DUBAI: Do you remember the last time you went to the cinema? How about the film you most recently watched on a video streaming? The pandemic has kicked up a seismic shift in viewership trends. Streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Starzplay, Disney+ and more have seen a surge in numbers as traditional avenues of entertainment struggle to return to normalcy.
At the peak of the pandemic, many skipped the theatres last year to see the warped reality that Christopher Nolan presented in Tenet, yet will be able to name all the movies releasing on Amazon Prime Video this month.
What does this tell us about the entertainment industry's future? Are theatrical releases fast turning obsolete in light of the streaming revolution or is it just a glitch in the force caused by the pandemic?
Is this going to be the year web streaming in the UAE delivers another knockout blow? A year where it keeps on adding new viewers — and subscribers — and takes away more audiences from cinemas?
The first two weeks of January seem to suggest web streaming’s winning streak is far from slowing down. Average viewing time spent on consuming content on a smartphone, a tablet or even through the living room TV is still at a solid 80 minutes plus a day in the UAE, according to multiple industry sources. That’s against an average of 25-40 minutes in January last year.
“Even with cinemas opening and all the other entertainment/leisure options available for residents, watching web-delivered content seems to have become a habit, a daily routine,” said a branding consultant at one of Dubai’s leading agencies. “When there is so much talk about safety and health matters, web streaming is scoring as the safest entertainment option out there.”
Clearly, much has changed between January of 2020 and now — and all of which can be directly attributed to COVID-19. Last April and May delivered the biggest increases in paid subscribers for streaming platforms in the UAE as the populace spent their time indoors to counter the pandemic.
Even when those restrictions on movement was lifted and work-from-home was no longer the only requirement, some habits stayed on. Catching your favourite programme on Netflix, AppleTV+, Starzplay, Disney+ or Amazon’s Prime Video became a habit by default. Or for that matter, catch it free on YouTube….
Welcome then to the world of OTT.
That’s what happened for the better part of 2020. But there’s still lots of room — and screens — to grow. Literally.
“As a percentage of mobile [subscribers] the penetration [for OTT subscriptions] is still 10 per cent in the UAE,” said Maaz Sheikh, CEO of Starzplay. “If you benchmark the UAE against Western Europe, home penetration has room to grow to 60-70 per cent and mobile penetration to 30-35 per cent.
“This considers Western European benchmarks that have similar fibre-to-the-home penetration and similar 4G/5G penetration levels.”
Based on Sheikh’s number crunching, that’s about one million OTT subscribers in the UAE currently.
Simply put, OTT bypasses cable, broadcast, and satellite television platforms, which traditionally act as a controller or distributor of such content.
It’s all about ease of access...and the pricing
Netflix starts from Dh29 a month for a basic package, and most of the competition have priced in at around these levels. Of course, there are some OTT platforms that serve specific demographics and which have priced their offerings even lower.
The pandemic had disrupted how we work and live; the lockdowns and work-from-home-all have influenced how people consume entertainment too. Prior to the March lockdowns here in the MENA region, the views per user would average anywhere between 1 to 3 views per asset every day, with these views being more skewed towards episodes of TV shows.
Web streaming is one category where seemingly no one has an issue with the cost of accessing quality content. Now, compare that with the Dh50 for a basic cable TV package and which could go all the way to Dh200 and more for the premium bundles. (The emphasis clearly being on ‘premium’.) “That’s why web streaming/OTT services were able to score so decisively against cable TV in all markets,” said a senior official at a leading OTT platform. “Whether in the US or UAE, web streaming subscriptions aren’t all that different.”
Spoilt for choice
And they will likely remain the same as more contenders join in. 2020 was a headline year for the industry in many ways. A handful of contenders — AppleTV+, Disney+, HBO Max, et al — came to the show to take on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, both of whom were hoovering up subscribers and winning big with their original content at the Oscars and Emmys.
Keep in mind that it took nearly 10 years for Netflix to launch in the US and then go global with a same-day roll-out across 130 countries in January 2016.
“It really is the best time to be a consumer,” said Archana Anand, Chief Business Officer at ZEE5 Global, the Indian OTT player. “With the number of platforms vying for consumer attention with their unending boast of originals, digital-first movies and more, consumers face the enviable problem of plenty and are led to explore multiple platforms for their content choices.”
Loyalty clearly is not built into the subscribers’ psyche… as yet. Archana Anand, however, prefers to see it differently. “People are creatures of habit and moving from platform to platform is an effort,” she said. “So, any platform that gives them great content, and consistently, as well as offers a good user experience, gets to be among the 2-3 apps that form consumers’ key consideration set.”
Streaming platforms double down on entertaining users
It was in March last year when cinemas around the world went dark as the pandemic rapidly spread its tentacles across far corners of the globe.
With film releases stalled, shoots cancelled and lockdowns curbing ease of movement in several countries, streaming platforms witnessed a surge in viewership numbers, emerging as a lifeline of sorts for a population battling a virus outdoors and ennui in their homes.
Yet, this streaming boom that 2020 witnessed is far from over, with an ever increasing shift that is seeing viewers switch over from analogue forms of entertainment, such as television and radio, towards digital consumption. The growth has only amplified with the theatres bringing down the shutters last year to halt any other avenue of entertainment.
141%Growth reported by some streaming platforms
In its latest announcement, Netflix has accelerated past the 200 million subscriber mark in 2020, recording the streaming juggernaut’s biggest ever year of growth. For the full year, Netflix added 36.6 million streaming customers, beating a previous record of 28.6 million in 2018, to hit a total of 203.7 million subscribers in totality.
“The pandemic had disrupted how we work and live; the lockdowns and work-from-home-all have influenced how people consume entertainment too. Prior to the March lockdowns here in the MENA region, the views per user would average anywhere between 1 to 3 views per asset every day, with these views being more skewed towards episodes of TV shows,” Khaled Benchouche, SVP Programming and Acquisitions at Starzplay, told Gulf News.
He continued: “However, after the lockdowns took into effect, we didn’t only witness a historic spike in minutes consumed, but we also started seeing an unprecedented increase in views per user where our average user would typically consume 10 to 16 views per asset per day, an almost 4x increase. This, of course, translates to our subscribers binge-watching even more TV shows on our platform.”
In a study conducted by the streaming platform, titled ‘The Rise and Rise of Streaming Video in the MENA Market’, Starplay looked at Subscription Video on Demand or SVOD trends over a period from January 2019 to May 2020, in two key phases — the COVID-19 situation that led to lockdowns, as well as Ramadan, when home-entertainment typically spikes in the region.
486%growth in Starzplay app installs in April 2020, following a 328 per cent jump in March 2020
“In key findings, the study reported that Starzplay had recorded strong and sustained growth in the number of unique users from 2019, peaking at 141 per cent in April 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 situation. Between January 2019 and April 2020, Starzplay’s active user base increased by 141 per cent… further, compared to March 2019, the number of Starzplay app installs in March 2020 increased by 328 per cent and in April 2020 by 486 per cent. In addition, content consumption in March 2020 increased by 230 per cent over the same period in 2019 and in April 2020 by 340 per cent,” Benchouche stated, adding that the platform saw a significant increase in the number of total hours — by more than 20 per cent, while year-on-year growth was over 10 per cent in May 2020 compared to May 2019.
Disney has already gone straight to Disney+ with a release that was originally intended for theatres, ‘Artemis Fowl’. But ‘Mulan’ was the type of tentpole release that Disney is known for unleashing on the world with a thunderous marketing blitz. The move somehow set the precedent for more production houses and streaming platforms to follow suit.
‘Mulan’ was the type of tentpole release that Disney is known for unleashing on the world with a thunderous marketing blitz. The move somehow set the precedent for more production houses and streaming platforms to follow suit.
In India, Disney+, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video soon jumped on to the same model, releasing a slate of Hindi language films that were initially slotted for theatrical releases. Films such as ‘Sadak 2’, ‘Khaali Peeli’, ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’, ‘Durgamati’, ‘Coolie No.1’, are some recent examples.
Bollywood actress Kajol’s debut on a streaming platform comes at a time when the landscape for content consumption has changed in the wake of the pandemic. The actress, who stars in Netflix’s ‘Tribhanga — Tedhi Medhi Crazy’, called it a ‘boon’, while choosing to remain neutral on what this could mean for theatres in the long run.
