’s Olive Tree Productions was behind Coke Studio, a Coca-Cola-branded talk show format that has proven to be a hit in both the Western and Eastern markets, and even more so in the region, says Dib, “Having 700,000 views on Facebook alone, Michel Elefteriades was the music producer, the concept was to fuse Arabic and Western music, and we got huge names from both sides of the hemisphere for nine episodes that were aired on MBC1. It was a very high-end production show. ”

Dib is planning on taking on more similar projects, because, with branded content, “you have a financed opportunity to create stories. Everyone has already reached the saturation point, in terms of how much you can do on TV.” It is, perhaps, why the Cinemoz boys have recently poached a production manager from VIP Films and started building a team in charge of content creation, after having been repeatedly approached by advertisers in the region to develop branded content webisodes. That was after Nivea in Saudi Arabia had invested some $150,000 in three short online videos that generated $4,000 each in three months, a rather poor performance for the Saudi market. “Once they put it on Cinemoz platforms, they got 22,000 views in four days, and had 125 comments, very bad comments. Cinemoz is now handling their online content as well, and will do the same for Perrier and Pepsi starting next year,” says Safieddine. He is pursuing transmedia projects – a trend that is also catching on quickly in Europe – after a team of students had come to him for advice on budgeting their school final project, a multimedia smartphone app that takes users through the evolution of Downtown Beirut. “The app allows you, as you move around Downtown Beirut, to surf through the history of each building, with video testimonials for each period, and add in any information you might have as a user. I fell in love with the project and I am now helping them fund it.”

Safieddine is now pitching for another transmedia project and plans to have the same group of students on board. “To think these students were working on a school project and have guaranteed five years’ worth of recurring projects,” he says. This goes to show that technology will open doors to anyone providing good content.

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