Saudi Arabia's Film Scene Hits the Reset Button in Berlin

Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
Just a week after Raed Alsermari's satire 'Dunya's Day' won the short film jury prize for international fiction in Sundance (the first time Saudi Arabia had appeared at the festival), a delegation of 13 young Saudi filmmakers has descended on the German capital, eight of whom with short films being represented at the European Film Market by the Arab Cinema Center.

Several months after the Jamal Khashoggi scandal halted the Kingdom's efforts to build up its nascent film sector, recent indicators — including a delegation of filmmakers at the Berlinale — suggest plans to restore relationships with the global film sector are underway.

Six months ago, the global film industry was still abuzz about the newest (and somewhat deep-pocketed) guest at the table, as well as access to a previously nonexistent box office market estimated to be worth $1 billion. But with the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi hit squad in Turkey, the world’s focus very quickly shifted away from business opportunities and onto the country’s human rights record, forcing many to reevaluate — or at least appear to reevaluate — their position on Saudi Arabia and its supposedly reformist defacto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Cinema chains that had previously rushed to announce investments were now “monitoring the situation,” while Endeavour pulled out of its $400 million deal with the Saudi government.

In Berlin, however, there are signs — for the Saudi film scene at least — that the Kingdom is ready to return to promoting its nascent film industry. Just a week after Raed Alsermari’s satire Dunya’s Day won the short film jury prize for international fiction in Sundance (the first time Saudi Arabia had appeared at the festival), a delegation of 13 young Saudi filmmakers has descended on the German capital, eight of whom with short films being represented at the European Film Market by the Arab Cinema Center.

“Obviously there is still activity [in Saudi Arabia], but now maybe without the super huge exposure,” says the ACC’s co-founder Alaa Karkouti, pointing to the flurry of news that came out around Cannes, where the newly-launched Saudi Film Council used its high-profile festival debut to unveil a tasty incentives package aimed at luring foreign productions, while also announcing the first project to receive investment from its film fund, Haifaa Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate. Karkouti indicates that a quieter approach may well be “healthy,” with any developments in a country literally looking to start an industry from scratch are never going to happen overnight. “It takes time,” he adds.

Saudi Arabia may well take heed of this advice at this year’s Cannes, where THR understands there are plans for the country to return.

While initial expectations on the speed of cinema openings in the Saudi Kingdom may have been slightly exaggerated, during the Berlinale Vox Cinemas, the Middle East’s biggest chain, revealed it is on track to have 110 screens in the country by the end of 2019, with its first Saudi multiplex in Riyadh having enjoyed a 95 percent occupancy rate since opening in April. Karkouti suggests that, with construction of cinemas not able to meet with the demand, there has even been some talk of putting screens in tents. “Of course, there is a billion-dollar market there, but it’s going to take at least 10 years,” he says.

However, even before the Khashoggi scandal, there was already some concern from the industry about how the Saudi film industry would take shape, particularly with regard to the distribution of titles (with fears the government would adopt a China-style monopolistic approach). And one insider says these concerns still remain. “There’s a complete lack of transparency, it’s all based on ‘let’s wait and see,'” the exec tells THR. “There’s also no real censorship laws, no clear copyright laws over there, there’s nothing.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 10 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.