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Sun 11 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Creativity counts

Twofour54, Abu Dhabi's ambitious new media production zone, is taking a unique approach to raising the standard and output of Arabic-language content production. Aaron Greenwood spoke to twofour54 CEO Tony Orsten about the organisation's slow-burn strategy to put Abu Dhabi on the media production map.

Twofour54, Abu Dhabi's ambitious new media production zone, is taking a unique approach to raising the standard and output of Arabic-language content production. Aaron Greenwood spoke to twofour54 CEO Tony Orsten about the organisation's slow-burn strategy to put Abu Dhabi on the media production map.

To say Tony Orsten is passionate about media production would be something of an understatement. Having spent the past 30 years crafting and honing his skills as a TV director, producer and head of one of Europe's biggest content production organisations in Paramount Pictures, the amiable 53-year-old Briton is now keen to create a legacy in what he perceives as a market big on raw ambition and talent but short on skills and experience.

Orsten says he was first drawn to Abu Dhabi by its ambition to establish a world-class creative arts community that not only fostered local talent but also provided the wherewithal for these individuals and organisations to realise their professional - and commercial - potential.

"Twofour54 was conceived as a result of Abu Dhabi's drive towards arts and creativity," says Orsten. "Abu Dhabi already has a reputation for arts and culture, but on a small scale. The Abu Dhabi government wants to establish the emirate as an internationally recognised destination for content producers.

"Theirs is a very long-term strategy. But it's also one that is commercially-minded. Critics who have suggested the precinct is just another government-funded initiative are being short-sighted. We are here to make it work commercially in the long-term."

Twofour54 represents the first step in the realisation of the Abu Dhabi government's vision for regional media production and one which is wholly unique in the sense that it is entirely committed to the production of Arabic-language content destined for print, online, film and television distribution.

As Orsten rightly points out, it also differs from other existing - and planned - Middle East media production precincts in that the successful establishment of the ‘creative ecosystem' - as he describes it - outweighs short-term commercial considerations in importance.

Instead, the twofour54 concept calls for the identification, incubation and training of individuals and organisations that will contribute and ultimately work within the twofour54 ‘ecosystem'.

These parties will be provided with access to state-of-the-art content production facilities, infrastructure and logistical support, and professional training services provided by the likes of twofour54 partners Thomson Reuters and the BBC.

"The key issue restricting the growth of the Middle East content production sector is the lack of professional training," says Orsten. "We need to provide individuals with the skill sets to match their creative aspirations."

Orsten adds that the organisation recognises the importance of providing long-term career opportunities for graduates of the various programmes.

"It's all very well turning out tremendous numbers of young professionals but if they don't have jobs at the end of their training then it's an opportunity wasted," he says.

"The idea behind [the training academy] is to provide vocational training - short courses, from one week to four - which are designed to enhance existing skill sets. The knowledge gained can then be applied by these individuals within the twofour54 environment."

Orsten believes regional television production standards must improve if strong commercial gains are to be realised.

"I hate to criticise, but I've launched a number of channels in various countries around the world and everyone judges other people's work by their own standards, and in my case it's the standards I've become accustomed to in the US and the UK," he explains.

Orsten argues that while some of the 400-plus free-to-air (FTA) channels available across the region are "awful, there's also some quite innovative content being produced".

"Personally, I would love to see consolidation in the FTA television market. Once you go beyond the top 20 rating channels, there's not a great deal left worth watching. How many [of the smaller channels] are genuinely viable? I would like to see less of them. As far as twofour54 is concerned, we would love to see more channels, so long as they're high-quality and produce content for local audiences.

"The industry's moving forward and taking risks, which is a great thing, and there's still growth in the market. Advertising revenue growth in the region is predicted to stay ahead of the international curve, which should enable further innovation in the sector," he continues.

"Our key ambition is to raise programming standards going forward. But we can only do that if the environment supports it and revenues keep rising. The only way revenues will grow is if the television airtime is valued more highly than it currently is and the only way we can achieve that is by ensuring better quality content goes to air."