“I think it is a big boon but we will have to decide this when the theatres open up. But right now during the pandemic, it’s definitely a boon that we are still able to put films out there,” the actress told Gulf News in an email interview.
The 46-year-old also found the creative freedom found in web content production quite liberating. “The fact that we have so much more liberty to do what we want to do and not confine ourselves to one language or one country is an added boon,” she said. “It does not restrict you to one subject matter and there are a huge variety of things that you can do on a digital platform, which you probably will not take a risk of doing with a regular film.”
With the pandemic still causing disruption in the force, streaming giant Netflix has doubled down on its yearly offering for 2021 by announcing a star-studded slate for 2021 that includes 70 new films — or a new film releasing on the platform every week.
Top-billed stars from Hollywood and Bollywood are all part of the 2021 roster, with names such as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gal Gadot, Meryl Streep, Idris Elba, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Jennifer Lawrence and more.
Among the most-anticipated titles is ‘Don’t Look Up’, from filmmaker Adam McKay of ‘The Big Short’ and ‘Vice’ fame and starring DiCaprio. The film tells the story of two low-level astronomers, who must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet earth.
‘The Harder They Fall’, a Western co-produced by Jay-Z and with a primarily Black cast including Regina King and Elba, also promises to be one to look out for.
Elsewhere, popular made-for-web shows such as ‘Bridgerton’ on Netflix — which is probably headed in for a season 2 renewal — along with shows such as ‘Money Heist’, ‘Peaky Blinders’, command their own cult following.
From the hugely anticipated new season of Batwoman featuring Javivia Lesley as the new Batwoman, to the upcoming release of top-ranking new anime series such as Naruto, to the Brand new and exclusive secret agent series Alex Rider, there is a lot of new and exclusive content to look forward to (in 2021).
Starzplay has also unveiled a roster for 2021, which includes new exclusive shows, Arabic content and binge-able premium entertainment. “From the hugely anticipated new season of Batwoman featuring Javivia Lesley as the new Batwoman, to the upcoming release of top-ranking new anime series such as Naruto, to the Brand new and exclusive secret agent series Alex Rider, there is a lot of new and exclusive content to look forward to,” Benchouche said.
Streaming platforms are also heavily investing in producing regional content, with the Middle East largely seeing year round releases of Arabic shows and films that were traditionally released during Ramadan, when viewership spikes as families settle down with soap operas after ending their fast at sunset or during the Suhoor, the predawn meal.
It was also filmed completely in Abu Dhabi, including the bits set in Los Angeles and Syria. Within a week of it premiering on Netflix in September, the 12-episode first season became the streamer’s most popular Arabic series.
In September 2020 Netflix backed ‘The Platform’ is a show like you’ve never seen before. The pan Arab Middle East drama — primarily in Arabic with sprinklings of English — was the first to be produced by an Emirati company for Netflix. It was also filmed completely in Abu Dhabi, including the bits set in Los Angeles and Syria. Within a week of it premiering on Netflix in September, the 12-episode first season became the streamer’s most popular Arabic series.
The Platform's lead actor, Syrian star Maxim Khalil, told Gulf News about this shift in demand for year-round Arabic content. “The problem is that we’re still controlled by the idea of the seasonality of the market, such as during the month of Ramadan. As long as we think that way, then we’re going to be restricted by rules and red tape that you can’t cross, because this holy month is a month of family, and so on…. You can be more open to different points of view, thoughts and important issues. At the same time, you have new competition. You’re not competing with a Ramadan series. You’re competing with large titles, many shows that are available on a platform that the whole world is watching.”
According to Starzplay’s Benchouche, the UAE is the largest growth market for the streaming platform with users growing 70 per cent year-on-year and number of hours by user increasing nearly 80 per cent. “The direct influence of COVID-19 on Starzplay’s user base was also evaluated. The number of new subscribers across all markets increased by 58 per cent between February and April 2020, and continued to maintain growth levels in May, higher than the pre-COVID months,” he stated.
80%growth in the number of viewing hours among video streamlining user
“Our strength is our extensive content library, especially box-sets, and we see increased appetite for them. We will continue to offer unmatched content to our customers on multiple fronts. On the Arabic content side, we are partnering with Academy Award-winning media and entertainment company, Image Nation Abu Dhabi, to create our first original Arabic content series,” Benchouche continued.
