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Since it was first announced in late 2017 that the cinema ban in Saudi Arabia was being lifted after almost four decades, local industry pioneer and producer Faisal Baltyuor has been right at the heart of the action.
When the country brought its first delegation to Cannes the following year, Baltyuor was heading up the Saudi Film Council, the first government entity founded to support the industry, which made a series of bold announcements as it at looked to promote the Kingdom as a major shooting location (something that has since come to fruition thanks to big-budget Hollywood titles Kandahar and Desert Warrior). With the launch of the Saudi Ministry of Culture in 2019, the Council was folded into the Saudi Film Commission, giving Baltyour time to launch the country’s first arthouse distribution company CineWaves and also produce Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, which bowed in competition in Venice. CineWaves has since signed numerous partnership deals, most notably with Egypt’s arthouse powerhouse Film Clinic, and has so far supplied Netflix with 14 films, including Book of Sun, which was the most viewed film in Saudi for several weeks on the platform.
With his distributor operation now up and running, Baltyour has turned his attention to producing again, earlier this year being tapped to head up Movi Studios, the newly-launched production arm of local exhibition giant Muvi.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Red Sea Film Festival, where CineWaves has roughly two-thirds of the Saudi films in the lineup (including festival closer Valley Road), Baltyuor discusses the getting local features off the ground, the struggles of arthouse in Saudi Arabia and the hunt for the first Saudi cinema star.
What’s the current state of the Saudi film industry?
It’s hard to give it a specific word, but it’s still developing. It’s getting a lot of support, and not all from one direction. When we started the Film Council and then the Commission, their main mandate is film, but the good thing is that other parties have been working in synergy, either in collaboration with the Commission or by themselves to develop the industry. Now we have Alula. Now we have Neom. And they’re heavily supporting the film industry. A film I produced in the Red Sea Film Festival’s official selection that was fully shot in Neom. So there are now films that get support from two or three entities. We have the Cultural Development Fund, and we have the Red Sea Film Festival’s own fund. So it all gives us the empowerment to produce more. The support of the film sector is moving faster than we expected.
We’ve heard a lot about big budget Hollywood films like Desert Warrior and Kandahar shooting here, often with the support of MBC Studios, but how easy is it to get a Saudi indie project off the ground?
It’s not straightforward. I can’t say there is a system, but we’re building it now. It’s being established. And I learn personally from each project. We make mistakes and we learn from them. But the machine has started to work, although not as perfectly as we want. We have a lack of below-the-line talent. So the Film Commission, Neom and Alula are training people and getting people to shadow on the bigger productions, and trying to ensure that every international and local production has a training program. We will create a capacity, but it will take time. But if you want to make films in Saudi we can do it.
So how are you filling that capacity in the meantime? Do you have crew coming places like Jordan and Egypt?
Yes, we collaborate with Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, France, Germany and UK. In one of our films, we had almost around 15 nationalities.
On the distribution side, CineWaves was the first arthouse distributor to launch in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi box office has grown phenomenally and is now the biggest in the region, but how are arthouse films doing?
Broadly I would say that [CineWaves] is the entity that is trying the most. We’ve seen some kind of success, but also have been unsuccessful, which is something that we were expecting. The issue here is that there’s no specialised arthouse cinema. But we did see some success with (Tunisian 2021 Oscar nomination) The Man Who Sold His Skin, which we released commercially and had screens that were fully booked.
From what I understand, Saudi film have performed badly so far. Do you have any thoughts about why this is?
Honestly, Saudi film is a completely new thing to Saudi. We know Saudi TV, which we’ve been watching since we were kids, but we just started with cinema. Also most of the public audience go to see films because of the stars, not the story. And one of the struggles we have is that we don’t have a Saudi superstar.
The second thing is that there’s no expectations when it comes to Saudi films, because audiences haven’t seen them before. And here, the ticket price is quite expensive, so either you spend the money watching a film that cost $150 million or you watch a Saudi film and give it a try. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s been no success stories. We had The Book of Sun, which saw most cinemas fully booked for 8 weeks, and that was during COVID when there was a 50 percent reduction in capacity and everyone was afraid to go to the cinemas. We know that 10-15 percent of people bought tickets multiple times. They saw themselves in the film as it was about high school students trying to make a film. And we had the Saudi animation Masameer, which was a YouTube series that had been running for 10 years, They did it as a film and that was successful. But it had a history and had an audience.
But for live-action, a lot of the stars are new — it’s their first time acting in a cinematic film. So there is a potential, but we need the right film, and what’s missing is commercial Saudi films. So it’s a struggle because most of the films being made are for festivals and an arthouse audience. But creating commercial films is what we’re trying to do at Muvi Studios, ideally comedy commercial films that will attract an audience, while not forgetting the importance of artistic films.
So who do you think could be the first Saudi cinema stars?
Honestly, it’s hard to say. But there are names, for example comedy actor Ibrahim Al Hajjaj. He was in several successful TV series, so could be a good superstar. And also Yagoub Alfarhan, who did [mini-series] Rashash. He’s a great actor. And there are others, but many are my friends so I want to mention too many.
Given that it was only 5 years ago when the cinema ban was lifted, 4 ½ years ago when the first cinema opened and 3 ½ years ago when the Red Sea Film Festival was first announced, how do you personally feel as a Saudi seeing the developments in film?
I feel so proud. Because what is happening in KSA is not just slogans. It’s actions. And it’s actions from everywhere, with a very strategic plan. Also I don’t just see it at the cultural sector. I see it in the information technology sector. I see it in sports. The changes aren’t just in my world, which is cinema.
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