It seems audiences across the region simply can't get enough of the supernatural when it comes to their viewing choices. When Image Nation Abu Dhabi undertook its first local feature production in 2013, the result was Tobe Hooper's Djinn. Now Netflix has got in on the act with its first Arabic Original, the recently released, and unrelated, Jinn. Netflix has also announced it is to produce an adaptation of late Egyptian novelist Ahmed Khaled Tawfik's Paranormal which, unsurprisingly, deals with the paranormal.
Pan-Asian free streaming service Viu has also released its highest profile Arabic Original to date with another Tawfik adaptation. Zodiac is based on the Hazak El Youm series of novels and follows the adventures of a group of university students who unearth an ancient Egyptian curse, which causes them to die one-by-one in a variety of gruesome ways relating to their zodiac sign.
Why the obsession with all things spooky and cursed in the Middle East?
Viu's Middle East content chief, Wesam Kattan, played an important role in the show's commissioning and development, and we ask him if there's a reason for the current obsession with all things spooky, demonic and cursed among regional audiences.
"If you're in the States or the UK, you have your zombies and Draculas, but in our culture, that's not really part of it," he explains. "People might look at it and think it's a bit silly or unbelievable. When you talk about jinn or demons, however, this is something that's widely recognised in our culture and even referenced in the holy Quran, so that's what really comes to mind and makes these kind of shows and movies a viable option in our culture. In Zodiac, it's actually not a jinn, but it's centred on an old Egyptian curse, which again is widely accepted here, culturally."
For Kattan, it wasn't only the supernatural subject matter that made Zodiac an ideal fit for his platform. The target audience and the source material were crucial, too. "When we were first strategising content, we realised that most content in the region was aimed at millennials. Generation Z are under-represented, so we decided to focus on that underserved, 14-24 or so, age range," he explains.
"We looked at the kind of content that worked for that group and realised there isn't a lot of variety when it comes to genres, so we wanted to experiment with that. There are so many genres to look at – supernatural, horror, sci-fi – and that group isn't really getting it."
Kattan says that during initial discussions with the show's producers, Mohamed Hefzy's Film Clinic, the supernatural theme seemed to resonate. Tawfik's name also caught their attention. "The fact it's by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik was definitely big news," Kattan says. "He was the first Egyptian author to really work in that field and it seemed a no-brainer.
"When we were doing our analysis before the show, bearing in mind we're quite a new platform and we haven't really had a lot of marketing yet, it was clear that when we announced it was an adaptation of Tawfik's books, that's when the buzz started. His name really had a big impact."
What is Viu, and why is it making Arabic Originals all of a sudden?
Kattan makes a valid point about his platform being new. Viu, which is based in Hong Kong and has several localised operations throughout Asia, launched in the Middle East in February 2017. That only makes it a year younger than Netflix regionally, while it is also about two months younger than Amazon Prime, which launched in December 2016 but admittedly only gained full functionality this month.
Both of these global streaming services had plenty of traction already from their long history in other regions, so how does a lesser known platform compete? "Our advantage is our knowledge of the market and the audience, knowing what will resonate with the audience, and focusing on storytelling rather than other elements. Get something relevant to the culture, the age group, and take plenty of time and resources to develop the story. I think that's what makes us stand out," Kattan says.
This dedication to stories also underlines the platform's policy of not using big-name actors in its productions, Kattan says, preferring instead to rely on production quality and convincing narratives. "There are no A-listers. Some are newcomers, some have some experience, and that's part of our strategy," he says. "We rely on the story before the name, which goes back to our passion for storytelling – I think our stories are engaging enough to hold their own without a big name being attached."
This is all quite noble, but as a free streaming platform with a commitment to high production values, and a lack of household names to draw audiences in, how does Viu plan to compete with the big boys while turning a profit? The service does feature advertising, while premium subscriptions allow viewers to watch ad-free and download shows to watch offline.
Kattan says the platform is also looking at other approaches. "It's challenging when you launch a platform such as this in the Middle East. It's quite difficult because most of the local content is already out there on free-to-air TV or YouTube, so it's essential to make original content," he says. "The budgets are high, so we're looking at models. We may in future keep some premium content for subscribers, and we're definitely looking into monetisation through doing deals with TV channels to screen our shows after we've streamed them. You have to be adaptable, but ultimately it's all about the content."
The 14-part Zodiac series can be streamed for free at www.viu.com now, complete with English subtitles if required. The site is also home to a wide selection of content, including Arabic, Bollywood, Korean, Indonesian and Filipino productions, which are frequently available with English and Arabic subtitles.
*Update: As of June 24, Viu's "download to watch later" service is also available to free subscribers.