“While we saw an organic shift towards people resorting to streaming services, we also realised the need to create original and offer diverse content and binge worthy TV shows, especially for Arab youth. Last year, we launched our first original production ‘Baghdad Central’ in partnership with Fremantle. The show has received an overwhelming response from the Middle East subscribers and is a classic example of how stories from the region are finding increasing resonance among viewers,” he added.
Earlier in January, streaming platform Viu unveiled ‘Ansaf Majaneen’, an Arabic show based on the novel written by noted Saudi Arabian author, Dr Shaymaa Alshareef, starring Egyptian actors Ahmed Khaled Saleh and Asmaa Galal in the lead. The series is based on a young heart transplant recipient who hears the voice of his donor urging him to tackle a mystery that he failed to solve in his own lifetime.
Commenting on the launch, Abe Aboul Naga, General Manager of Viu Middle East, said in a statement: “The premiere of ‘Ansaf Majaneen’ proudly marks the launch of Viu’s sixth Arabic originals series. Created by and featuring a stirring line-up of regional talent, we are honoured to be sharing another international calibre production quality series with our viewers.
“The show reflects our commitment to our audiences and the regional entertainment industry as we continue to invest in creating a stream of original productions across different languages and genres for our Arab viewers.”
‘Ansaf Majaneen’s launch follows the success of a range of other Arabic Viu Original productions such as ‘Zodiac’, ‘Ana Sherry dot Com’, ‘Doon’, ‘Wahed Wahed’ and ‘Hob El Tayebeen’.
Elsewhere, Amazon Prime Video is shifting its focus on bringing more content from India, which is among the fastest-growing markets for the streaming platform globally, a top company official stated.
“We’ve been in the country for the last four years and growing very steadily...Amazon Prime Video is watched in over 4,300 cities and towns in the country, and India is amongst the fastest-growing markets... Our investments in content across 10 languages, both originals and films, have helped us,” Amazon Prime Video India Director and Country General Manager Gaurav Gandhi told news agency PTI earlier this month.
Shows such as ‘Four More Shots Please’, ‘Paatal Lok’, ‘Bandish Bandits’ and ‘Breathe’ have worked well last year, Gandhi revealed.
Despite courting controversy, Amazon Prime Video has already kicked off 2021 with its political drama ‘Tandav’, starring Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan. According to Gandhi as more customers opt to watch content online, there would be as many people watching videos online as those watching television over the next three to four years. The streaming site also has over 30 shows in production and over 50 in development, and it continues to bring in movies across languages on the platform within weeks of theatrical release, Gandhi added.
Theatrical releases on web
In the US, we have seen entertainment juggernaut Warner Bros turned the business model on its head by releasing ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ on HBO Max and in cinemas on the same day. Benchouche stated Starzplay is also looking at a similar business model.
“Over these last few years, we have seen the industry evolving. Today, script writers, cameramen, directors and producers are all changing their mind set and in fact working on productions specifically dedicated towards OTT streaming. They are also looking for avenues to offer premium experience that could connect their content to their subscribers. So, there is certainly an opportunity and an additional monetisation window that large content providers can take advantage of,” he stated.
He continued: “We have also started discussions with several studios, both regionally and internationally, specifically to look at feature film releases same time as theatrical. So, this is definitely on our radar and is something we are seriously considering this year. However, whether this is just a temporary adjustment of our current times, or whether this trend is here to stay remains to be seen."
Cinemas aren’t giving up
When Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending film ‘Tenet’ released in cinemas after multiple COVID-19 related delays, there was a feeling that it could bolster not only Hollywood but the cinema industry. Even though ‘Tenet’ was an massively anticipated release and grossed $363 million worldwide it was not enough to break even for Warner Bros. Overall, North American box office takings in 2020 reportedly went down 80 per cent from the previous year.
We also found that through the pandemic, while some movie releases were postponed, film fans still had a desire for the ‘traditional cinema experience'. We found that bringing back some much-loved movie classics proved highly popular.
Now, many production companies have resorted to releasing movies on streaming services in the US and in cinemas where it’s still plausible to do so; a plan that has proved to be lucrative for them but has frustrated cinema owners in the US and other places.
Victoria Lynn, General Manager — Meraas Leisure and Entertainment, which runs Roxy Cinemas, is positive about the future.
