Online entertainment streamer ICFLIX, offering affordable content in Arabic, plans on making more original TV shows and films this year, including the first movie to tackle the ISIS issue.
by Sherif Awad
Netflix is set to be huge when it lands in Egypt this month, but despite all the raving, there are audiences in the Middle East and North Africa region who still want their Arabic content. Seeing a gap in the market, high-tech entrepreneur Carlos Tibi co-founded a new video-on-demand (VoD) platform in 2013. ICFLIX offers Jazwood (Arabic content), Bollywood and Hollywood movies, TV series, documentaries and kids animation to a large group of cinema and television fans in the MENA region.
Before ICFLIX, Tibi held a number of senior management positions where he successfully designed and implemented e-commerce solutions for leading IT and Secure Cloud companies. His vision for ICFLIX was to create an over-the-top library, streaming content online, anywhere, anytime and on any device. Egypt Today interviewed Carlos Tibi for a sneak peek at ICFLIX’s 2016 plans for the streaming market and the Arab film industry. What did you do before founding ICFLIX?
I started my career on the West Coast California where I worked in technology. I advised Fortune 500 companies and had most Fortune 100 companies as clients, helping them to structure and make their businesses more efficient by leveraging technology solutions. While I was in the US, 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 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. That’s when I came up with the idea for ICFLIX, an entertainment platform that combined Hollywood, Bollywood and Jazwood — a term we coined to represent Arabic cinema and programming. In 2013, we launched the service online and on some smart devices and now, ICFLIX is available across 8,000+ devices.[caption id="attachment_459535" align="alignnone" width="620"] Carlos Tibi, a high-tech entrepreneur, saw a gap in the market and co-founded a new video-on-demand platform in 2013.[/caption]
Back then the ICFLIX launch events in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco were the talk of the town, with many celebrities from these countries attending.
Yes, and for 2016 we have many strategic partnerships lined up with telecom operators across the region. So far, we have 700,000+ subscribers including 100,000+ from Egypt, each paying around LE 50 per month to see all our content. Previously we had slowed down the expansion across the Egyptian market because of the sociopolitical situation.
Did ICFLIX face any difficulties in acquiring films and series from the regional and international sellers given the fact that many of its competitors buy their content?
We did face problems in the past because some entertainment providers in the region would buy outright output deals from the major studios so no one else could get rights to the content. However, I see the situation is changing slowly and hopefully the studios will realize that they are locking their content away from viewers.
Do you censor content?
We do not believe in censoring content. We screen films uncut. However, if we find a program having very offensive content, we will not screen it at all. Also with each country we tend to localize the content to that user’s preference.
But a film like Al-Maraa Wa Al-Satoor (The Woman and the Cleaver) had some scenes cut?
I believe that came from the master tape we got from the Egyptian or Arab distributors and there was no trimming done from our side. This movie in particular and maybe other Arab films were not subtitled in English, even though most of your Western content is subtitled in English or French. Why?
English subtitling for Arabic productions is still a challenge to us because prior to 2013, the Egyptian distributors did not have a post-production time coded script for subtitling services, which makes it difficult to make subtitles for older films.
Some users noted that it difficult to synchronize the list of recently watched or favorite films between their televisions, smartphones and desktop computers. How are you dealing with technical issues like this?
We are aware of this issue and we are planning to overcome it in the next versions of our software and applications because, as you might know, the codebase in each platform is different. Hence, when you make a change in one device, it may not immediately reflect on the other. Sometimes, it takes a period between discovering a bug, submitting it for approval, before finally getting the new version of software and application.
Do you see streaming content is the future of entertainment viewing for the MENA Region?
Absolutely, and especially in Egypt where the age group between 16 and 35 or more prefer to watch content online and via YouTube. Unfortunately, a lot of them watch low-quality pirated material. It is not their fault because the other alternative is to pay a large sum of money for monthly subscriptions. At ICFLIX, we are working hard to make the content available for an affordable price and so a large number of audiences can enjoy it in good quality on their TV sets, computers and mobile devices. Right now, as well, content owners prefer streaming services rather than broadcast since viewers’ habits are shying away from numerous ten-minute advertisements during breaks of favorite shows.
NETFLIX is launching this month in the MENA region. Is ICFLIX worried?
We are happy that Netflix has arrived because this will now give the public more choice and a chance to compare between content providers. We differentiate ourselves by the content we offer to our users. We introduced the AVOD business model, where we allow viewers to watch select Hollywood documentaries, a select number of Bollywood titles and Arabic TV series for free. Our business model has also evolved to offer pay-per-view alongside subscription because of the demand for latest content straight after its cinematic release. The PPV offering will in turn also help tackle the issues of piracy and illegal downloading in the region.
In October 2014 ICFLIX started its own original productions. So far, two Egyptian movies have been launched: HIV directed by Mohamed Adel and starring Mohamed Al Sharnouby and Alia Assaf; and Al-Makida, a police thriller by Ahmed Hassan and starring a team of young actors. There was also a 1001 Nights TV series screened last Ramadan and the upcoming animation series Dunia. Can we expect more exclusive ICFLIX productions this year?
I am happy to point out that ICFLIX has started to produce original Arabic content of TV series, films and children’s animation. Our Tunisian co-production Chbabek El-Jenna (Borders of Heaven) by Fares Naanaa won the Best Actor Award at Dubai International Film Festival 2015. We have already signed to produce 12 films in Egypt starring A-List Egyptian actors. We are also working on number productions in Maghreb, a new TV show titled Familia for 2016. We are also co-producing Burn Out which will be the final installment of the trilogy following Casanegra and Zero as well as the movie Come Back, which will be the first movie to tackle the Daesh problem and its ramifications on the Arab community living both abroad and in MENA. It will be shot in English, French and Arabic, lensing in Belgium, Turkey, France and multiple Middle Eastern countries. We’ll be releasing it in early summer 2016.