Just days before the curtain rises on the second edition of the Red Sea Film Festival, to be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from December 1-10, Saudi filmmakers were at the Cairo Film Festival this week, where they attempted to highlight the rapid strides their country’s burgeoning screen industry is making.
Abduljalil Al-Nasser, general manager for sector development and investments at the Saudi Film Commission, praised the combination of public support and private equity flowing into the industry during a panel moderated by film critic Jay Weissberg. “There is now a serious commitment to advancing the film industry in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Characterizing the rapid growth as “unprecedented even anywhere in the world,” Al-Nasser pointed to seismic shifts in everything from talent development and production to distribution and exhibition, adding, “What Saudi filmmakers have been trying to do for many years , and they’ve been fighting for many years, now it’s finally being adopted, finally being supported and finally having a platform.”
First-time director Mohamed Al-Salman, one of many up-and-coming Saudi filmmakers who began creating short-form content for YouTube, credited the country’s burgeoning infrastructure with “help”.[ing] those who experimented on their own” and gave formal shape to the fast-growing film business.
The results can be seen on the big screen, where “we’re going to have a new record number of feature films produced by Saudi Arabia this year,” said the director, whose coming-of-age comedy Raven Song is a nominee Country was chosen for the international Oscar race 2023.
Although the venerable Cairo Film Festival is hosting its 44th edition this week, the Red Sea Festival caused quite a stir with its star-studded inaugural event in 2021 and has quickly established itself as a key stop on the Arabian festival circuit, with Oliver Stone taking over the main jury next month to direct.
The festival also leverages its considerable financial power in efforts 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 to support.
Another offshoot of the festival, Red Sea Lodge, offers an intensive 10-month professional training program for Saudi and Arab filmmakers, culminating in two projects, the $100,000 production awards, a scholarship and an Arabic premiere at the Saudi received hard.
Meanwhile, the introduction of a cash rebate of up to 40% earlier this year underscores the government’s determination to attract international television and film production and transform the kingdom into a global player in the entertainment industry. A number of sound stages and production facilities followed him.
Global and regional streaming platforms like MBC-backed Shahid VIP platform in Dubai and Hong Kong-based streaming service Viu are boosting the industry by investing in premium local content to attract local subscribers. Meanwhile, Netflix last month unveiled a slew of new productions from the region, including Saudi feature film Alkhallat+, which is part of an eight-picture deal the streamer struck with Saudi production company Telfaz11 in 2020.
Hana Al-Omair, the director and co-writer of Whispers, the first Netflix original from Saudi Arabia, noted that an all-hands-on-deck mentality has taken hold among Saudi filmmakers occupying key positions at the political level, rather than leaving the work to the bureaucrats. Among them is director Abdullah Al Eyyaf Al-Qahtani, who is CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, while Al-Omair himself heads the Saudi Cinema Association.
“[Filmmakers] need to build this infrastructure. We need to build an industry,” she said. “We know the problems better than anyone because we dreamed about them. The dream comes true.”
Perhaps the most promising sign has been the meteoric rise of the exhibitions 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 going to the 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 doubled to $238 million by 2021, making it the top market in the Middle East. By 2024, research firm Omdia estimates there will be 1,400 screens in the kingdom – a staggering feat in just over five years.
While Hollywood’s often-contentious relationship with Saudi censorship underscores the limits of free speech in the conservative Muslim kingdom, filmmakers in Cairo nonetheless say a cultural shift is afoot.
Perhaps a precursor of where the Saudi industry is going from here is teen drama series “Takki,” which began a decade ago as a popular YouTube series but grew increasingly bold and provocative with its third season airing on Netflix in 2021 addressing 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, that’s changing,” Al-Nasser said, “and that’s something that’s going to change organically until we get to a state in which the filmmakers know exactly where the red lines are.” He added, “Every now and then there will be films that go a little bit further and open up a new dialogue.”