“Like most (if not nearly all) industries operating within the entertainment and leisure space, cinemas have been impacted by the recent situation... As we navigate our way through this uncertain time, we have a strong pipeline of blockbuster movie releases for 2021 which we are very excited about,” she said. “We also found that through the pandemic, while some movie releases were postponed, film fans still had a desire for the ‘traditional cinema experience’. We found that bringing back some much-loved movie classics proved highly popular.”
Movies meant for big-screen
The release of blockbusters and high-octane movies has undoubtedly been key in bringing people to the cinemas.
“We experienced a triple digit increase in tickets sales with the first wave of new releases such as ‘Mulan’ and ‘Tenet’, highlighting that audiences will return when there are blockbusters and highly anticipated new releases on offer,” said Cameron Mitchell, Chief Executive Officer of Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas and Majid Al Futtaim Leisure & Entertainment, which runs Vox Cinemas.
“Last weekend, we registered sell out viewings of Tamil action-thriller ‘Master’ across our portfolio, and a 114 per cent increase on prior week, highlighting that guests are ready to return as and when the content returns.”
While ‘Netflix-ing’ has become a part of our daily lives, and more people than ever before have access to streaming websites, the charm of going to the movies cannot be replicated from a couch.
“You can’t beat a ‘large on-screen’ film and we have seen once our customers get a taste of that again they want more, you just can’t compare a cinema experience to that at home,” Lynn said. “Families in particular are looking for ways to spend their time, that comply with social distancing rules. Going to watch a movie allows them to do just this. In Dubai particularly, as the temperatures soar outside, people are looking for activities to do inside — which provides a demand for the traditional cinema experience.”
A natural progression
Dubai-based Bollywood producer Arjun Kumar is currently working on a film anthology that he’s aiming to release on a streaming platform, but he told Gulf News that this shift to the web a natural progression that does not rule out moviegoing completely.
Cinemas and movies will always remain. The way to view them has changed [and] will continue to change as well. If you look at movies, we used to watch it on VHS, [then it was] DVDs, then it went into online streaming.
“Cinemas and movies will always remain. The way to view them has changed [and] will continue to change as well,” Kumar told Gulf News in an earlier interview. “If you look at movies, we used to watch it on VHS, [then it was] DVDs, then it went into online streaming.”
“Movies will never die. I also think that movie watching is a collective experience. Man is a social animal and that can never change. It will come back; it will take a little while but it will come back,” he said, adding that big movie stars should be spearheading the cause for cinemas.
One person who is doing so is Bollywood actor Salman Khan, who recently announced that he would release his upcoming movie ‘Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai’ to Indian cinemas, as opposed to adopting the streaming model that so many other star-led movies in the country have chosen.
“I understand the financial problems that theatre owners/exhibitors are going through and I would like to help them by releasing Radhe in theatres,” said Khan on social media.
“From ladies’ nights to private screenings — it is important that cinemas in the region think ‘outside of the box’ when it comes to the cinema experience,” Lynn said.
“People are looking for an experience with less crowds and more boutique feeling.” The same goes for Vox Cinemas, which early in the pandemic launched a drive-in concept at Mall of the Emirates.
“While many cinemas across the world are closing down or reducing operating hours, we have pivoted and introduced new innovations such as Vox Cinemas Drive-In and Snow Cinema at Ski Dubai, all with extensive health and safety measures in place,” said Mitchell.
A cultural institution
Giving the example of the Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi-led blockbuster ‘Master’, Mitchell stood up for cinema’s long-standing appeal.
“We’ve had exceptional ticket sales for ‘Master’, which debuted last week, reiterating the huge potential that new films have in attracting audiences back to the big screen,” he said. “Advance tickets sales for the Thalapathy Vijay movie ‘Master’ exceeded 47,000 at Vox Cinemas across the region, which is more than his previous hit film ‘Bigil’ that was released pre-COVID and before capacity restrictions were in place.”
The industry is going to ride out this tough period, he feels.
“Cinema is one of the oldest cultural institutions and has weathered numerous societal storms,” he said. “With blockbusters such as ‘No Time to Die’, ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and ‘F9’ hitting theatres in the coming months, we expect cinemagoers to return in large numbers to enjoy the collective experience of watching a movie on the big screen.”