Icflix’s Carlos Tibi

Based in Dubai, icflix launched in 2013 as the first unlimited streaming platform exclusively targeted to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The service, founded by president and CEO Carlos Tibi, has been steadily expanding across the region over the last two years, licensing a host of local and international content and recently embarking on an original programming drive. Tibi tells TV MEA about how he is positioning icflix in the burgeoning OTT landscape and enabling MENA audiences to access top-flight content whenever they want, on the device of their choosing.

TV MEA: What prompted you to want to launch icflix?
TIBI: While [living] in the U.S., I felt this pent-up demand for Arabic content. You couldn’t find it anywhere, and if you did, it would be chopped up into different pieces, so you had to watch the first half [of a show] and then the other. Everyone was asking if they could have something like Netflix but in Arabic, so I thought, Why don’t we do something with Arabic content? It was during my time in the U.S. that I came up with the idea for icflix, an entertainment platform that combined Hollywood, Bolly­wood and Jazwood, which is a term we coined to represent Arabic cinema and programming.

TV MEA: What were the greatest challenges you had to face in setting up the platform?
TIBI: From the time of our launch and ever since, we have learned a lot about the market. No one had done anything like this from the region, and we did not know what to expect. We knew there was a demand for the service and the content, but once we launched we had to face a lot of hurdles—some of them [involved] localization and others the monetization of content. We read a lot of industry reports for the UAE that said that 70 to 80 percent of customers used their credit cards for online [purchases], but in reality we have only seen around 15 percent do so. Most of the credit card holders we have met are expats who have come to Dubai with their credit cards from back home and are hesitant to use those cards for local purchases. That was in its own way a challenge. The other challenge was dealing with local payment gateways. We developed our own payment gateway to address the local markets across the MENA region. Now, for every market we have localized payment instruments and have resolved credit card issues. Another challenge involved content. Although icflix had a fairly large library of content, we were not completely sure what people’s tastes were and what age groups would be interested [in the service]. We had an idea that it would be the younger generation, but then when we launched we saw it was not just the younger crowd; the older generation was also interested, because of Jazwood.

TV MEA: How have you seen the service grow since launch?
TIBI: Since our launch two years ago, we have already [signed up] more than 200,000 subscribers across the region, and that number grows by around 15 percent each month. Initially, 60 percent of icflix’s content was consumed on PCs and a mere 6 percent on smart TVs. Now that the cost [of connected-TV sets] is declining, PC usage recently dropped to 48 percent and smart TVs are capturing around 15 percent. With mobile devices readily available and extremely intelligent to stream content, and with the screens becoming larger with every new release from the major mobile manufacturers, consumers are more inclined to leverage their devices as their personal video viewing instruments. As a result, we are seeing a big jump in access from mobile devices. To broaden accessibility further, icflix will soon be available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, allowing users to access the service through their gaming platforms.

TV MEA: In which markets have you seen the strongest take-up?
TIBI: Nearly 40 percent of the subscriber base is in the UAE, followed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are also important markets for us.

TV MEA: Where do you see the greatest opportunities emerging this year and next?
TIBI: Faster internet speeds. Our technology has been adapted to go as low as 256 Kbps [0.25 Mbps; in more mature markets, average broadband speeds range from 10 to 20 Mbps]. We have created special profiles for markets like Africa where broadband speeds are not very high. We use our own in-house compression technology based on adaptive streaming to make it easier and less expensive for the user when it comes to internet usage.

TV MEA: What led to the launch of pay-per-view (PPV) offerings alongside the streaming subscription?
TIBI: The PPV offering was added alongside subscription because of the demand for the latest content right after its cinematic release. Saudi Arabia is a very important market for us as there are no cinemas, with the exception of one IMAX theater in [the city of] Khobar that only shows documentaries. The PPV offering will in turn also help tackle the issues of piracy and illegal downloading in the region.

TV MEA: Are you looking at any other business models for icflix?
TIBI: We recently introduced the AVOD [advertising-based] business model, where we allow viewers to watch Hollywood documentaries, a select number of Bollywood titles and Arabic TV series for free.

TV MEA: Tell us about the kinds of content you’re licensing for your subscribers.
TIBI: We license movies, TV series, documentaries and kids’ programming across our offerings of Hollywood, Bollywood and Jazwood [content]. We have our own original productions from across the region, both North African and Middle Eastern. In addition, in our biggest announcement yet, 1001 Nights (Alf Leila wa Leila) will be released during Ramadan and will be shown exclusively on icflix with subtitles in English and French. It will be the Game of Thrones of Arabic content—it is at that level of production. It is being shot in four countries, including Ireland, Greece and Egypt.

TV MEA: Tell us about your expansion into original content.
TIBI: icflix’s phenomenal success has given us bigger ambitions to create our own theatrical movies, four of which have been completed. HIV went online in October 2014 and was the first Arabic film to portray the story of the disease and its impact on the social settings of those infected. This was followed by the release of Al Makida in late December, a police thriller produced in Egypt by a team of fresh talent. Al Makida was shown across 200 cinemas in Egypt. Our commitment is 12 original productions in 2015. In addition, six productions are planned for Morocco with the Centre Cinématographique Marocain, the local cinematic institution. Our productions don’t go after famous actors. Every movie will have fresh faces and excellent acting. icflix runs a Jazwood academy in Cairo where we cast new talent in collaboration with local universities and acting institutions.

TV MEA: How do you see the OTT landscape developing in MENA over the next two years?
TIBI: The OTT landscape is growing. The number of connected devices such as tablets and smart-TV sets is fueling the demand for OTT because consumers love the convenience and accessibility of being able to watch what they want, when and where they want. With infrastructure improving and internet speeds picking up, people want high-quality video on any device and a seamless experience that carries across all their devices.

TV MEA: What are your overall goals for icflix in the next 12 to 18 months?
TIBI: The next 12 to 18 months will be big for us because we’re going to have many strategic partnerships, whether with telecom operators or content providers, or for our own original productions. It will also be an important year as internet speeds improve across MENA and more people become more aware of our service. We are also doing a lot of research to ensure that we can deliver 4K streaming at the lowest possible bandwidth without interrupting the quality. Providing a technical solution to deliver our content in the best quality, at the lowest bandwidth, in a way that is very usable and exciting for the customers, is our ever-present challenge.