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For the upcoming Gerard Butler action thriller Kandahar, which recently wrapped filming in Saudi Arabia, production had to go down the unusual route of building a makeshift studio inside a disused date processing plant. This move wasn’t due to budgetary constraints — there simply wasn’t a studio where they were shooting.
While it may seem an unlikely gamechanger, Kandahar — directed by Butler’s regular collaborator Ric Roman Waugh — is breaking some major ground in Saudi Arabia as the country tries to open its doors to the movie world, being one of the very first major Hollywood productions to arrive in the country and the biggest to shoot in a newly established filming destination in the northwest of the Kingdom.
Purpose-built facilities will soon be available in AlUla, part of the historic incense route and a region of vastly changing landscapes filled with sand dunes, desert oases, rocky outcrops and ancient ruins (including Saudi’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site), some dating back to the Neolithic period of the Stone Age.
According to Stephen Strachan, film commissioner at The Royal Commission for AlUla who joined in 2019 and oversaw the launch of its film and TV promotional arm Film AlUla last year, two stages of around 23,000 square feet each are currently being built, alongside 300 self-contained accommodation units for cast and crew, which should open mid-2022. And some of these production teams may be able to fly in direct.
“It’ll be like a resort where people can come and feel safe and comfortable,” says Strachan (who also notes that AlUla’s airport has recently become international, with direct flights now from Paris.
But for early arrivals like Kandahar — which actually wasn’t the first to film in AlUla, with the Russo Brothers’ Cherry shooting for three days in January 2020 — the team had to construct its own studio and stay in a hotel. That said, being the first major production to decamp there for some time (it shot for 36 days, before moving to Jeddah) did come with some benefits.
According to Kandahar producer Christian Mercuri of Capstone Pictures, whatever “extra challenges” there may have been with regard to infrastructure, the production process was significantly smoothed by the authorities, who went to extra lengths to roll out the red carpet for their Hollywood guests.
“They really rolled up their sleeves and did what they could and got us what we needed, and it was impressive — you can’t come to the U.S. and get that level of support from the government,” he tells THR.
A major part of this support was financial. Saudi broadcasting giant MBC boarded Kandahar early on as a major investor, but the film also benefitted from the country’s hugely competitive 40 percent cash rebate for features, documentaries and animation, which was only announced in December at the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival (Saudi’s first major international film event).
“They were sort of building that as we moved forward and were like, ‘you can throw that in as well’,” says Mercuri. “But they stood buy it and added some things, covering some indirect costs that related to COVID.”
But Kandahar — which also has the distinction of being the first major feature to shoot in its entirety in Saudi Arabia — isn’t the biggest Hollywood movie to film in a country that only recently was getting the cold shoulder from the entertainment world following the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
More than 500 kilometers north of AlUla, the big-budget feature Desert Warrior — a period epic also backed by MBC and from director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and starring Anthony Mackie, Aiysha Hart, Sharlto Copley and Ben Kingsley — has been shooting since mid-2021 in the Tabuk Province. More specifically, it’s being made in the coastal area of Neom, due to be home to a proposed $500 billion megacity, one of the glittering centerpieces of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s grand futuristic vision for Saudi Arabia.
“It’s the largest feature to ever shoot in the region,” claims Wayne Borg, Neom’s managing director of media, entertainment, culture and fashion (and a former Fox and Universal exec who spent several years heading up twofour54 in Abu Dhabi). “It’s a big production – north of a $120 million-$130 million dollar budget, and we’ve got some 500 people on set on any given day. I think it’s really showcased not only our abilities, but our capacity and our capability.”
Like AlUla, soundstages are currently being built at Neom, two due to come into operation in early 2022. Borg says that four more will be constructed over the next 12 months to help accommodate a steady pipeline of work that includes a TV series and a Saudi feature.
While AlUla’s focus is on building an industry around its historical heritage sites (it’s also pushing itself as a major tourism destination), in Neom the aim is to create a major regional media hub. By the end of 2025, Borg says that film and TV production facilities will consolidate on a single site — which he estimates could stretch to 900,000 square meters (222 acres) — alongside gaming studios and office space. It’s a grand and ambitious plan, one of several the Gulf has seen over the years (including at twofour24, which Borg claims hasn’t “ever realized its full potential.”)
Another key difference for Neom is that, according to Borg, it’s going to be a “semi-autonomous jurisdiction,” meaning it’s going to be able to draw up its own incentives program, currently in development but set to be offered “not just in the production stage, but also post-production and VFX.” If this matches or even bests the one announced in December remains to be seen, but Borg also hints that, as a semi-autonomous jurisdiction, Neom may be able to offer certain lifestyle options — such as the availability of alcohol — to lure international talent.
Both AlUla and Neom have striking similarities. Both are roughly the same size as Belgium (each about 27,000 square kilometers, give or take), and both are keen to push their dramatic landscapes and variety of filming locations. While Neom has some 500 kilometers of coastline and mountain ranges that elevate to around 2,500 meters, Alula’s vibrant mix includes lush green oases, yellow sand dunes, and what Strachan says are “more traditional Lawrence of Arabia-type aspects.” Soon, for filmmaking not on location, both will have studio spaces.
But most importantly, thanks to Kandahar and Desert Warrior, both are now spearheading Saudi Arabia’s drive to become a global shooting location as Hollywood warms to Saudi money once more following several years in the post-Khashoggi wilderness. (Saudi investment extends to the parent company of THR; SRMG, a publicly traded media firm in Saudi Arabia, is a minority investor in PMC, co-owner of THR.)
Whereas Jordan has traditionally been the go-to spot for any major production needing a decent expanse of sand (Aladdin, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Dune are just some of the recent films to shoot there), its vast neighbor could soon become a significant — and deep-pocketed — rival. In Cannes 2021, where AlUla was given a sizeable promotional push, some of the chatter in the Saudi Arabia pavilion was how Dune would have been perfect for the area had it only been open for business earlier.
“I’d be surprised if they’re not the biggest player in the next couple of years,” says Mercuri, who admits he’s already in discussions to make more films in Saudi Arabia, including some Arabic features. “I think, first and foremost, they have to build some studios. They need to build some of that infrastructure and the logistics need to be smoother. But if there’s a will, there’s a way, and financially they’re very capable of handling it. I think it’s going to be the next hub in the entire region.”
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