Going Global


This September, filming kicked off in Morocco on a new six-part crime series for Channel 4. Baghdad Central, from Fremantle’s Euston Films, is tapping into Moroccan production facilities to create Baghdad circa 2003, as the Iraqi capital faces chaos following the U.S. occupation and the downfall of Saddam Hussein. The much-anticipated drama is one of many series and films benefiting from production incentives and unique locations across the Middle East and Africa. But in all the headlines about American and European producers opting to film in the region, the vibrant local content-creation sector often gets overlooked.

For Arabic-language and African content producers and distributors, there has perhaps never been a better time to make an impact on the global stage. Of note, Image Nation Abu Dhabi worked with U.S. producers Walter Parkes and William Finkelstein on the Arabic-language legal drama Justice. Amazon is said to be in talks with Anonymous Content and pan-Arab broadcaster MBC Group’s O3 Productions for a series about Muammar Gaddafi. MBC, meanwhile, has just enlisted NBCUniversal veteran Peter Smith to lead the brand-new MBC Studios, focused on creating premium content in the region. And Sony Pictures Television has entered into a development deal with pan-African network EbonyLife that kicks off with a series inspired by the Dahomey female warriors of West Africa.

“Ever since our launch in June 2013, our vision has been to change the narrative about Africa and to tell our stories from our perspective,” says Eunice Omole, chief strategy officer at EbonyLife Media. “We were tired of being portrayed in perpetual crisis—war, famine and corruption. Since deciding to change that narrative, we have created more than 5,000 hours of programming and currently have several projects in development. We have invested in the creation of quality programming and the development of our people and their ideas. It is this ethos that has given us the opportunity to partner with an organization like Sony Pictures Television. Now we have the opportunity to bring the fascinating story of the Dahomey warriors, and many others like it, to audiences around the world. It has been hard work getting here, but that’s what we are known for at EbonyLife.”

An organization with pan-regional reach, EbonyLife is headquartered in Nigeria, a country that is widely seen as Africa’s most prolific content producer, with a movie business that has earned the nickname Nollywood.

“Nollywood films, especially made-for-TV movies, are churned out largely for local pay-TV channels and also distributed outside of Nigeria,” says Ijeoma Onah, the founder of the Nigerian International TV Summit (NITV), which aims to put the country’s content sector in the spotlight.

“Content produced by Nigeria is consistently sustaining [the African] television business because there is a huge demand and appetite for it—despite the quality flaws, which, of course, are being tackled,” Onah continues. “Nigerian stories resonate with Africans everywhere. In Francophone Africa, in South Africa, in East Africa where in some cases English is not the dominant language or even well understood by locals, Nigerian content in the original English version is consumed by viewers who understand only French, Zulu and Swahili. We have seen the dubbing business soar because Nigerian content is being dubbed into French and now Swahili in increasing volumes. One Nigerian telenovela, Taste of Love, has been sold in over 20 countries within and outside of Africa.”

International expansion for Nigerian content is crucial, Onah explains, with shrinking ad expenditures and an increasingly competitive environment putting a squeeze on production budgets. “The way forward for TV producers is international collaborations,” Onah notes. “Nigerian content is the most commercial, exportable and acceptable content by Africans and the diaspora.”

Onah adds, “Right now we are at a point where we need international partners to produce locally and tap into the huge international commercial value of Nigerian content wherever Africans are found and want to be catered to in terms of their programming needs.”

That view is backed by Shileola Ibironke, managing director and CEO of Micromedia Marketing, which produces and sells a range of African drama series. Its catalog includes the aforementioned Taste of Love, which Ibironke executive produced. “Nigeria [is home to] prolific content producers that tell relatable stories that are Africa-focused, and these resonate deeply in the continent,” she notes.

“The global content landscape has opened a network of distribution channels across Africa and other continents,” Ibironke says of new opportunities for her company. “We are pursuing co-productions as we have the vision to distribute Micromedia content globally and not just within a specific geographical area.”

On the heels of the Sony pact, EbonyLife is also pursuing further international collaborations, Omole says. “We have invested hugely in the development of scripted and unscripted formats with an African twist. We see this as a great opportunity to pursue co-pro alliances internationally for titles with an African perspective and a global outlook. The world craves freshness, newness and the alternative. We believe this is what sets us apart. We have been very successful in Nollywood and are now looking to produce features with a broader appeal that resonate with the black diaspora and beyond.”

In addition to operating a channel on the continent, EbonyLife has rolled out a global VOD platform, EbonyLife ON. “This service has expanded our reach dramatically beyond satellite TV platforms,” Omole notes. “Now, anyone with an internet-connected mobile device can watch our content, no longer constrained by TV schedules or expensive monthly subscriptions.”

