SCA hosts first Middle East Media Initiative

Salah El Gehiny, Maram Taibah and Wael Hamdy participate in a workshop. Participants workshopped their projects before shadowing figures like producer John Wells. (Emily Smith / Daily Trojan)

Earlier this summer, the School of Cinematic Arts partnered with the U.S. State Department to launch the Middle East Media Initiative, the first in a two-year lineup that aims to expose Middle Eastern writers and producers to Hollywood’s process of developing television. The program ran from July 1 to Aug. 5, during which 10 writers and seven producers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates were able to shadow and develop stories for Middle Eastern television alongside Hollywood personnel and SCA faculty, including visiting professor David Isaacs and lecturer Mort Nathan.

The program functioned as a professional training program, allowing writers and producers from the region to learn from prominent industry professionals in the U.S. For the first two and a half weeks, participants found themselves in a writer’s room where they workshopped their respective projects. Next, they shadowed and met with industry leaders like producer John Wells (“ER,” “West Wing”), creator Chris Brancato (“Narcos”) and writers Andre and Maria Jacquemetton (“Mad Men”).

“The focus of the program is really on the participants themselves,” said Zahi Farah, a writer and director from Lebanon. “They’re really teaching us how they function — from writing all the way to production so we can try to transfer this system to the Middle East, where the production system is not optimized for television.”

Participants in the program were chosen through a closed application system in which they were nominated by producers in the Middle East. In addition to professional development, the program aims to establish a dialogue between American and Middle Eastern creators through a shared approach to innovating and modernizing television in the region.

“The developing system of projects here in the States is very different from those used in the Middle East,” said Wael Hamdy, a screenwriter from Egypt. “In the Middle Eastern system, the writer is not the showrunner. This is a very American concept. It will  also take some time to bring this concept to our systems.”

The Middle East Media Initiative follows Netflix’s recent string of high quality international commissions, such as the original series “Sacred Games” from India. Netflix also commissioned its first Arabic drama earlier this year, signaling the streaming service’s increased involvement in the region’s entertainment. The original series, “Jinn,” will be directed by Mir Jen Bou Chaaya of the Lebanese thriller “Very Big Shot,” and will be written by Jordanian screenwriter Bassel Ghandour, who previously penned the Oscar-nominated “Theeb.”

Under the leadership of program director Deana Nassar, the Middle East Media Initiative promises to bring original, Hollywood-style entertainment to audiences in the region while establishing international relationships between writers and producers.