Yet, the realisation of this scenario will hinge largely on the long-term impact of the current economic downturn. While Orsten acknowledges this point, he also stresses the long-term vision for twofour54 will be faithfully pursued regardless of external factors impacting the wider economy.

"There's no point dwelling on this year's economic predictions," he argues. "In five years time when all of these plans are put into fruition, the situation will be completely different.

"My lasting impression of the Middle East is one of great entrepreneurship and a great appetite to just get on with the tasks at hand. The government authorities are very supportive, enabling and smart in their dealings.

"The nice thing about this place is that there's genuine interest and excitement about the media and what we're trying to do here, which I've found enormously stimulating."

Twofour54's initial five-year plan aims to establish a self-sufficient environment for the development and production of top-quality content for regional consumption.

"We can't enforce creativity. But what we can do is create an environment which people find interesting to work in - where everything is focused on the ease of creating and disseminating content," Orsten says.

Twofour54 is scheduled to relocate from its recently completed campus in Khalifa Park to its permanent base in the emirate's Mina Zayed Waterfront development in 2013.

The production precinct will house the regional operations of boom media players Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC) and Rotana Studios, broadcasters the BBC and CNN, broadsheet The Financial Times, and publishers HarperCollins and Random House, among others, Orsten explains.

"We're inviting media partners from across the region and internationally to join us and become part of the push to create content. Every company, regardless of whether it's CNN, HarperCollins or Rotana Studios, will be expected to play an active role in our training programmes and make use of the facilities available," he says.

Tony Orsten CVPoint from network 7 to German tv comedy...

Orsten boasts more than 30 years experience working in media production in the UK and Europe. Prior to joining twofour54 in December 2007, Orsten oversaw the development of television programming and new channel strategies for Paramount Pictures in Spain, Italy, Poland and Germany.

In September 2006, Orsten joined with the founders of Skype to launch Joost, the world's first broadcast-quality television platform on the internet, leading the UK-based content team from the Joost UK London offices. Previously, Orsten was the chief executive officer of MTV Networks International's portfolio of entertainment channels, which includes Paramount Comedy UK and Paramount Comedy Espanol.

Orsten is also an Academy Award-winning television director, having been recognised during his time at London Weekend Television (ITV) working on the memorable late-‘80s youth agenda programme, Network 7.

Nurturing the next generation...

ConTent production agenda

Twofour54's 2080m2 tadreeb training academy will boast state-of-the-art media production facilities, consisting of:

Five studios ranging from 60m2 to 750m2 in size.

Fully-equipped production studios equipped with high definition cameras and the latest broadcast technology and media management systems.

18 post-production areas/rooms with high end video, audio and graphic solutions.

Two voice over and sound booths.

Dedicated broadcast and print news journalism training areas.

Perhaps one of the more exciting aspects of CNN's involvement is the fact it will establish a new International News Centre within the precinct, complementing existing facilities in Atlanta, London and Hong Kong.

"It's a very important development for us because not only will it put Abu Dhabi on the international media map, but CNN has pledged a development fund that will support the development and production of new programming which will reflect the region and be broadcast on CNN International."

Despite the inclusion of these major media players on the twofour54 partner roster, Orsten says the organisation is very selective about the companies it is willing to work with.

"If someone comes to us demanding a license, chances are our response will be ‘no'. More likely, we'll be dealing with companies, regardless of how big or small they are, who we believe fit into our creative vision," he explains.

"It's been quite fun saying no to people who come in demanding a license and asking ‘where do I sign?' We're not interested in working with companies which have no interest in helping us achieve our long-term goals."

The collective nature of twofour54 undoubtedly separates the precinct from the regional media pack. While stressing that the organisation is "on very good terms with Dubai", the intense rivalry that pervades nearly all machinations between the UAE capital and its upstart cousin naturally lingers when the discussion turns to twofour54's potential commercial impact on the likes of Dubai Media City (DMC), Studio City and the International Media Production Zone.

While respectful of the success bred by the various Dubai media free zones, Orsten argues that twofour54's strategy is so inherently different that any talk of real competition between the parties is ill-informed and ultimately misguided.

"Very specifically, we're not a real estate play," he says. "Our goal is to stimulate content creation, which is why we feel very good about our relationship with Dubai because we would never want to steal any media companies away from the emirate. We would never say to a client ‘you can't work in Dubai - you have to work with us'.

We've had many people visit us and I've been very even-handed, even to the point where I've said ‘look, if you want to do this, you should go to Dubai, but if you want to do something different, you should work with us, or even better, do both!

"Of course, if twofour54 was nine years established and Dubai launched Dubai Media City and industry speculation suggested they planned to compete with us we would be worried. But that's only natural."

Dispelling rumours circulating to the contrary, Orsten confirmed that CNN planned to maintain its existing DMC facility in Dubai, despite announcing its significant involvement in twofour54.

"If nothing else, Abu Dhabi is the capital, and it's becoming more influential," he continues. "It has a different flavour and edge to it compared to Dubai. Dubai is very exciting and lively, but it can't be compared to Abu Dhabi, which has unique qualities.

"Abu Dhabi and Dubai can co-exist and work together to prosper. We try and swap ideas and concepts - we have our interface with the National Media Council, but we're also part of the Abu Dhabi government, which has a clear vision of how it wants the capital to develop."

Perhaps one of the biggest underlying challenges facing twofour54 is the issue of censorship and its various interpretations across the Arabic language-speaking Middle East and North African countries.

Undoubtedly, certain film and television programming produced and distributed in Lebanon or Egypt may not be deemed acceptable for viewing in the Gulf. Likewise, websites freely available in the Levant and elsewhere are often blocked by authorities in Saudi Arabia and other GCC States.

Orsten says twofour54 plans to work with its partners to develop a ‘dissemination code' for dealing with the issue and to ensure media content produced within the precinct receives the broadest possible exposure.

"The challenge no doubt lies in developing programming and other content that will work in multiple markets across the region," he confirms.

"What we're creating is a code similar to those widely employed in the West to try and make it easy for content producers to see where the boundaries lie, rather than telling them each time they get to work. Clearly, there are some cultural boundaries here we must contend with."

A sidebar to this challenge is the thorny issue of intellectual property rights, which are quite often disregarded in the Middle East.

"We're also committed to educating our production partners about the various aspects of intellectual property and not giving away their rights to the broadcasters, because that's the way they're going to make money out of their content going forward," Orsten explains.

Orsten's collective experience working with US industry powerbrokers undoubtedly makes him ideally placed to provide guidance on such matters.

Yet, when our final discussions turn to the nature of the business and his place in it, his good-humoured response suggests he is relishing the opportunity to pass on his own knowledge and experience to the next-generation.

"I've spent 30 years in this business, 10 of which were with Paramount Pictures working for some of the toughest and quite literally fattest Americans you can imagine," he says. "Getting the opportunity to create something really important here is inspiring. I want twofour54 to become the Soho (London's famous post-production precinct) of the Middle East.

"I'm not particularly interested in pursuing any Hollywood-type aspirations for the precinct. I want it to become a place where creative people can feel they can do their best work.

"The reason I'm doing this job is because after 30 years of saying take, take, take, I can give it all back to the people here, and hopefully they can benefit and prosper. The young people here have a fabulous opportunity and hopefully we can play a key role in helping them achieve their goals."

Roll out the barrelTwofour54's launch partner base reads like a veritable who's-who of the international media production industry. To date, the precinct has attracted the involvement of:

CNN

BBC

National Geographic Films

Financial Times

Thomson Foundation (a media development NGO)

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Random House

Harper Collins

C Sky Pictures

Rotana Studios

Abu Dhabi Media Company

Spin doctors

Big on marketing jargon, twofour54 heads boast of the media precinct being built around four ‘pillars':

Twofour54 tadreeb (training)

Twofour54 ibtikar (innovation)

Twofour54 intaj (production)

Twofour54 tawasol (communication).