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Netflix’s Funa Maduka on Strategy for African, Arab Markets (EXCLUSIVE)

Variety — Martin Dale

Netflix has played a prominent role in this year’s edition of the Marrakech Intl. Film Festival through sponsorship of the main industry event – the Atlas Workshops – and its recent investments in projects involving two of the fest’s highest profile guests – Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) and Guillermo del Toro (“Pinocchio”).

The streamer recently talked of plans to order original series from Africa as part of its international expansion. It is reported to be securing a rising market share in the Moroccan TV market, in the context of its wider strategy to establish a major footprint across the African and Arab markets.

Securing attractive original local content is key to Netflix’s plans and in this exclusive interview with Variety, Funa Maduka, director of international original films for Netflix, talks about the company’s strategy for the Middle East and African markets.

As sponsor of the Atlas Workshops and as a member of the jury for projects under development here, what are the main advantages of this initiative, from the point of view of Netflix? Has it been a positive experience for you?

We’re interested in finding the best storytellers from all over the world, and that very much includes Middle East and Africa. We currently look at projects at every stage, whether it’s developing side by side with filmmakers or acquiring completed films down the line. It all depends on what makes sense. Every project is unique. The Atlas Workshops, founded and brilliantly executed by its inaugural director, Remi Bonhomme, and festival director, Melita Toscan du Plantier, has been a remarkable experience.

Is the Marrakech film festival a useful gateway to talent from this region?

The Atlas Workshops is an excellent gateway that will hopefully inspire others. It’s been beautiful to see so many sub-Saharan and Maghreb filmmakers in the same room, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the creative filmmaking community of the region come together in one space like this before – listening and providing feedback to one another’s work and finding opportunity for collaboration.

With your recent pick-up of the Nigerian film “Lionheart,” do you think that films from Africa have a potential to reach a wide international audience and how can Netflix leverage this potential?

Africa is birthplace to one of the oldest storytelling traditions in the world. It also has a rich cinematic history. Netflix has the unique ability to launch films to 130 million subscribers across the globe, demonstrating this potential in real time. Netflix Original Films launched its first Original Film from Africa in 2018 with “Catching Feelings” (South Africa) and will soon launch “Lionheart” (Nigeria) and “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” (Malawi, U.K.) in 2019 – and this is just the beginning! The talent is here and we want to present ourselves as an option as they choose the best path to connect their stories with audiences.

Africa has many talented female filmmakers, as evidenced by “Lionheart,” do you think this is a strong characteristic of this region?

We’re very keen to continue working with women filmmakers across the region. Women are contributing to filmmaking across the globe and where we can help develop and elevate those stories, we’re keen to do so.

From the point of view of Netflix’s strategy for original content from this region, can we talk about Africa as a single region, or does it make more sense to talk about different linguistic zones and cultural zones such as the Maghreb region and sub-Saharan Africa?

The films of Egypt, Tunisia, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria have different cultural resonances and perspectives. But so do French and Swedish films. The key here is story and a great story doesn’t need a visa to travel. We’re looking for stories that connect the human experience, play with our imagination and explore the far reaches of our hopes and fears. That said, the paradox of arriving at a truly universal story is often found in its specificity – and that specificity can be Moroccan as equally as it has been American.