EXCLUSIVE: Miramax’s new owner beIN Media may have raised some eyebrows when it closed its deal to acquire 100% of the once-iconic indie label. For the Qatar-owned group, however, this is only the latest piece in an expanding business empire led by its fiercely ambitious chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
The reasons behind beIN’s expansion into general entertainment fare are simple. Two thirds of the Arab world’s population of 370 million people is under the age of 30. That youthful market is a hungry consumer of entertainment. While broadband penetration can be patchy across the region, mobile penetration is through the roof. In the U.A.E., for example, there are more mobile phones than
Two thirds of the Arab world’s population of 370 million people is under the age of 30. That youthful market is a hungry consumer of entertainment. Mobile penetration is through the roof. In the U.A.E., there are more mobile phones than there are people.
there are people. The less controversial, non-political arm of Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Media Network, beIN Media already is the dominant sports broadcaster in the Arab world (and, increasingly, beyond) after its successful re-branding from Al Jazeera Sports in 2014. With the company reaching a ceiling in terms of subscribers interested in sports — commonly male-centric sports fans — beIN Media execs now want to target female subscribers. To that end, they have also begun serious direct discussions with a number of U.S. studios about taking over current pay TV market leader OSN’s output deals for Western films and series when they expire.
As for Miramax, it remains to be seen exactly what the new owners’ plans are but hopes are high within both companies that the future will be more productive in every sense of the word than the latter stages of passive investment by previous owners Colony Capital and the Qatar Investment Authority. As one Miramax exec told Deadline, “It doesn’t make sense to buy it and not do anything with it. We’ve been hearing a lot of ambitious plans. Let’s see.”
beIn operates across the Middle East and North Africa, France, the U.S., Canada, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Philippines and Australia. Last year, it closed deals with Major League Soccer (MLS) to broadcast its games across Southeast Asia and Australia, as well as even more significantly, completing its long-in-the-works acquisition for Turkey’s biggest pay TV network Digiturk, for a figure believed to be in excess of $1 billion. That purchase was as much political as it was commercial given Turkey’s geographical and cultural proximity to the Arab world. Dubbed Turkish dramas have dominated Arab TV grids for close to a decade and offering content across both Turkish and MENA territories will potentially give beIN execs a scope and scale rarely seen in the region before.
Al-Khelaifi, a former tennis pro as well as close friend and advisor to Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani, has also been making nice recently with former rival Canal Plus. This week it emerged the French pay TV giant has engaged in talks with beIN Sports over an exclusive distribution agreement. If approved by anti-trust authorities in France, the move would give Canal Plus execs a much-needed revenue boost while also giving beIN Sports better carriage in France. The two companies had up until this point been competitors. By aggressively snapping up major soccer, tennis and rugby rights from 2012 onwards, beIN had positioned itself as a big rival to the French pay-TV giant, potentially even an existential one, as sliding Canal Plus subscriber numbers were behind an exec cull at the company last summer.
For beIN, the Canal Plus move is as much political as it is commercial. The Qatari-owned company, the precursor to Al Jazeera Sports, would not want to be seen as the primary architect in the demise of a French institution such as Canal Plus.
beIN is also gearing up to launch its first general entertainment channels, aside from sports, in the Arab world later this year. The new pay TV service will initially roll out across the Arab world in the coming months and could be a potential game changer for a region that has traditionally been dominated by free-to-air channels. While the Arab TV market has always had at least one major pay TV platform — previously the likes of ART and Orbit, currently OSN — there has arguably never been a company quite as deep-pocketed or ambitious to take on the over 500 free-to-air satellite channels that currently dominate the airwaves. Quite simply, the resources at beIN Media’s disposal ease the burden of needing to find a financially viable model of return.
The pay TV landscape is changing rapidly across the Arab world. Starz launched Starz Play Arabia, its subscription online video service, across 17 countries in the Middle East on April 2 last year. Netflix launched its own OTT service in the region this January and is known to be meeting with content providers — as well as broadcasters and telcos — in the region. Deadline understands from multiple sources that beIN and Netflix have already held exploratory talks over possible collaboration. Being able to tap into Miramax’s fertile library will certainly help beIN’s content ambitions, be they in English or Arabic.
At the end of last year, beIN media execs signed big deals with local distributors Front Row Entertainment and Italia Films, which has development deals in place with super-producer Basil Iwanyk and his Thunder Road banner, among others. Italia also has exclusive output deals with the likes of the Weinstein Co., Glen Basner’s FilmNation, DreamWorks and is also the official sub-distributor for Disney in the Middle East and North Africa.
Whatever the future holds, the Miramax deal is far from a one-off vanity venture. It fits clearly into beIN’s goal to become a major global content player. “The ambitions here are sky high,” one beIN exec tells Deadline. “They want to do in film and TV what they’ve done in sports.”
One word of caution. While the tiny Gulf state of Qatar continues to have enviable resources at its disposal thanks to its massive gas reserves, the historically low global energy prices are having a knock-on effect on expenditure across Gulf countries. Qatar, for example, posted its first budget deficit in 15 years last year. That has led to Qatar’s Emir approving a new budget that dramatically cut expenditure across the board of state institutions.
That may be one reason why, after a flurry of activity last summer from beIN execs, the Miramax deal and the launch of the general entertainment channels seem to have taken a little longer to get done than initially expected.
Qatar, and by extension, beIN exec got a massive boost this week, however, with the news that new FIFA President Gianni Infantino would not be seeking a re-vote over the controversial decision to award the 2018 and 2022 soccer World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. The potential staging of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is a centrepiece event in the country’s long-term economic development, with any decision to move it to a different country likely to have had a seismic impact, particularly on a sports-centric company like beIN. Al-Khelaifi is also chairman of French soccer team Paris Saint German, which is owned by the Qatar Investment Authority.