Ted Sarandos Talks Netflix's Middle East Launch, Plans for Localized Scripted Series

Ted Sarandos - H 2015
Robyn Twomey

"What’s missing on the global stage is a really great scripted series about contemporary life in the Middle East," the SVOD giant's chief content officer told an audience at the Dubai Film Festival.

Netflix's imminent launch across the Middle East has arguably been the hottest topic of conversation at the ongoing Dubai International Film Festival, highlighted by a live video conversation with Ted Sarandos hosted by The Hollywood Reporter.

While he didn't offer an exact date for the launch aside from the oft-repeated "by the end of 2016" line as per Netflix's international strategy, he did provide some information of the sort of localized content he would eventually be looking for in the region.

"What’s missing on the global stage is a really great scripted series about contemporary life in the Middle East,” Netflix's chief content officer told the audience while speaking from Los Angeles, adding that the company was already in touch with local content producers. “Most depictions outside of the Middle East are either historical or portray caricatures of what life in the Middle East would be."

To that end, Netflix is planning to run a series of workshops and pitching sessions with filmmakers and producers in March and will be working closely with the Dubai Film Festival.

Although localized content wouldn't be available on initial launch, when the service would more resemble its U.S. counterpart, Sarandos said the plan was to quickly boost the platform with both Arabic-language acquisitions and Netflix Originals commissions. However, certain well-known Netflix shows on the U.S. service, such as House of Cards, might not be in the launch product, with rights already sold to regional broadcaster OSN.

Sarandos also touched on the area of censorship, but he remained vague as to how Netflix would approach the issue in a region where rules can often appear arbitrary and sometimes vary wildly from country to country. "We want to be good global citizens and observe local laws," he said, highlighting the fact that Internet regulation in the Arab world was far less stringent than that of broadcast, where films and TV series are often cut to remove sexual themes.

Although an Arabic-scripted Netflix series might be the end goal, a source suggested to THR that a film project was perhaps a more likely initial pickup. Sarandos added that regional films he had been particularly impressed with that might have suited the Netflix Original branding include Omar, Hany Abu-Assad's Palestinian thriller that was Oscar-nominated in 2014, and Iranian drama A Separation, which won Asghar Farhadi the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 2012.

Netflix's DIFF debut caused something of a stir among the filmmakers in attendance, with Juan Mayne, the streaming giant's head of international film acquisition, soon running out of business cards.

But arguably the most delighted about the launch was festival chair Abdulhamid Juma, who said that after 12 editions of the festival, where the distribution of Arabic content had always been a significant hurdle, Netflix now potentially offered a clear solution.

"I'm very, very excited about that door opening," he told THR, adding that he'd only arranged for the talk with Sarandos just weeks earlier at AFM last month. "After 12 years of trying, I think there's a definite breakthrough."

The Dubai International Film Festival runs through Dec. 16.