With the likes of Netflix and Hulu becoming household names across the US and LoveFilm picking up more than a million users in the UK, it's fair to say that video-on-demand web streaming has become part of the entertainment furniture in major western markets. Where people once would head to the video rental shop or sign up for mail order, they're now turning to the internet, particularly as such services have begun adding premium content from the major production houses to their libraries. And now this online move is coming to the Middle East.
Cinemoz, a new tech startup out of Beirut, launched quietly at the Dubai International Film Festival last year with an online offering of 200 titles to choose from. Now at 500, it's hoping to have 1,000 by the end of the year, which will include documentaries, feature films, TV series and shorts, and, with them, more than 10,000 daily views.
"Today, there are more than 35 million Arab users connected to broadband," explains Cinemoz's founder Karim Safieddine, a Lebanese law graduate who returned to Beirut with his business plan after stints in Paris with his own production company and with Miramax in the US.
"And this number is expected to rise to 60 million by 2014/2015. That's our direct target right now – Egypt, the GCC, then the Levant, North Africa and the Arab diaspora."
Last year, almost a quarter of aggregated internet traffic across North America was estimated to have come from Netflix, which boasts some 24 million subscribers. And with the growing number of set-top boxes and app-ready devices – all primed for such point-and-click accessibility – it's no longer the case of huddling around a tiny computer monitor.
Netflix has already begun its expansion into Europe and Latin America, but it looks a long way off before it might arrive in the Middle East. Cinemoz could well beat it to it. But rather than providing the big-name Hollywood titles or HBO shows, its focus is purely on Arabic content.
Unlike Netflix, which charges for its service, Cinemoz is based on the Hulu model, which earns its revenue from advertising inserted in the films, an area where Safieddine sees significant growth. "For this year, the budget for video online ads in the MENA region alone has reached around US$250m (Dh180m), so if you merge that with broadband figures, it's quite a sizeable market for us to tap into," he says, adding that the business model will see profits shared with the content owners.
The arrival of Cinemoz comes at a time when the film industry across the region is expanding rapidly, but the distribution of Arab content remains sluggish. A regular comment from the Gulf is that, while the international film festivals in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha do an excellent job giving regional films a platform, once the red carpets are rolled up, the cinemas revert to the big-name Hollywood and Bollywood titles and locally produced content is largely ignored. Having a service that brings the films directly to the public in their homes, without any concern from megaplexes about their profit margins, could be the perfect solution.
"With everything that has been happening with the Arab Spring, there's a big rise in demand for fresh new content from the Arab world," says Safieddine, who claims the site is going to be tailored to meet the different demands of each market. "But to cater to the entire Arab world, you have to cater to a region and also to a local market. Egyptians watch very different content from Khaleejis."
With this is mind, Cinemoz began approaching major studios and independent filmmakers to acquire titles, including Egyptian classics – such as those with Adel Emam – from the Egypt National Film Archive, and smaller films and documentaries showing at regional film festivals. "We've also been talking to Elia Sulieman, and have really been on the lookout for Khaleeji content, but it's kind of scarce at the moment," he says.
While Egypt, with its long cinema history, has the "biggest thirst and consumption drive", Safieddine says the Gulf has the best online behaviour. "It's the portion of the market who are the most online and the best equipped in infrastructure."
Despite being a business venture, there are also hopes Cinemoz will boost the exposure of emerging local talent. "If you get an Egyptian blockbuster, you're going to get, say, 200,000 views on that title. Of those 200,000, at least 20,000 will, by pure curiosity, want to discover a recommendation we put on the site, or something that is similar our system generates."
Safieddine suggests a scenario where an Egyptian 25-year-old watches his favourite blockbuster on Cinemoz and then watches an obscure Moroccan title from a young director because it was recommended, in the same way Amazon recommends purchases.
"This is what we're telling filmmakers: cut out the middle man. Don't wait for your film to be picked up by a major distributor who isn't going to maximise its value and will let it sit on the shelf for two years. At the end of the day, you'll always be outperformed by Transformers or Harry Potter, or even more independent titles," says Safieddine.
"Cinemoz is basically a portal for Arab filmmakers to directly hit Arab audiences. If you put it on Cinemoz you have nothing to lose. And if you find an audience and generate 100,000 clicks, trust me, the big distributors will come to you, whether it's for that film or a future project."
And in the same way that Cinemoz will be modified for each country, promoting and recommending titles that work in that particular market, the system will be able to block content that might be deemed offensive in that culture. "Our target market is quite young, so expects to find the content they cannot find through their regular channels," says Safieddine. "But while we always want to be edgy, dynamic and catering to that demand, there's no need for gratuitous provocation. We're starting a tech and entertainment revolution, not a social revolution."
Looking to the future, as well as offering DVD-style subtitling for all Cinemoz films, there are plans to enter the content creation side as well. Last March, Netflix won the rights to produce David Fincher's forthcoming 26-part political espionage series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, which will be broadcast exclusively online later this year. Hulu has entered the original programming arena too, offering its own pop-culture news show The Morning After, as well as the reality series The Fashion Fund.
"We already have three web series in development," explains Safieddine, adding that the first – to be shot and produced in Lebanon – will be showcased this summer. "They're going to have pan-Arab appeal, so someone in Cairo, Dubai or Beirut can appreciate them, which I think has been the missing link in Arab productions."
Cinemoz's team in Beirut now numbers eight, a "little family who have been working around the clock with countless long nights", but with the second round of investment, due soon, Safieddine hopes to double this by the end of the summer.
"Everything's going to start speeding up in a massive way," he says, adding that eventually there are plans to have offices in cities such as Cairo, Dubai and Doha.
"It's been a real roller-coaster ride so far. It's an emerging market, so some people know what you're talking about and know the model, and some you have to sell the entire concept of what video-on-demand is. At the end of the day, people want their films to be watched, and if you can provide a platform that gives access to those films, people are happy."
Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE