Saudi Arabia's Billion-Dollar Gift to the Film World

Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images; iStock
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's decision to lift a 35-year ban on movie theaters offers the global film sector access to a lucrative new market (AMC is already targeting the region), but will censorship stand in the way of progress?

It’s not every day that a previously untapped market valued at $1 billion opens its doors, so the decision by Saudi Arabia to lift its 35-year ban on cinemas saw a flurry of excitement far and wide.

Coming amid sweeping reforms being ushered into the strict, Islamic kingdom by new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known widely as MBS), the announcement by the Minister of Culture and Information came following recent moves that have drastically cut the powers of the feared religious police, allowed music concerts to take place and seen women finally be allowed to apply for driving licenses.

While the news came as a shock to much of the world, it had been widely expected by many in the industry. According to insiders, the announcement was initially planned to have been made at the Dubai International Film Festival, which closed Wednesday (and has served as a major platform for Saudi’s fledgling film industry), but it didn’t come together in time.

However, exhibitors had been priming themselves to pounce (one source tells THR that several cinemas were already built and they were “simply waiting to turn the lights on”).

On the same day as the announcement, AMC Theatres revealed it had signed an agreement to explore building cinemas in a country it saw as a “lucrative business opportunity,” while the Middle East’s largest operator, Vox, said it was hoping to play an “active role” in the developments, understandable given that the government revealed plans to have more than 2,000 screens running by 2030, with the “first cinemas to open in March 2018.”

Sources tell THR that Kuwait’s sole exhibitor the Kuwaiti National Cinema Company is also looking at opportunities. IMAX, which already has one screen in Saudi Arabia at a science and technology center in Khobar, admitted it had been approached as well.

But the question on everyone’s lips is: even with the cinemas open, what films will they show?

The Middle East has for years struggled with issues of censorship, perhaps most famously with The Wolf of Wall Street, which in 2014 saw a quarter of the film snipped (basically, all the sex, nudity and drugs, with profanities bleeped out).

Saudi Arabia, however, is a different matter entirely.

“During the DVD days, censorship was quite tough,” admits Gianluca Chakra, head of Dubai-based regional distributor Front Row, adding that the policy was largely “no nudity, no skin, no politics, no sex, no religion.”

But while it’s clear that Lars von Trier’s latest or, even, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot is Israeli) are unlikely to be heading to a multiplex in Riyadh anytime soon, it’s hoped that the censorship isn’t as restrictive as many fear.

“The message Saudi Arabia is trying to give is one of modernization and we’re sure things would now be different,” adds Chakra. “I’m hoping we all get called to collaborate with authorities, hopefully coming up with a local MPAA or BBFC kind of ratings system.”

Censorship may still be a gray area, but what is clear is that Saudis cinemagoers will need no introduction to Hollywood.

For years, the availability of theaters in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (where there is a mature and fast-growing cinema scene) have lured Saudi holiday makers. Abdullah Al Eyaf’s documentary Cinema 500 km actually chronicled the journey of a Saudi film fan to his first-ever cinema experience in Bahrain (which is connected to the Kingdom via a causeway), while the shiny multiplexes in Dubai are regularly packed with Saudis who have made the short flight over. In 2012, the mayor of Riyadh claimed that some 230,000 tourists had visited the United Arab Emirates “simply for the sake of watching movies.”

And if the UAE figures are anything to go by, it’s largely Hollywood actioners or comedies — with the very occasional splash of Bollywood — that dominate the box office, this year seeing the likes of Justice League, Thor: Ragnorok, The Mummy and The Fate of the Furious enjoy multiple weeks at the top (where the critically panned Geostorm also was given an unlikely two-week spell). In 2015, Furious 7, which was partially shot in Abu Dhabi, spent four weeks in the number-one spot.

“Most people in Saudi Arabia are big fans of Hollywood movies,” says U.K.-based Saudi filmmaker Musab Alamri. But Alamri is also confident the cinemas will show local titles, too.

Unsurprisingly for a country with no cinemas, the film industry in Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly thriving. That said, there have been a few standouts in recent years, most notably Haifaa al-Mansour — the country’s first female director — who rose to international prominence thanks to her acclaimed debut Wadjda (also the first film to be entirely shot within the Kingdom). Al-Mansour has since directed the Toronto-bowing Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning as the famed gothic author, and recently unveiled her return to the Middle East with the stop-motion animated project Miss Camel (about a camel who travels from Saudi Arabia to Abu Dhabi to enter in a beauty pageant).

“What excites me most about this announcement is that the Saudi market will soon be a real factor in the international box office,” says al-Mansour of the cinema ban lifting. “As filmmakers, it will give our work an incredible boost. I cannot wait to see my films advertised on a marquee in my home country. It is a dream I have had my entire life, and one I can't believe we are finally so close to realizing.”

Al-Mansour and Mahmoud Sabbagh (whose debut Barakah Meets Barakah debuted at the Berlinale in 2016) are arguably be the best-known Saudi filmmakers internationally, but within the country itself there’s a thriving pool of talent ready to take full advantage of the reforms. 

While years of restrictions about activity in public life dampened much of Saudi Arabia’s cultural offerings, it has managed to push a content-hungry younger generation (half the population is under 25) to become a hugely creative force online. The Kingdom is considered one of the highest users of YouTube per capita in the world, and its YouTube stars — mostly comedians, gamers and reality TV actors — are, by some distance, the most popular in the region. Many boast millions of subscribers, with their Arab language online shows having racked up hundreds of millions of views.

Some have already broken out into film. Fahad Albutairi, part of the groundbreaking YouTube comedy show La Yekthar, which ran for six years until 2016, appeared in 2014’s From A to B, by Emirati director Ali F. Mostafa, and auditioned for Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (for the role that eventually went to Tony Revolori).

At Riyadh’s first Comic Con in November (Saudi Arabia’s first was held in Jeddah in February), Jason Momoa was undoubtedly the biggest name, but one of the event’s largest crowds amassed to see local teenage YouTube star Dyl3r give his first public performance, singing "Samoly," a song that has almost 39 million views.

It might take time for such Saudi talent to cross over to the big screen, if indeed it wants to. But such a deep well of creativity, and one that has been bubbling under the surface for so many years, should help ensure that it’s not just Hollywood A-listers helping fill cinema seats

Amusingly, less than a week after the announcement was made to remove the ban, films have already been vying to be the first shown in Saudi Arabia.

Andres Vicente Gomez’s Born a King, a $21 million period biopic about the young Prince Faisal of Arabia starring Ed Skrein and Hermione Corfield, recently wrapped. Several scenes were actually shot in Saudi Arabia (the film claims to be the first Western production to have done so), and producers say it’s due to “premiere in Riyadh in April 2018, dependent on timelines of the cinemas being built there.”

A rep later told THR that producers on Born a King were “confident that it will be the first film to be shown in Saudi Arabia since the lifting of the ban.”

However, with the film currently lacking a sales agent and looking to self-distribute in Saudi Arabia, it’s far from a done deal.

Whether it’s Born a King that breaks the 35-year-old ban or perhaps something like Steven Spielberg’s big-budget Ready Player One (also due to be released around the same time as the first cinemas opening), Saudi Arabia's creative industries are set to experience a fundamental shift.

Says al-Mansour: “It is an important step for the country, and lays the groundwork for so much positive change.”