From dream to streaming; Netflix's first scriptwriting initiation in Mena

From dream to streaming; Netflix’s first scriptwriting initiation in Mena

A few months ago, a call for pitches from Kuwait-based National Creative Industries Group was shared on Instagram with an enticing invitation to pitch to Netflix. It simply read: “From Dreaming to Streaming.”

At first, readers of the post seemed reluctant to submit entries, and the few who did later said that they felt it was “too good to be true.” Eventually, 150 entries came in, and two months later the six selected writers were announced.

The prize? The six writers would be part of a six-week program called TV Writers’ Lab 6×6. The three Saudi and three Kuwaiti writers would spend the six weeks honing their scripts under the guidance of experts with the goal of turning them into market-ready pitches for Netflix. The dream? To write a Netflix Arabic Original.

The six participants received mentoring and virtual masterclasses from several of the entertainment industry’s experts, including Farida Zahran of the hit show “Ramy,” and Wael Hamdy of the famous Arabic Sesame Street. They were part of a specially curated curriculum, including training sessions led by the world-renowned New York Film Academy. 

All participants were granted NYFA-endorsed completion certificates at the end of the program.

“With Lab 6×6, although our program is based in Kuwait, it will also target the talented Saudi creative community,” Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah, chairperson, and CEO of NCIG told Arab News.

“By bringing Saudi-based creators together with their Kuwait counterparts, this unique program aims to build the long-awaited creative bridges and lay the essential groundwork for the collaborations needed to invigorate our shared content-driven industry and allow our regional stories to inspire and entertain audiences the world over.”

Al-Sabah is the dynamic woman at the helm of NCIG. She describes herself as “a dreamer, a doer, and a disrupter.”

“The beauty of this program does not only do they (the writers) go through this incredible program where they get access to the roster of masterclass sessions and mentors that we have, but they also get to pitch Netflix at the end of the six weeks,” she said.

Netflix gets the first right of refusal, said Al-Sabah, and if Netflix does not pick it up, the creator owns the intellectual property rights of their project completely. “So they can take it anywhere they like and I have to give credit to Netflix for allowing us to do that,” she said.

“We have invested six weeks heavily in these creators — both NCIG and Netflix. At the end of the day, at the end of the six weeks, they (the writers) have that kind of freedom to say, I own it completely and I can take it out to market.”

The insatiable appetite for viewers to delve into worlds created with a non-Western gaze has been in high demand recently as evidenced by successes such as “Squid Game” in Korean, “La Casa de Papel” in Spanish and “Lupin” in French.

Having Arab writers script their own stories and bring them to the streaming world is something that has been a long time coming, and something Netflix — and its subscribers — are fully embracing.

This is not the first attempt at helping Arab talent shine through on a global stage. NCIG, for example, produces, facilitates and supports multi-platform content for the whole region and beyond.

“We’ve had several programs in the last two years, but the Lab 6×6 program is the first initiative of its kind in the region that looks to incubate writers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and turn their ideas into market-ready pitch decks in six weeks,” Ahmed Sharkawi, director, Arabic series at Netflix, told Arab News.

“Kuwait has a long history of storytelling in the region, credited with pioneering Gulf drama, and the Saudi entertainment industry is rapidly evolving into a powerhouse for the region,” he said.

Dania Al-Tayeb, who self-identifies as “a creative” specializing in teen dramas, found out about the program while watching Harry Potter. She initially did not believe that she would land this opportunity.

“I just submitted what I had, and I didn’t do something new. That’s it. That’s how much I didn’t really believe it was going to happen,” she said.

Her story, “Recovering Dreamer,” is about a struggling ballerina in Jeddah who finds out her French mother only loves her because she is a ballerina. “And she goes on the journey to find true and unconditional love,” Al-Tayeb said.

Fellow Jeddawi, Rulan Hasan, started her career directing rap music videos. She worked in the first hip-hop studio in Saudi Arabia and loved it. She became a full-time writer in 2016 and has written for Netflix shows such as “Takki” and the first Saudi original Netflix drama, “Whispers,” or “Waswas,” in 2020.

Her show “The Silent City” is about a teen girl who was born deaf and is very insecure. She is kidnapped and finds out that there are people living outside of the city, and that everyone inside of the city is actually being controlled by sound waves. “And that’s when she has to make a big decision; either getting her hearing back or pull this huge mission and save herself,” Hasan said.

Hasan gives credit to her supportive husband for encouraging her to apply to the program initially, but later, an unexpected little cheerleader came into being.

“I’m pregnant, in my second trimester. I think the program has helped me not to think a lot about the nausea,” she said.

“It did affect me because it made me think that I want to create a better world, even if it’s only in my story. I honestly hope for a world where children could be free and safe, and mostly healthy. I feel like those are the most important parts,” Hasan said.

The third Saudi participant, Osama Ali Shar, grew up in Wadi Al-Dawasir and studied psychology in Jeddah. He jokes that he was the unofficial storyteller of his family; they would tell him details of their day and then instruct him to “tell the story” to everyone else because he was able to convincingly articulate what happened through his natural charisma and curiosity, even if the events had not happened to him.

His script at Lab 6×6 merges the idea of psychology and religion. It centers on a psychologist who pretends to be a sheik and refers to himself as a sheikologist. It is a story of deception, personal growth and community trust.

The Kuwaiti cohort of the program consists of accomplished writer Faisal Al-Beloushi, who has already won tremendous success in the Arab world with his previous work, which has been streamed on Netflix; serial careerist Jassim Al-Qames, who has dabbled in journalism and politics; and the Twilight Zone obsessive Mohammed Nedal Jalal Salam.

The program is a significant step for the region as it provides audiences with the opportunity to see stories about the region by people from the region. It is also an important step for regional writers as it gives them a global platform.  

Salam summed it up best: “This experience was like visiting Disneyland. It’s like seeing the world you always wanted to see. I’m a child again.”

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