Saudi filmmakers are calling for public and private support for burgeoning biz

Saudi filmmakers are calling for public and private support for burgeoning biz

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Just days before the curtain rises on the second edition of the Red Sea Film Festival, which takes place December 1-10 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saudi filmmakers attended this week’s Cairo Film Festival, trying to emphasize on the rapid progress being made by their country’s burgeoning screen industry.

Abduljalil Al-Nasser, general manager of sector development and investment at the Saudi Film Commission, praised the combination of public support and private equity pouring into the industry during a panel led by film critic Jay Weissberg. “There is now a serious commitment to establishing the film industry in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Al-Nasser characterized the rapid growth as “unprecedented even around the world” and pointed to seismic shifts in everything from talent development and production to distribution and exhibition: “What Saudi filmmakers have been trying to do for many years, and they’re where I struggled for years, is now finally embraced, finally supported and finally has a platform.”

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First-time director Mohamed Al-Salman, one of several up-and-coming Saudi filmmakers who began making short content for YouTube, called the country’s burgeoning infrastructure “helping[ing] those who were just experimenting’, shaping the burgeoning film business.

The results can be seen on screen, where “a new record number of feature films will be produced by Saudi Arabia this year,” said the director, whose coming-of-age comedy “Raven Song” was chosen as the country’s contender in the 2023 International Oscars race.

While the venerable Cairo Film Festival is hosting its 44th edition this week, the Red Sea Festival made an impression with its star-studded inaugural event in 2021, and has quickly established itself as a major stop on the Arab party circuit, with Oliver Stone tapped to head the jury next month.

The Red Sea Film Festival held a star-studded first edition in 2021.
Credits: Red Sea Film Festival

The festival also deploys its considerable financial strength to support Saudi and Arab filmmakers through initiatives such as the Red Sea Fund, which manages $14 million to support the production and post-production of projects by directors from the Arab world and Africa.

Another offshoot of the festival, the Red Sea Lodge offers an intensive 10-month professional training program open to Saudi and Arab filmmakers, culminating in two projects receiving $100,000 production awards, a scholarship, and an Arabian premiere at the Saudi party.

Meanwhile, the introduction of a cash discount of up to 40% earlier this year underscores the government’s determination to lure international TV and film productions and make the kingdom a player in the global entertainment industry. A slew of soundstages and production facilities followed in its wake.

Global and regional streaming platforms, such as MBC-backed Shahid VIP platform in Dubai and Hong Kong-based streaming service Viu, are boosting the industry by investing in premium local content in their pursuit of local subscribers. Meanwhile, Netflix unveiled a raft of new productions from the region last month, including the Saudi feature “Alkhallat+,” which is part of an eight-movie pact the streamer signed with Saudi production outfit Telfaz11 in 2020.

Hana Al-Omair, the director and co-writer of “Whispers,” Saudi Arabia’s first Netflix Original, noted that an all-hands-on-deck mentality has taken root among Saudi filmmakers, who hold key positions at the policy level instead of leaving the work to bureaucrats. Among them is director Abdullah Al Eyyaf Al-Qahtani, who is the CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, while Al-Omair himself heads the Saudi Cinema Association.

“[Filmmakers] build this infrastructure. We need to create an industry,” she said. “We know the problems like no other, because we have dreamed about them. The dream comes true.”

“Whispers” was the first Netflix Original from Saudi Arabia.
Thanks to Netflix

Perhaps the most promising sign is the meteoric rise of the exhibition industry in the Saudi kingdom, which opened its first commercial cinema in more than three decades in 2018 after the government ended a 35-year ban on cinemas. Previous regimes viewed cinema as a threat to religious and cultural identity.

After grossing $112 million in 2019, the Saudi box office defied the COVID-19 pandemic and more than doubled to $238 million in 2021, becoming the top market in the Middle East. Research firm Omdia estimates that there will be 1,400 screens in the kingdom by 2024 – a staggering achievement in just over five years.

The third season of ‘Takki’, a popular YouTube series, will launch on Netflix in 2021.

While Hollywood’s often contentious relationship with Saudi censorship underscores the limits of free speech in the conservative Muslim kingdom, Cairo filmmakers nonetheless said a cultural shift is underway.

Perhaps a benchmark for where the Saudi industry is going from here is the youth drama series ‘Takki’, which started as a popular YouTube series a decade ago, but in its third season, which airs on Netflix in 2021, has become increasingly daring in addressing provocative social issues. — a shift Weissberg described as “really quite extraordinary.”

“I think if you look at the red lines and the taboos three months ago, or six months ago, it’s changing,” Al-Nasser said, “and this is something that will change organically until we get to a state where the filmmakers know exactly where the red lines are.” He added, “Once in a while there will be movies that go a little bit further, and it will open up new dialogue.”

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