Will Saudi Arabia Take a Page Out of China's State-Run Distribution Playbook?

Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images; iStock

Rumors that the country is to install a single entity as the sole distributor of films stoke fears in Hollywood that studio releases will have to go through a monopolizing, government-owned company that would control the market.

It’s been a lively month in cinema for Saudi Arabia, a country where, since the early '80s at least, there haven’t been any cinemas.

Just two weeks after an announcement at the start of April, AMC opened the country’s first movie theater following the famous lifting of a 35-year ban in December. The same week as the historic screening of Black Panther in Riyadh, news of the country’s second cinema launch — run by regional chain Vox and boasting an Imax ­— landed. Avengers: Infinity War soon followed hot on Black Panther's heels, opening simultaneously with the U.S., while Rampage and Ferdinand have reportedly been added to an upcoming lineup of studio blockbusters looking to satisfy years of pent-up demand. Despite ticket prices hitting the equivalent of $20, screenings have reportedly sold out in minutes.

Hollywood had seemingly sniffed out a new rich seam of gold: an untapped market with literally no capacity and a massive young population crying out for the big-screen experience.

“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?” said AMC chief Adam Aron, echoing enthusiasm that has been bouncing around the industry (and underlined by the warm embrace Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the 32-year-old architect of the liberalization drive — received from top execs, including Rupert Murdoch and Bob Iger during his recent Hollywood visit).

But behind the expressions of delight from studio chiefs (many of whom recorded special messages for the Black Panther screening) and the mad scramble by international exhibitors to be a part of the race to build hundreds of multiplexes in the coming years, The Hollywood Reporter has learned that Saudi Arabia might not quite be the cinematic Klondike first envisaged. According to several sources, there are significant fears from the industry that the manner in which this brand-new market opens up isn’t going to be nearly as open as they’d hoped.

Chief among the concerns: plans to install a single entity that would oversee distribution.

Numerous figures from across the industry have told THR that GCAM (General Commission of Audiovisual Media) — the newly established government organization overseeing regulating of the nascent film market — is seriously mulling going down a closed route that would, according to one, “give one body the right to distribute all films.”

One senior Hollywood studio exec confirmed the talk and described the potential move as "troubling," likening it to the Chinese method where the state-run China Film Group rules the distribution route and is the "distiller of the siphon through which movies get into the market, and that's not a good thing." One regional insider claimed that major studio reps had been "panicking" about the developments.

“We’ve heard rumors to that extent and we’re looking into it,” added Andrew Cripps, Fox's president of international distribution. “We’re all about free market and the ability to trade freely, and the way we want to trade, so I think any impediments put in that place would not be particularly welcome."

Carlo Vincenti, marketing manager at regional distributor Italia Films, Disney's Middle East partner that helped release Black Panther, also acknowledged the rumors, but pointed out that “nothing [is] concrete yet."

Were this sole entity move to go ahead, rather than deal directly with exhibitors or via their regional partners, as they do across the rest of the region, studios would have to work with this one monopolizing body, which would ultimately decide which films are released and when, and — more important — would dictate financial terms.

In a further addition to these sole entity plans, THR has learned that it is actually MBC, the largest free-to-air Arab TV broadcaster and something of a regional behemoth, which is being lined up to fill this all-powerful role.

An MBC representative would only give a “no comment” on the matter, but studios — including Fox and Universal — have confirmed that this is indeed being put forward, with meetings with MBC reps set to take place in London this week to discuss the matter. 

“We look forward to meeting and discovering what their position is," said Duncan Clark, head of Universal Pictures International, while Cripps acknowledged that he'd heard the meetings were happening. A Disney rep, however, denied that they'd been contacted about either the single entity discussions or MBC's involvement.

Should MBC become Saudi Arabia’s film distribution overlord, not only would it give the company the chance to monopolize the theatrical business, but it also could extend this into TV. Given its current status as the biggest broadcaster in the region, one regional insider suggests it could well insist that TV rights are also included in any film deal.

Following recent political upheavals, the MBC move could also put the country’s movie market firmly in the hands of the government.

Earlier this year, it was reported that MBC founder Waleed al-Ibrahim was among hundreds of Saudi princes and business tycoons detained at the Ritz Carlton Riyadh as part of a major corruption clampdown spearheaded by the Crown Prince. Al-Ibrahim was released in January, but the reported price for freedom was his controlling stake in the company. In February, several media outlets, including Reuters, claimed that 60 percent of MBC was being transferred to Saudi authorities.

Understandably, with nothing yet set in stone, many of those looking to capitalize on opportunities in the Saudi Arabian film market (and require the necessary government approval and licenses) are reluctant to talk openly about plans for a single entity, or any issues that may lie ahead. Efforts to get in touch with GCAM to discuss their plans have proved fruitless.

But such silence can’t last long, especially with Saudi Arabia making its debut in Cannes in just over a week. THR understands that a major delegation is expected to attend and rub shoulders with the world’s film industry, while Saudi’s distribution opportunities is one of the many panel discussions and roundtables planned for the festival.

Another topic that could well rise to the surface on the Croisette is that of censorship.

The subject had been atop most discussions since the cinema ban was lifted, with many unsure just how much of films would likely end up on the cutting-room floor given the country’s strict sharia laws.

But fears appeared to have eased with the Black Panther screening April 18.THR was told by the regional distributor that “less than 40 seconds” had been cut, putting it in line with how the film was released elsewhere in the region.

Soon afterward, however, it became apparent that censorship issues hadn’t been quite so smooth.

A source told THR that dealings between Disney and the Saudi side had been a “nightmare” and the studio was asked to cut so much of the film that it wasn't thought worth showing. Disney reportedly pushed back and got its way, and the historic launch was able to take place.

But an insider at the screening claimed that although the actual cuts may not have been debilitating, the censor’s brush was heavily deployed elsewhere, with content re-digitized to cover exposed flesh, and Arabic subtitles changed to remove words considered forbidden or “haram.” Vincenti at Italia Films declined to comment on the alleged censoring. Disney denied that there had been any covering of skin.

Industry insiders insist that censorship is still very much an unknown quantity, with no guidelines yet released despite GCAM having toured several countries — including a reported month’s stay in the UAE for training, alongside the U.K., Singapore and Malaysia — to visit censor boards. And this contrasts starkly with the small-screen situation, where Netflix and Amazon seemingly have little problem showing explicit — and wholly uncensored — features and documentaries such as After Porn Ends, Hot Girls Wanted and Confessions of a Brazilian Call Girl to its Saudi subscribers.

Time will tell, however, and given that Cannes will mark only the six-month anniversary since Saudi’s culture and information minister Awwad Alawwad first announced the “watershed moment” over cinemas, many argue that the country hasn’t really had a chance to get its house in order, especially given that literally nothing existed before. The pace of movement since December could simply be put down to overseas entities desperate to get a slice of the action.

But how ever it pans out, Saudi Arabia still offers the potential for rich pickings

“Let’s say they put it in similar terms as in China,” says Eric Handler, managing director of media and entertainment at MKM Partners. “If the market could truly become a billion-dollar market, it’s incremental to what we have now. Studios receive less from China, but would you rather have a smaller part of a huge number or zero?”