2019 Outlook: Opening up of Saudi Arabia's entertainment industry brings great challenges and opportunities for the region

The shifting landscape will continue to create exciting opportunities for established players and emerging professionals alike in 2019, writes Michael Garin, CEO, Image Nation Abu Dhabi.
A Jeddah film buff pictured with his ticket to the screening of Menahi
A Jeddah film buff pictured with his ticket to the screening of Menahi

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The region’s media and entertainment industry has seen some dynamic changes this year, and the sector is on its way to becoming a thriving contributor to the economy with a diverse and distinctive creative voice.

The shifting landscape will continue to create exciting opportunities for established players and emerging professionals alike in 2019, but these come with significant challenges.

The biggest milestone of 2018 has been the opening up of the Saudi Arabian market, which launched its first cinema screens in 35 years. With a population of over 30 million and almost 350 cinemas planned by 2030, the scale of the Saudi audience offers the prospect of a financially sustainable commercial audience for entertainment, something that the small populations of other Gulf countries will struggle to maintain in isolation.

Although cinemas only opened in the kingdom this year, Saudi audiences such as their Khaleeji neighbours have had ready access to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other international streaming services for several years. They’re accustomed to the high standard of international film and television production and expect the same quality from local content. The challenge for local broadcasters and exhibitors is to create home-grown content that matches this quality of writing and production values when telling relevant stories from regional talents.

This is easier said than done. Some aspects of the entertainment industry can be transported into the region from the outside world. VOX and AMC can build cinemas and Warner Bros, Paramount Disney and others can supply the movies that fill their seats, while Six Flags can build theme parks and Cirque de Soleil can perform.

However, storytelling, filmmaking and creativity are skills that can’t be bought and must be learned over time.

Image Nation has spent the past nine years cultivating a culture of creativity boasting the professionalism that a world-class production capacity demands.

The region is rich with young talents who can command significant audiences, sometimes reaching millions of viewers with their YouTube videos and social media content.

Filmmaking is a skill that can’t be bought and must be learned

Many think that because of the number of views and likes they receive, they possess the skills necessary to leapfrog from their short-form content to full-length features and television series.  Or they believe that they should be supplied with the funds necessary to fulfill ambitions.

Those charged with the creation of a sustainable industry must learn how to say no to these unrealistic demands and impose the same discipline and structure that even the most talented Hollywood producers and directors accept as necessary. The future of the local content industry depends on their ability to do so.

Our ambition is to provide a training platform where these aspiring creatives can hone their skills and make the leap from short-form content to full-length, professional-standard features and television series.

We all want to see exceptional Saudi and Emirati pilots flying our planes, but we wouldn’t place them there without the proper training and experience.  The film industry is no different.

As with any profession, becoming a successful filmmaker is a journey of many years. With professional platforms like Dubai International Film Festival scaling back drastically, Image Nation and our peers have an even more critical role to play in preparing the next generation of local content creators. We are charged with building a sustainable industry in this region and must bring an international perspective to our own development processes to meet this need.

There is an incredibly bright future ahead for regional creativity. I see a growing pool of talented young professionals who are passionate about developing their skills and telling fascinating local stories.

In the coming years, the regional film and TV industry can be on a footing to compete in the global arena. But to make that happen, the sector’s leaders must work hard and collaborate to put in place the strong foundations and robust infrastructure necessary to build a sustainable and successful industry.

Michael Garin is CEO of Image Nation Abu Dhabi

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