Samer Arzouni is an entrepreneur and award-winning filmmaker, with over 12 years of experience in the industry, having worked on a wide variety of content and formats, ranging from documentaries to reality TV. He started off working with news and general entertainment networks, producing a variety of current affairs pieces and social awareness segments in Lebanon.
This was followed up with a seven-year stint with National Geographic Channels in UAE where he was promoted to Head of Channel and Productions for the Middle East. He then co-founded Act3 productions in 2015, and in 2017 went solo, founding SpotLife Film Productions.
His notable projects include Inside Mission Kosovo, Mega-structure Louvre Abu Dhabi, Megastructures — Abu Dhabi Super Tunnel, Every Emirati Son, Mission Everest: The UAE Military Team, and most recently, I am a National Geographic Photographer Season 2. In this interview, he shares his passion for film as his medium for storytelling and gives insights into the filmmaking industry in the region.
Arab Times: Can you give us a brief background of your journey in filmmaking? How did SpotLife Films come about?
Samer Arzouni: Before moving from Lebanon to the UAE in 2008, I worked with a variety of news and general entertainment networks in Beirut. When I first came to Dubai I joined one of the best advertising agencies in the region FP7. My work eventually led to me to National Geographic Channels in Abu Dhabi where my passion for film, as a creative vessel for telling stories, well and truly set sail. I joined the Network as a junior promo producer, after stints in numerous roles that culminated in a promotion to Head of Channel and Productions, I ventured into unchartered territory and in 2015, co-founded Act3 productions. By 2017, I was ready to fl y solo and thereby, set up SpotLife Productions.
AT: What are the barriers to entry in the market? How did you overcome them?
SA: Competition in the region especially the UAE is very fierce, despite the fact that there are very few individuals and companies that do the type of work we do. The key is to find an angle that makes you different from the competition. For us, it was defining our niche as being factual entertainment and branded content with an offer to produce 360 and VR videos.
Factual entertainment content is still at early stages of demand. In most cases, I feel that the number one challenge is to educate clients and agencies on the importance of such content. We always offer examples and references to clients to help them understand factual content, its relevance to them and its impact on their business, so they can make more informed decisions. Getting new clients to trust you enough to give you a chance is a big challenge.
Agencies and clients have people they are already working with, so to convince them to change status quo and take a risk is a tall order, but we don’t give up. If you have worked in a network for long enough, then the channel’s style is misconstrued as your personal style. The industry assumes that you only do a certain type of film, and that you have a limited imagination when exploring new areas of content. Shaking off this label, and proving your versatility to new clients can be quite a difficult task. We have to continuously reinvent the wheel and come up with creatives that prove to the clients that we are not one dimensional when it comes to idea generation.
AT: You’ve recently produced “I am a Nat Geo Photographer”. Can you walk us through the filming process in a reality format? In what ways is it a departure from your earlier work?
SA: A reality format, such as ‘I am a Nat Geo Photographer’, is different in many ways from other work we have done to date. The scope of this project was much bigger, given the sheer volume of talent, crew and media involved, so much so that media and talent management required dedicated staff. In a reality format, we follow the progression of time in a linear manner, as events build on one another. As a result, we have to be quick in our reaction times, as reality doesn’t pause to be filmed. For this production, we were either on set or on location, almost round the clock, for 10 days. There was a detailed algorithm of shots that had to be filmed to tell the story, and we had to splice that with actuality from the photography challenges. Ensuring that nothing was missed was a huge organizational task. Also, writing scripts around the actuality was a challenge, and getting cast to deliver their lines as authentically as possible, in a limited time, was a tough task. In pure documentary work, we suggest a treatment and then film the story on ground by following the action. We have more liberty with the volume of filming that we can do. In a reality TV format, we have to film to script and allow spaces for actuality.
AT: What insight does the TV give us about emerging Arab photographers?
SA: The subject of Arab photographers has not been widely explored on mainstream television as yet. Our objective is to change the status quo and present the breadth of talent that exists in the Middle East. The show caters not only to people who are interested and involved in photography, but also to those who don’t understand the science behind it, but have an appreciation for good television. The photographers in the series come from the four corners of the Arab world, with different styles, experiences and approaches — all having sound technical knowledge. Our understanding of television and digital content gives us insights about what kind of content young people are engaging with and what their content consumption habits are. These in turn, infl uence the kind of content we create.
AT: What is your filmmaking philosophy? What sort of content do you lean towards?
SA: I chose filmmaking as a career because I believe in the power of film as a medium to infl uence and impact social behaviour. To be able to tell powerful stories is empowering and with this empowerment comes a responsibility and consciousness to tell balanced stories that are objective and that have a purpose. We focus on factual entertainment, which includes documentary & reality TV, and branded content. We are also now exploring the world of 360 videos and virtual reality content. Our philosophy is simple — we believe that the best stories are rooted in facts, and the more we present these kinds of stories to our viewers, the more credibility we will have with them.
AT: How would you describe your narrative style and visual aesthetics?
SA: Our narrative approach is straightforward — simple storytelling centred around strong, compelling characters that can engage the viewers. We always follow a story arc, where we have a definite beginning, middle and end. All our stories are constructed around human experiences, as we believe that we connect best with others when we have common ground. Visuals serve several purposes in a film. They demonstrate a point, set context, establish feel and add another layer to the story. Each shot has to be justified in light of these considerations. We like to think of visuals as the poetic element in the films we produce. They have to emote feelings, and enthral the viewers.
AT: What are the most appealing entertainment products in the regional market today? What have the elements of change in the recent past?
SA: International talent show formats and soap operas are very popular in the region. Nature of content hasn’t changed much but production values have gone up drastically.
AT: How would you describe the filmmaking ecosystem of the Gulf?
SA: The competition is increasing and one has to fight more to get one’s share of the pie. Having said that, the approach to filmmaking is still very traditional. Companies/agencies still prefer to go down the route of ad films/commercials and are hesitant to explore new areas such as factual content, especially when looking at communication strategies for brands. In contrast, there is more openness towards technologically advanced filmmaking, for example 360 and VR. Companies feel more assured allocating budgets for these than they do for documentaries and factual entertainment.
AT: What is the emergence of platforms like Netflix and Amazon having on video production? Has there been a significant disruption in traditional networks and consumption in the region?
SA: Globally, viewing habits have changed because of the advent of Netflix and Amazon. This is not a phenomenon that is unique to this region. We encourage the likes of Netflix to invest more in local production, but at the moment, progress is slow.
AT: How would you describe the prevailing entrepreneurial climate in the Gulf today? What are the challenges specific to this region?
SA: It is fairly easy to set up a business in the Gulf region and there are lots of rules and regulations that are in place to support entrepreneurs. It is a growing market, and ripe for business . Competition is increasing, which means you will have to fight for your slice of the pie. The ground reality is constantly changing and you have to remain adaptable to change and new circumstances.
AT: What are your upcoming projects at SpotLife?
SA: We are exploring 360 video ideas for a client; developing a documentary on a dairy brand; and producing a 30-episode television series for a channel for Ramadan. We are also working on a media strategy for a company specialising in professional and consumer imaging equipment and information systems.
AT: What advice would you give to young filmmakers?
SA: First, you can only make a great film if you believe in the story you are telling. Second, characters and cast are the spine of any film, so choose wisely. Third, simple ideas are great but you have to add layer after layer, and lastly, know your audience’s psyche and build the elements around that.
By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff