KUWAIT: A few months ago, a call for pitches from the Kuwait-based National Creative Industries Group was shared on Instagram with an enticing invitation to pitch on Netflix. It simply read, “From dreaming to streaming.”
At first, readers of the post seemed reluctant to submit, and the few who did later said they felt it was “too good to be true.” Eventually 150 entries were received and two months later the six selected authors were announced.
The price? The six writers would be part of a six-week program called TV Writers’ Lab 6×6. The three Saudi and three Kuwaiti writers spent the six weeks refining their scripts under expert guidance with the aim of turning them into market-ready pitches for Netflix. The dream? To write an Arabic Netflix original.
The six participants received mentoring and virtual master classes from several entertainment industry experts, including Farida Zahran from the hit show Ramy and Wael Hamdy from the famous Arabic Sesame Street. They were part of a specially curated curriculum, including training led by the world-renowned New York Film Academy.
All participants received NYFA recognized certificates of completion at the end of the program.
“With Lab 6×6, although based in Kuwait, our program will also target the talented Saudi creative community,” Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah, NCIG Chair and CEO, told Arab News.
“By bringing together Saudi Arabia-based creators with their Kuwaiti counterparts, this unique program aims to build the long-awaited creative bridges and lay the essential collaborative foundation needed to grow our shared content-driven industry enliven and empower our regional stories to inspire and entertain audiences around the world.”
Al-Sabah is the dynamic woman at the helm of NCIG. She describes herself as a “dreamer, doer and disruptor”.
“The beauty of this program is not only that they (the writers) go through this incredible program where they get access to the roster of masterclasses and mentors that we have, but at the end of the six weeks they also get to introduce Netflix ,” She said.
Netflix will get the right of first refusal, Al-Sabah said, and if Netflix doesn’t pick it up, the creator will own the intellectual property rights of their project in full. “So you can take it anywhere, and I have to give Netflix credit for making that possible for us,” she said.
“We’ve invested heavily in these creators for six weeks – 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 it’s completely mine and I can bring it to market.”
Viewers’ insatiable appetite for immersing themselves in worlds created with a non-Western gaze has been in high demand of late, as hits like “Squid Game” in Korean, “La Casa de Papel” in Spanish, and “Lupin” in take French.
For Arabic authors to write their own stories and bring them to the streaming world is something that’s been a long time coming, and something that Netflix — and its subscribers — are fully embracing.
This isn’t the first attempt to help Arab talent shine on a global stage. NCIG, for example, produces, enables and supports cross-platform content across the region and beyond.
“We’ve had several programs over the past two years, but the Lab 6×6 program is a first of its kind in the region, aiming to incubate writers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and translate their ideas into six market-ready pitch decks Weeks,” Ahmed Sharkawi, director of Arabic series at Netflix, told Arab News.
“Kuwait has a long history of storytelling in the region, credited with the groundbreaking Gulf drama, and the Saudi entertainment industry is fast becoming a powerhouse for the region,” he said.
Dania Al-Tayeb, who describes herself as a “creative” specializing in teen drama, found out about the program while watching Harry Potter. At first she didn’t think she would get this chance.
“I just submitted what I had and I didn’t do anything new. That’s it. I didn’t really believe it was going to happen that much,” she said.
Her story, Recovering Dreamer, is about a struggling ballerina in Jeddah who finds out her French mother only loves her because she’s a ballerina. “And she embarks on a journey to find true and unconditional love,” Al-Tayeb said.
Fellow Jeddawi, Rulan Hasan, began 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 in 2020 has written for Netflix shows such as Takki and the first Netflix original Saudi drama Whispers or Waswas.
Her show The Silent City is about a teenage girl who was born deaf and is very insecure. She is kidnapped and finds out that people live outside the city and that in fact everyone inside the city is being controlled by sound waves. “And then she has a big decision to make; either get their hearing back or abandon this huge mission and save themselves,” Hasan said.
Hasan commends her supportive husband for encouraging her to initially apply to the program, but an unexpected little cheerleader later emerged.
“I’m pregnant, in my second trimester. I think the program helped me not think about the nausea a lot,” she said.
“It impacted me because I thought I wanted to create a better world, even if it’s just in my story. I sincerely hope for a world where children can be free and safe, and most importantly, healthy. I think 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 his family’s unofficial storyteller; They told him details of their day and then instructed him to “tell the story” to everyone else because through his natural charisma and curiosity he could convincingly articulate what had happened even when the events hadn’t happened to him.
His script at Lab 6×6 fuses the idea of psychology and religion. The focus is on a psychologist who pretends to be a sheik and describes himself as a sheikologist. It is a story of deceit, personal growth and trust in the community.
The program’s Kuwaiti cohort consists of accomplished writer Faisal Al-Beloushi, who has already achieved tremendous success in the Arab world with his previous works streamed on Netflix; Serial careerist Jassim Al-Qames, who has dabbled in journalism and politics; and the Twilight Zone-possessed Mohammed Nedal Jalal Salam.
The program is a significant step for the region as it offers audiences the opportunity to see stories about the region from local people. It’s also an important step for regional writers as it gives them a global platform.
Salam summed it up best: “This experience was like going to Disneyland. It’s like seeing the world you’ve always wanted to see. I’m a kid again.”