Before the pandemic, Ahmed Ali and his wife Sherine used to go to the cinema every weekend. Now, it’s just once a month.
To entertain themselves throughout 2020, 48-year-old Ali, already a Netflix subscriber, paid for three additional streaming platforms — Shahid VIP, Watch iT!, and Amazon Prime — to watch new films and series. He has no plans to cancel the annual EGP 6,400 worth of streaming subscriptions, even as movie theaters operate at full capacity in every corner of the city.
“As long as we have new shows to watch at home, we’re less excited to leave the comfort of our house. We’re choosing to continue with our subscriptions,” Ali says.
When the pandemic triggered stay-at-home orders and canceled social plans, consumers turned to online media streaming to fill the void. Many consumers such as Ali are sticking to new entertainment habits they developed during the pandemic, even a year later.
Online streaming services touted exclusive content and low prices to lure viewers.
MBC-owned Shahid, a video-streaming and TV catch-up service, announced that subscriptions to the platform reached two million by the end of Ramadan 2021, a 43% increase year on year from the 1.4 million subscribers reported a year earlier.
On-demand streaming services are expected to gain even more traction in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region over the next five years, according to a study by London-based Digital TV Research.
MENA countries are expected to add 18 million subscribers to streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+, making it a critical emerging market in the sector, the study noted in February. The region is expected to jump to 32.65 million subscribers by 2026 from 14.16 million at the end of last year. It projected Turkey to lead the pack, drawing 14 million subscribers alone.
“Netflix and Disney+ will account for about half of the region’s total by 2026, despite Disney+ only starting in mid-2022 in a limited number of countries,” said Simon Murray, principal analyst at Digital TV Research. It is still not known which parts of the Middle East the streamer will operate in.
“Binge-watching has become a real trend in Egypt. We’ve seen a huge jump, about six times in the number of active users, as well as the amount of content each user consumes,” Moustapha Bekheet, vice president and managing director of Watch iT!, the first homegrown Egyptian content streaming platform, said to Startup Scene in April 2020.
Film director Amir Ramsis argues this behavior is not a mere blip. “The intense online media consumption is resetting consumer expectations and reshaping the content consumption experience,” he says. “This is taking up space from the cinema.”
Ramsis does not see the recent change in media consumption negatively impacting the film industry. Yet, in numbers, revenues in the region are expected to fall by 8.3% to $19.7 billion this year due to the damage to physical media spending from cinema box office takings to concerts and plays, according to PwC’s MENA Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020-2024 report.
Nevertheless, renowned movie director and producer Hadi El Bagoury says big screens will forever remain in people’s hearts. “Moviegoers are moviegoers,” he says.
El Bagoury directed three popular shows for streaming platform Shahid in 2020, including Hend Sabry’s new series “Finding Ola” to be viewed on Netflix.
“I work for shows to be viewed online but when it comes to movies, I will always prefer the big screen. I’m sure there will always be movie lovers like me who prefer the overall experience of buying popcorn and watching a new release on the big screen rather than on the sofa,” El Bagoury says.
“[Streaming] is a new form of art,” Ramsis adds, “it gives moviemakers the space to introduce new story formats to the audience.” Egypt had never produced limited series with 6-10 episodes per production before, a trend that has been gaining popularity on platforms like ShahidTV and WatchiT!.
Meant to stay
Streaming platforms will maintain their growth, he says: “It’s not only dependent on the pandemic.”
“Those platforms created their own niche and people are starting to get used to it,” Ramsis, who is currently shooting an Arabic limited series to be released online, adds.
El Bagoury acknowledges streaming platforms will maintain their growth due to their ever-growing content diversity and accessibility.
“The entertainment industry is a big industry meant to absorb different players who produce drama formats that cater to diverse tastes,” he concludes.
Streaming giants that have largely replaced traditional TV viewing in the U.S. and Europe have in recent years ramped up efforts to reach the MENA audience. “We want more people around the world to have access to great stories and have the chance to see their lives represented on screen,” Nuha El Tayeb, Netflix’s director of content acquisitions for the MENA region, said.