As a region with a long history of storytelling and diverse subcultures, the Middle East looks poised for a transformational decade in media creation and consumption, thanks to cultural changes and an increasing digital influence.
In a July 2023 report, Indian research firm Mordor Intelligence estimated that the region’s entertainment market will be valued at US$61 billion by 2028 (up from US$39 billion currently). Driving this growth are established markets like Egypt, as well as burgeoning ones such as Saudi Arabia, which has recently rolled out several initiatives to build up its screen sector. The Saudi Film Commission launched a 40% cash rebate last year to support domestic production. And earlier this year, the Saudi Cultural Development Fund unveiled a US$234-million Film Sector Financing Initiative, which is open to local and international prodcos working in the regional industry.
So what is it like to work in the kids content business in this market right now? The experience varies about as much as diversity does across the Arab world—stretching from the Levant to the Gulf.
Maya Zankoul runs a YouTube channel for preschoolers called Lila TV, which features musical Arabic content produced by her Beirut-based animation studio, wezank. The channel recently surpassed a million subscribers—a hard-earned triumph during a difficult period in Lebanon. The country has been in the midst of an economic crisis since 2019, and the Beirut port explosion in 2020 damaged its infrastructure and access to resources. “I envy how some regions have support and funding, because here, you’re really on your own,” says Zankoul, adding that the government is only able to provide an hour or two of electricity per day—a challenge her team has navigated by switching to solar power.
The concept for Lila TV was born when Zankoul noticed an underserved market of parents who wanted to teach their children Lebanese Arabic (a variation of Levantine Arabic), but couldn’t find much kids content in that dialect. By acquiring the rights to classic rhymes in Lebanese Arabic and reproducing them for the channel, wezank has scored a hit with local families and the Lebanese diaspora around the world, says Zankoul. While linear channels like OSN TV Kids and MBC 3 continue to be popular in MENA, platforms such as YouTube have also risen up as strong competitors, creating new opportunities for Arab producers and consumers alike.
Cynthia Madanat Sharaiha is the creative director at Digitales Media, the Jordanian prodco behind a popular digital series called Our Family Life that’s available on a same-name YouTube channel (2.14 million subscribers). The family-friendly shorts explore the daily life of an Arab family in a mixed-media format, with 2D characters embedded in a live-action backdrop, and featuring real Jordanian locations. While most of the episodes are lighthearted, Sharaiha says a key factor in the show’s popularity is its willingness to tackle tough topics from the real world, such as bullying and women’s rights.
It’s a strategy she’s now applying to film with Digitales Media’s latest project, Saleem. This CG-animated feature has a fun premise about a nine-year-old boy on a treasure quest with his friends, but it also deals with mental health, grief and displacement. “Animation is a disarming tool. You can highlight these hard issues, but in a delicate way that’s palatable for kids,” says Sharaiha. She adds that Digitales is also working with child psychologists and therapists to develop children’s mental health resources based on the film. Saleem was an official selection at Annecy this year, becoming the first-ever Jordanian film to make the cut and giving Sharaiha another reason to feel hopeful about the global appetite for Arab content. “We have so many subcultures and a history of rich storytelling, and there’s also curiosity out there for stories reflecting life in the Middle East,” she notes.
Making kids programming more exportable is something that larger producers in the region are certainly taking into consideration. Abu Dhabi-based Bidaya Media, the studio behind popular CG-animated series Mansour, is mapping out a strong international strategy for its upcoming reboot, The Adventures of Mansour: The Age of A.I. Canada’s Epic Story Media recently signed on to handle licensing and distribution outside MENA and China. And the series will launch with Arabic and English versions, which was factored into early development and writing. “We had to make sure the [dialogues] worked for both versions—sometimes, a sentence could sound good in English but horrible in Arabic, and vice versa,” says Bidaya CEO Nabil El Jisr.