Indeed, the emergence of OTT has created a wealth of opportunities for niche Africa-focused platforms outside of the continent. That’s an area that AfricaXP has specialized in, creating and distributing branded channels, including Trigger on DSTV and a portfolio of services on MTN Ghana, among other platforms.

“OTT obviously presents great new opportunities to reach small minorities worldwide, bypassing traditional barriers to entry like licenses and infrastructure—so international digital platforms are a big focus for the distribution of African content worldwide,” observes Craig Kelly, the company’s founder and CEO.

“If the content is of sufficiently high standards, then selling to mainstream African American channels and platforms is a growing opportunity,” Kelly notes. “But content must be made with this audience in mind. It is also important to differentiate between African content and international content made in Africa that can be marketed and sold into the mainstream. There are increasing opportunities for this.”

Kelly concedes that there are challenges in globalizing African programming. “In Africa, broadcasters have low budgets because the GDP is smaller than the U.K. or France and the market is highly fragmented with 54 countries and thousands of different languages. Outside Africa, the challenge historically has been the niche nature of the content. Opportunities have been limited and budgets small. OTT has made more space.”

EbonyLife has been focused on delivering made-in-Africa stories with high production values and distinctive storytelling, including The Governor, Fifty: The Series—a follow-up to the Nigerian blockbuster hit movie—and the continent’s first procedural legal drama, Castle & Castle. It also adapted Desperate Housewives for the region.

While producers are indeed creating and developing their own content, format adaptations, especially in the unscripted space, remain a vibrant business in Africa and the Middle East.

Adapting international ideas has become a core specialty of Lebanon-based Imagic, which has made versions of MasterChef and Got Talent, among other formats, for regional broadcasters.

“Dealing with pan-Arab broadcasters, participants and audiences, we needed to understand and cater to all sorts of cultures, languages, sensitivities, budgets—and constantly cross borders for casting, production, post-production, etc.,” says Imane Mezher Gibran, senior project manager at the company, which has a regional production pact with Endemol Shine Group.

“This has given us experience in different territories, and our productions benefited from that. So today we can move easily from one territory to another, and we can also be extremely reactive to different challenges. We have faced economic challenges, war challenges, time challenges, responded to really crazy deadlines. We can pretty confidently say we have been through almost every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) issue one can think of!”

With the expertise Imagic has built regionally working with global format owners, Gibran says she is keen to encourage “international broadcasters to consider production in our part of the world. Lebanon, Egypt and the Gulf countries are multilingual and can cater to different productions very easily.”

She is also open to discussing international collaborations, mainly in the form of production hubs for large-scale formats. “These would generally allow us to share production costs and therefore optimize the production budgets for everyone. But Middle Eastern budgets, in general, are lower than the ones in Europe and much, much lower than ones in the U.S. So when we are discussing hubs abroad, even through cost sharing, the budgets often end up too expensive for broadcasters. We also sometimes consider the option of moving our productions to other parts of the world, but in the end, it turns out we have very competitive rates and great production values here in the Middle East, making the productions locally easier and more cost-efficient. We are very proud of our end products, as they match almost any international high production value. So my advice would be for international producers to try producing here, with our local studios and means of production. They would be very happily surprised, production-wise and budget-wise.”

For many involved in the African and Middle Eastern content business, the key opportunity is in convincing producers and platforms around the world that they should be looking to the region for compelling ideas.

NITV’s Onah is bullish about the prospects for that country’s production sector. “Very soon we will begin to see international commissioning for Nigerian drama series and local production in Nigeria by key global TV players. The conversations have already commenced and we are quite positive that such collaborations will definitely have an impact on production quality, which has limited the commercial value of Nigerian content.”

She is also optimistic about the prospect of pan-African collaborations. “Nigerian stars are very popular outside Nigeria as the stories continue to travel across territories. We are now looking forward to a fusion of Nigerian and East African and South African casts in local and cross-cultural productions.”

“Research indicates that viewers want to see stories that reflect their everyday lives; content that is relevant to them,” EbonyLife’s Omole says. “We do this in the most stylish way possible, with our bouquet of drama, talk, reality and lifestyle programming. Viewers know quality and we have seen rising demand for our products in the United States, U.K., Canada, Guinea, France, Australia, Ireland and Italy. We have a treasure trove full of stories; it’s our passion, vision and purpose to take these stories to a global audience with the highest quality and the best entertainment value possible. Our dream is to continue to create premium content and to give audiences around the globe the opportunity to join our world and share our story.”

Still on the horizon is what impact the global OTT players will have on the local content sector. Regional players like icflix are already investing in originals, and Netflix’s first Arabic-language scripted investment, Jinn, which is set to film in Jordan, premieres in 2019.