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Saudi Arabia is ready for movie action. Can it get rolling?
While turbocharging local content, local production companies are turning their attention to international collaborations
For movie fans, Jeanne du Barry, which opened the Cannes Film Festival on 16 May, marks the comeback of Johnny Depp after three years in the cinematic wilderness. For industry insiders, the lavish period drama marks Saudi Arabia’s arrival on the global stage after a much longer wait.
The Red Sea Film Foundation (RSFF) co-funded the French-language film, created in 2019, and has already backed 170 films from the MENA region. Five of these films will also screen during the next fortnight as part of Cannes’s Official Selection.
The RSFF also collaborates with The Marché du Film – Festival de Cannes for the inaugural Cannes Makers program, a global mentoring initiative for emerging film talent. Three young Saudi filmmakers will be integrated into the program, which will hold a follow-up session at the third edition of the Red Sea Film International Film Festival in Jeddah in December.
PERFECT PLATFORM TO COLLABORATE
“I’m proud to see filmmakers from Saudi Arabia included in the selection,” said RSFF’s CEO Mohammed Al Turki in a statement. “This is the perfect platform for them to develop and collaborate with filmmakers and industry professionals worldwide.”
Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in popular culture as it seeks to extend its influence regionally and beyond is hardly a secret. Having poured billions into the videogame sector, turning its attention to film seems logical. Nevertheless, considering that the kingdom only ended its 35-year ban on cinemas in 2018, its ambitions in this area are startling.
One only has to look at the fledgling NEOM Media Village and Bajdah Desert Studio. Envisaged as a key component of the vast futuristic city now being built from scratch in the northwest Tabuk province, the campus has already supported more than 30 productions, including Hollywood and Saudi feature films. It is on track to have ten soundstages, including one volumetric one—featuring the latest mixed-reality technology—by the end of this year. If all goes to plan, when the campus is completed in 2027, it will span 250 acres.
According to Wayne Borg, managing director for media, entertainment, culture, and fashion at NEOM, the embryonic media hub cannot add soundstages fast enough to host the flood of productions heading its way, which will include “two major Hollywood movies” that will be unveiled at Cannes.
“There are probably about eight big international projects firming up in the next 12 months from the US, the UK, and India,” he says, “This is a resounding endorsement of our intentions and shows the level of confidence in our facilities, which include accommodation for around 500 cast and crew members and an international airport with direct flights to London and Dubai.”
INTEGRATED MEDIA HUB
Of course, generous financial incentives don’t hurt either. NEOM recently announced that it is offering an industry-leading 40%-plus cash rebate for feature films, TV dramas, reality shows, documentaries, and commercials shooting at the site, with the size of the rebates linked to “industry development contributions.” These contributions include hiring a local production crew and investing in infrastructure, such as assets that can be reused on future projects.
“What is significant is that we are creating the world’s first integrated media hub,” says Borg. “As well as 50 soundstages and film and gaming studios, there will be educational facilities for people to experiment with all sorts of new technologies encompassing a wide range of content.”
The Saudi Cultural Development Fund has also launched its Film Sector Financing Program, which offers $233 million in financial support to local and international film companies that want to get involved in the country’s burgeoning cinema industry. Eligible projects must not be shot entirely in Saudi but must meet local cultural criteria, and at least 25% of the spending must be invested in Saudi. Also, 25% of the crew must be Saudi nationals.
TURBOCHARGE LOCAL CONTENT
Yet despite the kingdom’s enthusiastic overtures to the outside world, Borg is aware that the need to turbocharge local content is more important for the region than wooing international marquee names.
Although nearly two-thirds of the MENA region is under age 35, until four years ago, most locally produced TV dramas revolved around the archaic 30-part melodramas that air during Ramadan. Inevitably, the generation weaned on YouTube—more than 200 MENA YouTube channels each boast more than a million subscribers—wants content and formats more relevant to them. Moreover, there are now more than 700 movie theaters to fill in Saudi Arabia alone.
Many of the productions set to utilize NEOM’s Bajdah Desert Studio over the next few years will originate from the Saudi-owned MBC Group—the Middle East’s leading broadcaster—which opened new headquarters in Riyadh last year, having been based at Dubai Media City since 2002.
While MBC’s relocation comes against a concerted Saudi campaign to get all multinational groups interested in the Middle East to move their regional headquarters to Riyadh by 2024, it significantly boosts the kingdom’s media aspirations. The group has most TV channels and operates the pan-Arab streaming platform, Shahid. Last summer, MBC Studios filmed Shahid’s 10-part fantasy-adventure Rise Of The Witches, its biggest show, at NEOM.
At the high-profile opening of the new Saudi HQ, MBC Group CEO Sam Barnett called the move a “springboard to launch new projects across the kingdom,” adding that more than 80 titles were set to be produced in Saudi Arabia over the coming months.
EXPANDING THE REACH
Tellingly, the group is also eyeing the millions of Arab-language speakers outside the Middle East. In 2020, the Shahid platform first became the service dedicated to Arabic programming to launch in North America. The platform had already extended into Europe.
In February, MBC appointed prominent US producer Christina Wayne, who shepherded Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as managing director of its studio division. In her new role, Wayne will continue MBC Studios’ “ongoing work in expanding the reach of its content to audiences around the world, leveraging the continuous trend for non-English-language television content to reach more global markets,” the company said in a statement.
More evidence of joined-up thinking came in March when MBC teamed up with Japanese anime publisher TokyoPop to create the MBC Anime Initiative, a hub dedicated to licensing and producing regional anime content. Not only does this particular genre travel easily, but there is also plenty of crossover potential in the gaming sector.
Despite the kingdom’s sudden appetite for razzle-dazzle, not all media traffic is heading to Saudi Arabia. CNN has just opened a new studio in Abu Dhabi’s new Yas Creative Hub, which the US broadcaster calls “a new chapter in the network’s commitment to the Middle East.” And launching this month in Dubai Media City is Blinx, which aims to integrate live news and video production to engage “Gen Z and Millennials throughout the Middle East and beyond.”
Meanwhile, aiming to “bridge the gap between Hollywood and the Middle East and North Africa” is Press Play Productions, a new Dubai-and Los Angeles-based film company created by the Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud.
Among several projects on the company’s eclectic slate is Massoud’s
Arabic-language debut film In Broad Daylight, an Egypt-set crime caper, which Massoud hopes will be released in the US, Europe, and the Middle East later this year.
“Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the UAE, and now Saudi Arabia are all breeding grounds for some of the best content in and around the African continent,” he says. “Press Play will be a driving force in bringing those stories to the West.”