According to El Jisr, it was natural to expand from a single market focus once Bidaya saw the Mansour IP’s YouTube metrics, which clearly demonstrate interest from around the world and not just in the UAE. In fact, he recalls that most of the YouTube viewership for Mansour came from other markets, such as Iraq and Egypt. Keeping this in mind, the Arabic version of the reboot will encompass a mixture of dialects to appeal broadly to pan-Arab audiences. “We not only have UAE, but also dialects of Saudi, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan and more,” he says.
Indeed, just as YouTube has helped new IPs break out, it has also helped established brands like Mansour gauge fan demand and determine when a story is not yet at its end. “We built a YouTube channel for Mansour that generated 392 million hours of watch time and 2.5 billion views,” notes Bidaya’s creative director, Adam Khwaja. “It’s fair to say that had we not seen the enormous numbers on YouTube, we wouldn’t have rebooted.” The Adventures of Mansour: The Age of A.I. features not only a 2D animation upgrade, but also more ambitious and relevant storylines dealing with things like AI and climate change. “We’ve preserved its cultural identity [while] clearly reflecting a more modern Arab society, rather than an outdated stereotype,” says Khwaja.
For example, one episode will show the main characters using futuristic technology and exploring outer space, while retaining core cultural elements like traditional attire, regional cuisine and Arab family dynamics. This blend helps refresh the IP for today’s digital-native tweens in MENA, while also priming it for a wider international reach, notes Khwaja. Even if the Middle East market is on the cusp of breaking out globally, kids execs in the region say that their corner of the industry still needs a lot more holistic growth and development. Khwaja highlights a lack of animation schools that can impart the right level and depth of expertise. “That’s something that has been kind of missing from the ecosystem,” he says. Digitales Media’s Sharaiha agrees that education quality has room to improve, especially since the demand is there. “We’ve been seeing more youth interest in studying fields like animation, gaming and film production.”
Kristina Kleymenova, who co-founded Dubai-based North Wind Studio, says that beyond funding, another major challenge is difficulty in securing greenlights. “Many local broadcasters tend to play it safe by airing what’s already been successful internationally, rather than taking risks on original programming,” she says. Kleymenova has spent six years trying to get her studio’s first project off the ground—a swashbuckling series called Ali and The Secret Gate, about a 14-year-old boy who opens a gate into a parallel fantasy world. Targeting the eight-plus demo, the toon’s title was specifically designed to signify an aspirational hero with an unmistakably Arabic name. “Western media has often relied on the stereotype of a ‘bad Arab’ to create a villain that everyone can rally against,” says Kleymenova. “We want to counter that.”
She urges more commissions on the home turf for kids content from smaller creators in addition to the big players, and hopes to see a decline in overt and covert censorship, influenced by cultural and religious factors. Similar to Bidaya, the fledgling North Wind Studio is cooking up a global content strategy, with projects that revolve around Arab characters but also feature multicultural representation. “Countries like the UAE have a 90% expat population, embodying the reality of today’s globalization. It’s a cultural melting pot in Dubai, where kids navigate numerous cultures and languages. The questions and struggles they face are incredibly unique, and we want to bring those experiences to the screen.”
International companies are also peering into the Middle East market and looking to make a mark there. Germany’s YFE launched its Fix&Foxi kids channel in the MENA region in 2014, mainly airing European titles from its own library, like Bob’s Beach and Papyrus. Now, it’s looking to broaden its catalogue by licensing more regional third-party content. “We would appreciate working with local producers,” says COO Bernd Wendeln. “Our advantage is that we can offer both linear channels in Arabic and English, as well as provide full on-demand rights, not just catch-up.” Animated comedies/adventures with likable heroes have been a reliable bet for the channel’s MENA audience, especially shows with strong family values, he notes. Looking ahead, YFE is seeking content that fills certain genre gaps. “We are looking for live-action formats [for] older kids, as well as preschool content, which may be non-dialogue.” Cross-cultural partnerships are also on the rise among prodcos. A major animation studio in India recently inked a deal with North Wind, although the details are still under wraps, says Kleymenova. It’s a significant move in support that brings the studio one step closer to opening the “gate” into production, funding and a potential greenlight.
This story originally appeared in Kidscreen’s August/September 2023 issue.