Full stream ahead: Netflix outlines its plans for the Arab world, how it is going to compete with its new rivals
Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix’s vice president of international originals, outlines the strategy behind the shows its audience loves to binge watch
Last month, bankers in London and New York gathered together in a series of meeting rooms and, if anonymous sources are to be believed, they were presented with a very intriguing investment proposal. The opportunity on the table was the chance to buy into bonds being offered by American streaming giant Netflix.
The news was hardly a surprise as every October for the last three years the streaming service has asked bankers to help it raise financing to fund the $14.5bn it is planning to spend this year on its fast-growing slate of original TV shows and movies. According to a recent Bloomberg report, a formal announcement is expected to be made soon.
“We know we want to invest in Arabic language content… and now we’re just looking for great stories”
An award-winning creative powerhouse – with 43 Emmy awards and 225 nominations under its belt – Netflix took a leap of faith into the original content production universe in February 2013 when it launched the Kevin Spacey-starring political drama House of Cards. A huge critical success, horror series Hemlock Grove and prison drama Orange is the New Black followed soon after and helped solidify the company’s success as more than just a platform for recycled older content.
Soon binge watching and the phrase ‘Netflix and chill’ became mainstream terms, as the company’s annual sales surged to $20bn and its number of global paid subscribers passed 150 million.
But, one thing bankers at the meetings last month expressed concerns about was Netflix’s growing number of rivals, including HBO, Starz, Apple, CBS, Amazon, Disney, Facebook and NBC, which are aiming for a slice of the viewing public’s short attention span.
With 126 original shows released in 2016 and that number rising every year, the pressure is now on Netflix to deliver a steady stream of instant pop culture hits similar to Mindhunter, Stranger Things and The Crown. It is increasingly looking to localise its content and present a more diverse slate of offerings, such as dramas from Spain, Bollywood musicals from India, reality programmes from Mexico and young adult horror shows from Jordan and Egypt.
Set in modern-day Amman, Jinn follows a group of Arab teenagers who unknowingly invite supernatural forces into their world
One of the senior executives tasked with deciding which shows get the green light and how to spend the billions Netflix hopes to raise from bankers is Amsterdam-based Kelly Luegenbiehl, Netflix’s vice president of international originals for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. While the company is reluctant to release data, such as viewing figures for shows or a breakdown of its budget by region or genre, we assume it must have gathered so much data on viewing habits over the last six years that it has devised an algorithm or formula to tell it what will become the next viral TV sensation.
The answer from Luegenbiehl is a firm no. “So really it’s a great combination of art and science. We can look at data to tell us this is the potential size of an audience… However, it’s really all about the execution as well, that’s what a computer can never tell you.
“It’s about the vision of the storytellers and the filmmakers behind it… [The viewing data] does allow us to know [what] the level of investment we might potentially want to make on that series is. So, if we know that we have a global audience that’s interested in watching young adult series, that’s a good investment for us,” she says.
Our interview with Luegenbiehl takes place in the Jordanian capital of Amman in June, ahead of the global premiere of Jinn, Netflix’s first Arabic language show about a group of school kids who unknowingly attract the attention of supernatural forces while on a tour of the ancient city of Petra.
“We’ve always had massive competitors and you do your best job when you have great competitors”Reed Hastings
So what makes for a successful show in her eyes? “That is a very good question,” Luegenbiehl says. “I think, for us, it’s based on that level of investment and the number of people that are watching it, and the audience response. Is it something that’s catching the cultural zeitgeist? How are critics feeling about it? All of those things come into play together to determine if something is a success or not for us.
“In the case of Jinn, we’re really going to be looking at what the audience in Jordan think about this show? What does the audience in the Middle East think about this show? That’s going to be our first indicator of whether or not… we’ve achieved the goals of our first Arabic language series.”
Jinn certainly made an impression when it was launched in 190 countries on June 13. The show provoked an outrage in Jordan among the more conservative elements of the kingdom. Some of the young cast were targeted by trolls on social media, state-run media reported that government officials had vowed to censor it for alleged “lewd scenes” and the Jordanian army’s website said the cyber-crimes unit was attempting to pull it from Jordanian Netflix.
Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the half-brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the head of the Royal Film Commission of Jordan (RFC), defended the show, calling for more tolerance. Netflix itself released a statement saying it understood that some viewers may find some scenes provocative but it hopes that the show “will resonate with teens across the Middle East and around the world”.
Dollar is a Lebanese Arabic-language web TV series starring Amel Bouchoucha (left) and Adel Karam
If anything the controversy may have helped to boost interest in Jinn, but it’s unlikely to be the last time Netflix faces a backlash over the content in one of its shows. In January this year, an episode of the show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, which included criticism of Saudi Arabia and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, was removed from the Saudi version of Netflix following a request from the kingdom’s Communications and Information Technology Commission.
