Where stars come to play
Three years ago, a team of former OSN and HBO Nordic executives began to discuss the changing economics in the television industry, and most importantly how consumer behaviour was beginning to shift from traditional TV watching to online streaming. The discussion soon turned into an idea and finally manifested as a multi-million dollar business model.
"We saw an opportunity to make premium Hollywood entertainment affordable for the masses, and we joined together to launch this new venture in Dubai," Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of Starz Play, says.
Starz Play is a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service that streams blockbuster Hollywood movies, same-day-as-the-US TV series, documentaries and children's entertainment - plus dedicated Arabic content - to 19 countries across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena).
"Our business has been developed exclusively for the Mena region and features one-click Arabic subtitling plus Arabic and French audio options," ays Sheikh, who has spent more than 20 years in media and telecom sectors as a senior executive.
"Our service utilises advanced technology to provide users with a premium, ad-free viewing experience with full HD and 4K content sourced from major Hollywood studios and leading TV content suppliers including 20th Century Fox, CBS, Disney, Lionsgate, Paramount, Showtime, Sony, Starz, Universal and Warner Bros," he continues.
"We do this all the while offering each subscriber brilliant value for money - just Dh30 per month - coupled with the latest TV series and exclusive movies that they will not find on Netflix or Amazon. We also offer a download function in which content can be stored on your device for 30 days."
Explaining Starz Play's strategy to stay ahead in the competitive environment, Sheikh says the industry is going through a major shift with a huge increase in on-demand streaming products, creating opportunities for emerging players like him.
"To stay one step ahead of the global competition, we have to ensure that our product offers the best overall user experience. We, therefore, execute our service with surgical precision in each country, localising all 6,500 hours of our content with Arabic subtitling - a feature unavailable elsewhere in the region," the CEO claims.
In addition to the UAE, Starz Play's service is available in Bahrain, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia.
"We are looking to expand outside of the Middle East. During the last three years, our team has acquired a unique e-commerce skillset for the world's high growth markets. We will continue to leverage that skill set and plan to expand beyond the Mena region into markets that offer similar economic opportunities in the media and entertainment sectors. We are specifically looking towards select countries in Asia where there is space to grow the SVOD market, and where competition is not already overly high from Netflix or local operators," Sheikh discloses to Khaleej Times.
Starz Play has raised a total of $125 million (Dh458.75 million)since its inception in 2015, and is presently in its third round of funding. "This has been made possible due to investments from existing and new relationships with Starz, a Lionsgate company, State Street Global Advisors, the world's third largest asset manager with more than $2.4 trillion in managed assets as of June 2014, and media and technology investment firms SEQ Capital Partners and Delta Partners," Sheikh says.
However, he says: "Our business requires more than just a strong management team and capital investment; it requires industry credibility and long-term stability to be successful. We were fortunate that Starz Entertainment, a leading global media and entertainment company, believed in the potential of the Mena market and came onboard as the lead investor in this venture."
Scott Macdonald, chief financial officer at Starz, says that with a management team and a young and growing population base that was yearning for an affordable entertainment option, there was a great investment potential with Starz Play.
"With quality original programming in our content portfolio, including 'Power', 'Black Sails' and 'Ash vs Evil Dead', Starz Play was a terrific opportunity to increase the distribution of our Starz Original series and extend the Starz brand outside of the United States for the first time," Macdonald says.
Sheikh says the new funds will help Starz Play to focus on strengthening and enhancing its existing offerings, and also go towards introducing new product features for our subscribers.
"We are also looking to strengthen our Arabic offering - our most consumed genre - followed by ramping up our Hollywood and Bollywood content. At the moment a lot of regional Arabic content is being offered to consumers for free, so our challenge is to carve out our own unique proposition and give our audience quality content they are willing to pay for," he says.
Vural Cifci, vice-president of Digital Marketing at Starz Play, feels proud that they don't offer the same service as its competitors.
"Our content, value proposition, availability and convenience are unique for the region and that helps us to stand out from the crowd. The most recent example of this is with our new download function. Perfect for customers-on-the-go, it allows users to save their favourite boxsets and movies to personal devices for offline viewing. We offer this feature for 80 per cent of our content, which is unheard of for other services," Cifci says.
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