Why interest in Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry has skyrocketed

DUBAI: A husband and wife argue as their marriage deteriorates and their home is invaded by ‘evil spirits’. A bride disappears during her wedding, leaving her guests waiting and her mother in crisis. A pregnant woman tries to distinguish reality from dreams, drug-induced delusions and perceptions of death.

These are just some of the enticing storylines of recent Saudi film releases. The latest of these, “Rupture,” is a film by Hamzah K. Jamjoom, which won first prize in the Saudi film category at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December.

Four years ago, showing such films in Saudi Arabia, where cinemas were banned for more than 30 years between 1983 and 2018, was unthinkable. But now, as the Kingdom pushes its Vision 2030 reform agenda, it aims to become the new engine of the Middle East’s film industry and instill in Saudis a taste for watching and making films.

So far the plan is working. International producers and Hollywood studios are flocking to the Kingdom to produce films and strike deals in a fertile new market. Cinemas are growing exponentially as screens open and Saudi households flock to theaters. According to Comscore, box office market revenue in Saudi Arabia reached $238 million in 2021, a 95% increase from 2020.

It is important to note that there are now many incentives for young Saudi filmmakers to develop their craft at home. The Saudi government is investing billions in building a film industry with international and regional ambitions.

During the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah in December, the Ministry of Investment announced that the Kingdom would support the production of 100 films by 2030.

A Saudi film buff taking a selfie next to a sign displaying the logo of the Red Sea Film Festival last year at the entrance to old Jeddah. (AFP/file photo)

For many young Saudis, it’s a dream come true, though many don’t quite believe their eyes. Until 2018, aspiring filmmakers often had to shoot in secret, avoiding the religious police to do so. The challenges became so frustrating for many ambitious people that they left to produce films and pursue careers overseas.

“Saudi filmmakers have always been there, fascinated by storytelling, but it’s so new that cinema is becoming an industry in Saudi Arabia,” Saudi actress and screenwriter Sarah Taibah told Arab News.

“It is now a surreal dream that has now come true and I am so happy to be part of this industry at this early stage. People are now hungry to hear our stories.

The boom is prompting many Saudi filmmakers and professionals who have been based and working abroad for years to return home and work in their own country. Ahd Kamel, 41, a well-known actress and filmmaker, is one of them.

“There was a ban on movies my whole life – it was taboo,” Kamel told Arab News. “When I started making films, I was told, ‘Absolutely, no. It’s not something you can do. I had to define myself as a filmmaker from across the river. 40 years of my life. It’s baffling and amazing and wonderful. When you’re young you get categorized by what’s going on, but now I can see that in a lifetime things can really change.

As the Kingdom pushes its Vision 2030 reform agenda, it aims to become the new engine of the Middle East’s film industry and instill in Saudis a love of watching and making films. (AFP/file photo)

In 2012, Kamel played a conservative teacher in the film “Wadjda”, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first Saudi feature film directed by a woman and the first feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia. Kamel is now preparing to shoot a new film in the Kingdom about his family’s driver, who died recently.

Mona Khashoggi, a film and theater producer based in London for 20 years, has now returned to her hometown of Jeddah to take part in what amounts to a cultural revolution.

“Even when we didn’t have cinemas, we are all very cultured and many Saudis had cinemas in their homes,” she told Arab News. “What I want to see in Saudi films are not films about the oppression the West expects and stereotypes, but stories about young people and women who are now building their lives in this new reality of the Kingdom. “

A major attraction for foreign investors is the fact that 70% of the Kingdom’s 34 million people are under 30 and have money to spend. Telfaz 11, a studio specializing in locally relevant content and Saudi youth culture, is growing rapidly thanks to internal and foreign investment.

Alaa Yousef Fadan, Ali Al-Kalthami and Ibrahim Al Khairallah founded Telfaz 11 in Riyadh just over 10 years ago and immediately jumped into the youth content creation revolution via YouTube.


* 138 films screened at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December 2021.

* 60 countries whose films were presented at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

* 36 Saudi films presented at the Saudi Film Festival in Jeddah in July 2021.

In November 2020, Telfaz 11 struck a deal with Netflix to produce eight feature films as the streaming platform sought to enter the Middle Eastern market. Then, in December, Telfaz 11 secured a multi-million dollar line of financing from a consortium of leading local financiers.

It acquired Last Scene Films, a production house also based in Riyadh, and created Wadi Cinema, an independent cinema house in joint venture with Muvi Cinema, the first local cinema brand in the Kingdom.

The company has big ambitions. Faden says he and his partners will use the latest funding “to build its development and production slate…. The company’s goal is to be the premier destination for filmmakers and talent from around the world.

The changes are simply revolutionary. Cinema, however, was not completely alien to the Kingdom, even when it was banned. Moviegoers remained determined to watch films in the company of other enthusiasts.

The Saudi Film Festival, which will be in its eighth edition in June 2022, was founded in Dammam in the eastern province in 2008 by Ahmed Al-Mulla and his colleagues from the local literature club.

AlUla’s scenic landscape has seen it become an exotic filming destination, with Film AlUla providing an ecosystem of skilled professionals for domestic productions and international film projects. (Provided)

“A lot of people in the 1980s and 1990s, like me, loved cinema, but didn’t have public cinema to watch,” Al-Mulla recalls.

When Al-Mulla became a board member of the Literature Club, he began discussing with other members how to screen films. For almost two years, they managed to discreetly screen films, including local productions, every Sunday evening.

“We had many clashes with the other side who believed cinema was banned,” he told Arab News. “But we thought we had the right to see movies, and that’s part of our culture and part of our mandate as a literature club.”

In 2016, two years before the official reopening of cinemas in the Kingdom, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture joined the club as a strategic partner and, since then, the Saudi Society for Culture and Arts organizes the Film Festival Saudi.

The current wave of producers, writers and actors have Dammam enthusiasts to thank a lot for keeping cinema alive and nurturing the early pioneers of national cinema.

Saudi actor Saed Khader (C) holds up his award during the opening ceremony of the fourth Saudi Film Festival held in Dammam City. (AFP/file photo)

“It was all done underground,” Al-Mulla said. “There was no opportunity then to film or get funding. It all depended on the individual.

Last but not least, the return of cinema in Saudi Arabia has given women, who now have far more freedoms than before, a much louder voice.

“Over the past few years, I have received more and more requests to make films about Saudi women,” Taibah, the actress, told Arab News.

“People want Saudi women’s films that tell stories about Saudi women. It’s all very fresh. I feel so blessed that this is finally happening, because no one tells our story better than us.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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