The Mastermind Ahead of His Time
After launching his promising talent management and representation agency, Creative Arab Talent (C.A.T) – which is considered the first of its kind in the Middle East – Amr Koura has come a long way and has exported Arab artists beyond local borders. C.A.T has established itself an internationally acclaimed leading company in its field, and has recently become Netflix’s trusted repertoire of original Arab content. The brilliant entrepreneur with a multifaceted resumé talks to (in)sight’s Rania Badr about how far his agency has come, the Egyptian film market crisis, and his future plans.
Three years ago, we have met you and talked about C.A.T. How is it going now?
We have been doing our best since, and have probably made some mistakes along the way. To name a few, we worked with a large group of people of the same age range, which I think may have initiated a sense of competition between them. We also picked out more than we can handle, but after reducing our clientele to half, this has given us a better chance to offer better services and fairer prices.
Do you think starting an agency has become such a trend that it often falls into the wrong hands?
Having an agency to handle the industry would benefit it greatly for several reasons. Without an agency, actors can demand higher compensation, which leads to the whole crew following in their leads and causing an increase in market prices. Another reason is that some brilliant talents can be wasted because they fail to find someone to guide them in the right direction. But to properly run the industry you need an agent, a manager and a publicist, all of whom have totally separate duties. An agent makes deals and finds the best offers for the actors, while a manager is closer to the actors and takes decisions with them. The publicist, on the other hand, is responsible for the actor’s public image and handles the media. We don’t really have any in Egypt. We have certain companies that work in publicity and can help when it comes to being invited to certain events, but they don’t delve into the career level as a publicist should.
What can you tell us about your latest project ‘Ektebli’ (Write for Me)?
‘Ektebli’ was born out of a necessity; a reaction to the increasing demand of foreign content, namely Scandinavian drama and the emerging genre of black suspense thrillers. If you’re wondering why this emergence hasn’t reached our industry, it’s because we have a corrupt system. We prioritise the star, and then give them the liberty to pick a crew based on their preference –a system which failed in Hollywood since the 30s. Secondly, our industry offers old-school television content with strict formats of 30 episodes a season, whereas the younger demographic doesn’t even watch this content because it’s too redundant. Foreign industries excavate a fresh idea from various countries, including Egypt, and tailor it into a film, and this is what ‘Ektebli’ does. It allows anyone with a great idea to send it in through our platform and fit it in the specially designed box with a word limit. If the story is good, they can probably sum it up in less than 300 words. This also facilitates the process of cherry picking. If we like something, we can just go back to the sender for more details. Once we have a pool of 20 or 30 great topics, we start sending them to organisations like Netflix.
What do you think we lack that affects having good writers in the industry?
Education. We don’t have institutions or a proper cultural movement. For example, The Ministry of Culture could hold sessions and invite moguls to talk about their masterpieces, how they think, and how the emerging new drama is changing. We’re too close-knit and unaccepting of new ideas. For example, some people disapprove of Ektebli’s 300-word limit, and would rather write the whole story. This stands in contrast with modern drama, which introduces the main character and the premise in the first 15 minutes, and has the rest of the story comprise the consequences. In Egypt, we prioritise stars over content quality. Some producers choose the crew before having a script written because they want to commercially appeal to channels that sponsor their content and pay for the set before they begin shooting. But if I have a good script ready, I can hire any actor who will comply with my budget, since they can see a concrete project, rather than blindly agreeing to something that hasn’t yet begun.
Tell us about your collaboration with Netflix.
Netflix is a very difficult organisation to enter. They’re very enclosed and you have to earn their trust. We have recently taken a great step that has driven them to take us seriously, and that was opening a branch in Los Angeles, without an actual office, basically just a person and a phone line. That’s how they realised we have the pulse of the market under our belt. They could ask us about anyone, and we’d provide them with the information they needed, so they started to trust us. Eventually, we were assigned with a comedy special, where we recommended a list of ten comedians, out of which they chose Adel Karam because they found him to be a pan-Arab star with many followers on social media. We were basically in the right place at the right time, and after six months of hard work, we have become one if their go-to options. We aren’t the sole supplier for Netflix, but we deliver handpicked content, and that’s what they appreciate since they’re bombarded with scripts and ideas worldwide.
Do you think we’ll ever change our strategy? And how does this affect the series produced?
