16/07/2013

Lebanon, a laboratory for web series

Web series are daring, but their economic model has to still prove itself

Lebanon

Lebanon, a laboratory for web series

Lebanon's enthusiasm for web series has been ongoing since 2009, but it has still not challenged all-powerful Lebanese television, reports Slate.fr. Writers, producers, directors and broadcasting platform designers talked about their experiences in the Middle Eastern country that is often a cultural trendsetter in the region. 

So why are young Lebanese producing web series?

The web is more daring than Lebanese television

Lebanese television channels broadcast mainly family or historical melodramas series from Syria, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey and now South Korea.

Neither public television channels Télé-Liban 1 and 2 nor private channels, such as Future TV, invest in series with a more contemporary approach.

In 2009, Britain's BBC was looking to finance a new audiovisual programme for the web. Katia Saleh, a documentary producer in Britain, pitched a short comedy in the language of the youth, in Lebanese Arabic. 

Shankaboot, the first real web series in the Middle East, tells the story of a delivery man who travels throughout Beirut [on his scooter], crossing paths with many people from different backgrounds and neighborhoods.

"He encounters situations that each Beiruti knows by heart and that provide an opportunity to convey a message through laughter," says Katia Saleh. "We wrote episodes on corruption, stories of revenge because of parking spaces, foreign workers, and cosmetic surgery."

“Internet is an easier medium for daring themes,” explains the forty-year-old woman producer. "We covered a lot of taboo subjects. Lebanese television then wanted to distribute Shankaboot, but I wanted to prove that we could achieve something good online."

The same reason motivated the creators of the series Mamnou3!, which relates daily life at the Lebanese Censorship Office. The series, whose title means "forbidden", was funded by the Samir Kassir Foundation for Press Freedom.

There again, humour was a tool to breach sensitive topics. In the General Security building, whose employees are in charge of approving screenplays and plays, actors play moustached officers in comic doc-fiction style, based on real stories gathered by the writer.  

"Nobody wants to listen a 8-minute political, moralist weekly programme on the importance of freedom of expression," says the series' creator Nadim Lahoud, who is only 23 years old. "With irony, one can reach two goals: to entertain the public and to challenge the authorities. Throughout the summer 2012, newspapers and television addressed the issue of censorship! "

Internet corresponds to youth's audiovisual needs, so it's the future

"Very few young people actually watch television," say authors, filmmakers and web series directors Mounia Akl and Cyril Aris. "And when they want to follow a television series, they do it online."

Amin Dora, the enthusiastic director of Shankaboot, agrees: “The new generation does not consume television productions passively like before, sitting on the sofa. Web series will become a hobby. We will watch an episode as soon as we have a few minutes. This short format is the future. "

And web series are much more interactive, more appealing to youth who want to participate, adds Katia Saleh, who with her company Batoota Films, launched into another web series in 2012: Fasateen. Broadcast on Yahoo Mektoub!, it offers two alternative one-minute endings at the end of each 8-minute episode.

The series has reached 2 million viewers, an impressive figure in a country of 4.3 million inhabitants.  

And Fasateen, whose title translates as "dresses", has sparked debate about social issues. 

The momentum generated by [ the pioneering Shankaboot] in Lebanon allowed workshops to emerge in Syria in early 2011, thanks to Shankactive Network. Since, the number of web series has multiplied.

Finally, one of the paradoxes of this phenomenon is the success of these programmes despite such difficult access to Internet in [Lebanon]. 

Very soon, web series will be lucrative 

Three 28-year-old Lebanese saw this all coming, and in 2011 created Cinemoz, an online broadcasting platform for films and series from the Arab world.

“Culturally, the Middle East is not accustomed to paying to see a single film, and big television channels have neglected the on-demand sector," explains one of the co-founders, Karim Safieddine. "So we bought the V0D licenses and offered free films and series online. The advertising revenues pay us. "

Given the success of the Arab world's first web series, and faced with the exorbitant prices for major television series, Cinemoz decided to focus on small local series, that are cheaper as well as promising.

With their pan-Arab perspective, [the Cinemoz team] seek talents from the region and have begun broadcasting Mamnou3!  

Their strategy seems to be paying off, as research has shown that, in 2012, 35,000 viewers in Morocco and 45,000 viewers in Tunisia watched [Cinemoz] during Ramadan, a time of year when watching television series, usually with the family, is a tradition.

"Television still has a very strong presence in Lebanon, so web series production is not yet very lucrative," say writer and director Mounia Akl, 24, and Cyril Aris, 26. "But we believe that, with the decline of television and the development of the Internet, the balance will be reversed. "

Cinemoz has launched a platform solely for web series: TV Moz is to broadcast and co-produce web series. 

"Cinemoz’s mentality is the single screen: television, tablet, computer, mobile..." says Karim Safieddine. "The web is not the be-all-and-end-all for series, but it's their best development tool to identify talents. "We can expect to see on television in ten years time what is happening now online."

Cinemoz today has raised about $1.5m in private investment. This summer, they are showing a science fiction series, another Tarantino-style thriller adventure series, and a Saudi social comedy.

"I admire the Saudis," says Safieddine, whose team is made up of 12 people. "The greatest success of web series in the Middle East is over there, with 160 million viewers!"

"We Lebanese are spoiled because we have many cinemas and access to culture," he adds, "even if, with our plural identity, it's hard to achieve national success in this country. But there is a bubbling audiovisual bubble in Lebanon. Let’s get to work! "

 

Source: Slate.fr

Translation: Yma de Almeida

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