After dipping its toes in production in the Middle East, Netflix on Thursday launched its most ambitious Arabic show to date with supernatural drama “Paranormal,” directed by young Egyptian helmer Amr Salama (“Sheikh Jackson”).
The six-episode series out of Egypt, which is set in the 1960s, is based on bestselling Arabic horror books by late Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfik. It depicts the adventures of lead character Dr. Refaat Ismail, a hematologist whose scientific convictions fall apart when he is faced with paranormal occurrences. Each episode is a standalone story centered around one of the “Paranormal” tomes.
Salama served as showrunner and producer on “Paranormal” in tandem with prominent Egyptian indie producer Mohammed Hefzy, whose Film Clinic shingle is known internationally for churning out a stream of edgy titles such as “Microphone,” “Sheikh Jackson” and “Yomeddine.” Hefzy also heads up the Cairo Film Festival.
“Paranormal” marks a starting point for Netflix’s greater engagement in production in the MENA region, where SVOD penetration is estimated to double to more than 27 million subscribers by 2025, with Netflix projected to be MENA market leader, according to Digital TV Research.
Variety spoke exclusively to Ahmed Sharkawi, director of Arabic and African original series at the streaming giant, about bringing Salama’s vision to the screen and Arabic scripted content’s prospects for entering the global pop culture mainstream.
Why did you choose “Paranormal” as Netflix’s first original from Egypt, the region’s production powerhouse?
This is a show that I had talked about for a long time with Amr (Salama). It was just waiting to happen for two reasons: the popularity of the book series – it’s one of the few book franchises that broke outside Egypt into the entire Arab region – and also Amr’s passion. So when we were looking for the right show to start our endeavor in Egypt, this one presented itself as the right one. We felt that with partners like Amr and (Mohammed) Hefzy, we could help bring the vision to life. We also loved Amr’s interpretation. The novels were pretty much procedurals. We love how he created an arc and a through line in the story.
Supernatural as a genre is a novelty in the Middle East, at least on this scale.
What’s on the horizon for Netflix in the region in terms of volume?
“Paranormal” certainly marks an acceleration. I would say that, generally, the appetite is bigger and the stride we are making is faster. I can’t speak of volume, but it’s not a gradual piece-by-piece approach. We are talking to a lot of creators. We are looking at a lot of shows. Very soon, there will be more news.
Can you give me a rundown of what Netflix has announced from the Arab world?
Other than “Paranormal,” we’ve announced four other shows. And if you look at them, each one has what I love to call a different color. They are very pop. With “Abla Fahita,” our second Egyptian original series (based on an Egyptian satirical female puppet character) we have a general audience comedy. Then we go to Jordan and we have a female-centric teenage drama by Tima Shomali, “AlRawabi School for Girls” [The Story of a Bullied Teenage Girl]. Then we have the first producing experience for [Cairo-based Tunisian star] Hend Sabri, which is a [still untitled] female-centric dramedy that is more adult-skewed. And then, of course, there is [Egyptian music star] Amr Diab’s acting comeback after 27 years [which is also untitled]. It’s the first musical drama on the service from the Arab world. So we are going for that diversity.
Has Arab TV ever travelled around the world?
No, it hasn’t happened for TV. Egyptian films have travelled, there are a lot of global fans for [late great auteur] Youssef Chahine. There are fans for Nadine Labaki [“Capernaum” director] and Annemarie Jacir [“Wajib” director] globally, and we are speaking to those creators.
Is it conceivable that Netflix could generate a really high-end Arabic show like “The Crown” that could bring an Arabic narrative into global mainstream pop culture?
We hope we’ve achieved that already with “Paranormal.” I also think people connect on story whether the production is big or not. If you look at the global Netflix universe, we’ve had “Money Heist” and “The Crown,” but we’ve also had strong intimate stories like, for example, “Unorthodox.” The scale of production is something related to the project, but not the idea. The objective is always finding shows or series that can travel within the broader Arab world, but also be offered in the 190 countries.
Where can we expect to see Netflix Arabic originals coming from?
We started in Jordan, and then it was Egypt. But on the licensing front, we’ve had a few shows from Saudi. We’ve had [Saudi animation film] “Masameer”; we’ve had [Saudi drama series] “Whispers”; we’ve had short film series “Six Windows in the Desert.” Lately, we had [Saudi feature film] “The Book of Sun,” and lots of movies from Lebanon [via a Made in Lebanon collection]. We also have films from Tunisia, Morocco and other countries. We are sourcing content from across the Arab world. We are getting scripts from everywhere. We don’t have time to read all of them, but we try.