I don’t know when we’re going to change our ways. It’s so frustrating, but we cannot find someone who can implement a strategy change. The whole world is going digital, and we are still producing TV series that target a 45+ audience, which is continually shrinking. To my surprise, the biggest section that makes up Netflix’s viewers range in age from 50 to 95 years old. Teenagers are handing down their digital ways to their parents, and overall, the habit of watching whatever you want, wherever you want, and whenever you want is a luxury we didn’t have before. Life is quickly changing, and we’re not keeping up. On the other hand, advertisers are realising they’re wasting their money on TV, whereas they could pay less money on digital platforms and be certain that people actually saw their ad. The problem lies in that the government has only just realised that they bought big disasters: the industry is costing us a lot and is giving little output.
How do you evaluate the scene for next Ramadan?
I think this could be the last Ramadan to introduce a multitude of TV series. So far, we have 29 dramas listed, and they are definitely more than channels can handle. So some of them will fall through the cracks. But now you see how we’re starting to broadcast series outside the Ramadan season, and this includes ‘Abu El Arosa’ (The Bride’s Father) and ‘Sabea Gar’ (The Seventh Neighbour). It just doesn’t make sense to watch 30 series in a single month.
As an agency representing Adel Karam, what do you think of ‘The Insult’ being nominated to receive an Oscar?
It’s lovely! To be fair, we aren’t the ones who got Adel the gig, it was a contract he had from a year or so ago. Adel talked to me about it, I urged him to sign the contract, he did, and it all worked out in his favour. We can’t claim the credit, but it’s nice to feel like you bring good luck to your talents.
What do you think of the controversy regarding ‘The Insult’ being the first Lebanese movie to be nominated and people wanting to boycott it?
People just like to appear as activists. They want to boycott the film because it was shot in Israel, but the director has the right to that, especially because he does so to talk about the Palestinian cause. The movie is, in technical terms, ahead of what we do. It is a very simple story, but it’s based on reality and told in a modern construction. You’re introduced to the conflict during the first five minutes, then the rest is a series of consequences. We still cannot make these types of movies. Plus, we don’t get to do any lobbying during the Oscars; we just send the movie a day before the deadline. We have so many problems, and to get to the Oscars, we need a whole new ecosystem.
Who should be responsible for this?
Unfortunately, no one is so far. There is no head in the industry, each just has his own agenda. I think producers have to create a league where they can voice their opinions and take care of differences, which we’re now taking care of unwillingly because no one is there to do it for us.
Do you think we should work towards the shift to digital platforms?
It has an advantage that a series could be as brief as three episodes, and still get the same appeal. It gives an opportunity for actors to work on more than one project, while it also helps independent filmmakers whose works don’t suit the general framework of cinema. Take Mohammed Hammad’s ‘Akhdar Yabes’ (Withered Green) for instance; it has been featured in film festivals, and this generally helps showcase young talents. Many of Egypt’s most popular series could be re-shot and re-divided over only a few episodes instead of 30, which would be suitable for a digital platform, but everybody’s too busy to try that. If we make the shift, this could put an end to the current market crisis, where many producers are still waiting for the paychecks channels are due. Two popular Egyptian channels are about to run out of business because they have debts that exceed a billion pounds.
Generally though, are you optimistic regarding the media scene?
Not unless we change and create a platform that can compete on an international level. But by the time we make this decision, others will still be ahead of us.
What are your upcoming plans?
We are working on developing a platform similar to Netflix in Arabic. We already have a massive market, but they don’t watch television and they are waiting for someone to offer them such a service. This has four sides: technology would be the first; for example, when the series ‘Black Mirror’ was launched, there was an overload on the servers, and that’s not an easy thing to handle. In Egypt, the Internet is awful, so we need to have brilliant engineers who are able to deal with such a problem at any time. The second side is content, which needs to be unique and excellent. Then we come to the third factor –marketing – which is basically just social marketing. The last side is money, and whether we should plan monthly subscriptions or offer the service for free, and make profit through advertising instead. Right now, I’m entirely focused on this, and by the end of the year, we should have a platform that competes with Netflix.
Are you really going to retire by the end of 2019?
I want to, but I never will. I want to work from home, not from the office. Just driving through Egypt is exhausting. I have an office in Dubai and the feeling of driving to office from home is totally different there!
Do you intend to make expansions to Dubai or LA?
There is definitely an expansion in Dubai and we’re going to be handpicking certain talents. Dubai offers brilliant entertainment in general. For instance, you have 2020 Expo where they have 638 outlets and are looking to fill these outlets with entertainment for six months. And since we cannot do that, we are considering co-production, which would allow us to produce in Hollywood. Co-productions would allow us to send artists abroad to work with their international peers. This would take a longer time to produce because of all the algorithms behind it all, but it’s something I hope I can do. My objective will always be to export talents beyond our borders.