This month, Saudi Arabia curated it’s first-ever pavilion at the grand-daddy of all film festivals – Cannes. Cannes is first and foremost a market, and markets are made up of buyers and sellers. To the international media & entertainment industry, the Kingdom looks like a deep-pocketed buyer. However judging by its official presence, Saudi Arabia is positioning itself just as much as a seller.
As a means to entice productions to the nation, the Saudi Film Council, announced a 35-percent rebate on films shot in Saudi Arabia, and a 50-percent rebate for studios that use local talent. Nine short films produced in the country were screened at Cannes and Saudi film locations and production facilities were marketed aggressively at the pavilion.
Ahmad al-Mazyed, the CEO of Saudi Arabia’s General Culture Authority called it the “tip of the iceberg” at a press conference. “We’re coming to build an industry. We’re not coming for a marketing campaign or a one-off hub of activity,” he said. The move is also expected to bring about a cultural change in the role of women involved in the industry. Al-Mazyed added that 50 percent of the newly established talent scholarships for Saudis to study film abroad, will go to women and that 54 percent of his new agency’s staff are women.
The object is to not just show the world that the nascent Saudi film industry is open for business, but also to spark a creative boom and empower Saudis to tell their own stories. The Saudi government is clearly interested in building a domestic entertainment industry capable of strengthening the Vision 2030 goals. A strong domestic industry can also extend Saudi media and cultural influence throughout the region.
The Saudi market is not as large as China for instance, but experts predict it could reach $1 billion by 2030, because the Saudi passion for entertainment is so intense. Indeed, Saudis are used to driving long distances to Dubai or Bahrain to binge on movies. Saudis under the age of 30 constitute 70 percent of the population and have taken to online media in a big way. YouTube ranks Saudi Arabia as among the world's top countries in terms of “per capita watch-time.”
“There’s a lot of access to digital. So I think it’s been there, and it needed a leader to bring it up. As in any other society, you will have people who are happy with it, and you have people who have issues with it, and as society matures and adapts, we’ll see,” Al-Mazyed said.
Al-Mazyed added that the General Cultural Authority is conducting public surveys and reviewing social-media sentiment to determine how much change the Saudi public can handle.
Concerns about possible censorship will worry major studios and exhibitors looking to enter KSA, as will possible state controlled monopolization of distribution and TV rights. I expect there will be some news on that front soon, but clearly the global M&E players are interested in the prospect of even a smaller piece of the rather large pie.
At the recent historic first film screening in Riyadh, AMC chief Adam Aron said, “Where else are you going to find a movie market that literally doesn’t exist today that could be $1 billion in size in five years or so?”
Saudi Arabia's first woman director Haifaa al-Mansour best summed it up with her message at the Riyadh screening: “It changes everything, for the better, and there is no going back from here.”
Pranav Vadehra is Editor of Digital Studio Middle East.