“I think in the case of Patriot Act it’s important for us to follow the laws of local countries and that was really where that decision came from,” Luegenbiehl says. “But, it’s also important for us to support our creative talent. So I think in the case of that it was a really unique example. And as we move forward we’re just looking to sort of learn and make sure that our creative talent feels like they can tell the stories they want to tell while also being sensitive to local laws.”
So does Netflix allow governments in the Middle East and elsewhere to pick and choose what content they like and don’t like on the service? “No, we don’t,” she says clearly.
While Jinn may have got off to a controversial start, Netflix has plans for many more Arabic language shows. In August, it launched Dollar, a Lebanese Arabic-language web television series centring on the main character Tarek as he tries to win a new bank’s prize money, a million dollars, as part of a marketing stunt he pitched to the bank’s owner.
“As long as we stay focussed on what we do well, I think audiences will continue to come to us”
Another show, Al Rawabi School for Girls, is a drama about a Jordanian girl who looks to get revenge on her bullies, while Paranormal will be a show based on the bestselling books by Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and follows the adventures of a hematologist who investigates a series of supernatural events.
“We don’t have a set number [of shows to launch]… We know we want to invest in Arabic language content, we know we want to invest in the region and now we’re just looking for great stories,” Luegenbiehl says. “So, I think we can dial that number up or back depending on the number of stories that we find that we feel are the right fit for our audience.”
In a May 2018 interview with CEO Middle East magazine, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings said he believed that “eventually” it was likely that Netflix would open an office in Dubai. “It may be a few years but I imagine over time that will make sense,” he said.
However, Luegenbiehl says this now seems unlikely and there are no plans to open an office in the UAE as part of the company’s current strategy of establishing regional offices outside the United States.
(From left) Al Rawabi School for Girls writer Shirin Kamal and director Tima Shomali
“Well, right now we’ve recently opened an office in Madrid, we’re opening one in Paris and we’re opening one in Berlin. We don’t have any plans to open one here [in Dubai] at the moment. I think we’re excited to see how these local offices take off and what that adds to our value as a company both locally and globally.”
Despite this, Luegenbiehl says she is still open to expanding the streaming giant’s stock of original content from the Arab world and speaking to regional filmmakers about ideas for potential shows.
“Yes, we are always looking for great stories … I’ve been doing a little bit of a tour going around having meetings with filmmakers who are fans and saying ‘What stories do you want to tell on Netflix? Given the opportunity, what would you like to show the world?’ And we’re hearing some really great, fun ideas. The ones that we’ve announced so far, obviously Jinn, Al Rawabi School for Girls and Paranormal, and then, from there, I think we’re looking for an additional second slate of what are those next iterations of Arabic language series.”
Language certainly isn’t a barrier when it comes to shows going viral and finding a global audience outside their core home market, Luegenbiehl believes.
“What I think is so exciting is shows like [Spanish crime drama] La Casa de Papel…[nobody] in our company… necessarily [saw it] becoming such a global success in the way that it has… when you work at Netflix, those are actually the moments that are the most fun, where the audience is deciding what they love, and sharing it and making it big.”
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the company spends $1.4bn per month on content
As we wrap up the interview, one obvious strategy – to me anyway – springs to mind when I consider the vast data Netflix has compiled on the viewing habits of its millions of subscribers.
Could Netflix generate a new revenue stream and monetise its data by targeting subscribers with advertisements and promotions based on their viewing habits? “No, we have no plans for that,” she says directly. “We just want people to watch and love great shows.”
Where the next great shows come from and how much Netflix will have to spend on them may become clearer soon. Until then, happy binge watching.
Netflix’s head of original content on…
Quotas for certain languages, regions or genres?
We really don’t… If it makes sense to do a little bit more in one country, and then another, that’s a trade-off that we’re willing to make. So, it’s really just about what are these stories that are undeniable that we have to have on Netflix.
Dubbing vs subtitles?
Yes, it’s so fascinating because I’m sure all of your friends will say to you ‘I watch it subtitled’. Most of them are lying. Most people we see are watching things dubbed. So it’s a little bit like the secret viewing. But, I think what’s really cool for me is that dubbing, in and of itself, is its own art form and it’s something that we’re all always working at getting better at.
A Friends reunion show?
I don’t know about Netflix but I would love to watch that so we’ll see.
Competition from new streaming services?
I think what we need to be doing is focussing on making great content. So, as long as we stay focussed on what we do well, I think audiences will continue to come to us and I’m excited to see what those guys do. I used to work at Disney, I used to work at NBC, I’m curious about what kind of stories they’re going to bring out into the world and I think it’s a great time to be a subscriber because there’s just going to be a lot of options.
Her favourite shows?
That is such a tricky question. I’m really excited we have season two of Dark coming out, which is one of my favourite shows with its complexity and twists and turns. I really love the Russian Doll, just because I found that to be super surprising, [with] great female characters at the centre.