SAUDI SILVER SCREEN

Saudi Arabia 2018-19 | ENTERTAINMENT, CULTURE & SPORTS | FOCUS: FILM INDUSTRY

The reopening of Saudi cinemas means big potential for the big-screen industry.

In April 2018, cinemas reopened in the Kingdom after an absence of over 35 years. Aside from bringing more entertainment options to Saudis and other residents, this brings a broad range of new investment and employment opportunities. The cinema industry itself is the most illustrative example here, and the announcement sparked immediate interest from the private sector to get involved, as several international partnerships were signed to start operating movie theaters. The US firm AMC Entertainment signed an agreement with the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) for the opening of up to 40 cinemas in 15 cities, while the Saudi hospitality and entertainment group Al Hokair signed a similar agreement with VUE International for 30 movie theaters.

According to Bader Alzahrani, newly appointed CEO of the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM), the responsible regulator for the sector, the ambition is to reach 2,000 screens by 2030, which will be a relevant factor for job creations. For future GDP growth, however, more is to be expected from distribution and development of a local movie industry. Already, GCAM is exploring partnerships with over-the-top (OTT) networks such as Netflix, Hulu, iflix, Amazon Prime, and Google Play to create local value. “Companies are interested in coming here because we have high consumption levels and a great infrastructure network. We want to leverage this and partner with OTT companies to provide more opportunities, incubation, programs, and investments in the country," said Alzahrani.

For the development of the Saudi film industry, the first announcements were made at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2018 with an historic, first-time official appearance of the Saudi delegation. Some dubbed the event Saudi Cannes because of the novelty and the international media attention for the announcements made by the delegation. The delegation was led by Ahmed Al-Maziad, CEO of the General Culture Authority (GCA), an organization that was established in 2016 to guide and develop the cultural sector.

Al-Maziad mentioned to TBY that, “… the Cannes Film Festival was a great opportunity for us to open the door and highlight our creative and filmmaking talent, while at the same time letting the global film industry know that we are open for business." The Saudi delegates showcased local short film production and held workshops, including female filmmakers and presentations on the agenda to develop the local industry.

To support young Saudi filmmakers, a national fund was announced and is intended mostly to support short films and sponsor a grant program for training to study abroad at globally recognized educational institutions like the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, La Fémis in Paris, and others. “By offering these grants and incentives, and by training our local people, we are putting the pieces of the Saudi film industry together. There are already well-known filmmakers and production companies in Saudi that are creating content that has viewers in other countries. This demonstrates the potential, and we need to ensure we unlock that full potential," continued Alzahrani.

Most attention went to the invitation to get the global film community involved, and especially the announcement of the generous incentive program. Filmmakers will get 35% cash back on all spent, used, and consumed in the Kingdom, and when they employ Saudi talent, GCA will reimburse 50% of those costs.

Saudi Arabia also boasts demographic incentives for investors. Around 70% of the Kingdom's 32-million population is under the age of 30, and Saudi Arabia is the largest market among GCC countries. Before the revitalization of the film industry, Saudis were known for traveling to neighboring Bahrain or the UAE to view the newest Hollywood productions, indicating both a large and engaged market. Beyond bringing showings of big-screen films, already by the end of 2018, GCA envisions Hollywood or Bollywood film shooting taking place in the Kingdom for further industry development.