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Saudi Arabia’s film industry ready to boom, but won’t lack drama 


Al-Monitor Pro Members


Samuel Wendel

Senior Market Research Analyst, Al-Monitor


June 5, 2023

Bottom Line:

This could be a breakout year for Saudi Arabia’s fledgling film industry. From a splashy Cannes performance to the May 26 global premiere of action thriller “Kandahar” — the first big budget Hollywood movie shot entirely in the kingdom —Riyadh’s ambitions to make Saudi Arabia a film and TV production powerhouse are increasingly coming into focus in 2023. Amid larger efforts to amass soft power by elbowing into the global entertainment industry (see: LIV Golf), Saudi Arabia and its immense financial firepower are poised to play a disruptive role in film and TV production. Within the region, the UAE has a head start, including a “Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa” moment. Saudi Arabia’s film industry is playing catch up, with high ambitions.  

Background Facts:
  • Since lifting its cinema ban in 2017, Saudi Arabia has quickly risen to rank within the world’s top 15 markets by box office revenues, reaching about $250 million in 2022, compared to the UAE’s $160 million, according to Gower Street Analytics.  
  • Riyadh’s ambitions extend well beyond ticket sales: in 2018, Saudi Arabia pledged to invest $64 billion into its entertainment sector over the coming decade and the Ministry of Investment has touted that the kingdom will support the production of 100 films by 2030.  
  • Among other moves, the Saudi government took a controlling stake in regional broadcasting giant MBC in 2018 and established the Saudi Film Commission in 2020. The kingdom also hosts the Red Sea International Film Festival, which launched in 2021 and will hold its third edition in November. 
  • Saudi Arabia has also launched a PR campaign that has featured prominently at the star-studded Cannes Film Festival, where in 2022 Saudi Arabia launched a generous tax rebate scheme providing up to 40% cash back on production costs for local and international companies shooting in the kingdom. 
  • Notably, 2023 saw Saudi Arabia play a starring role at Cannes: alongside placing front page ads on the covers of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter’s special festival issues, the opening film at Cannes was “Jeanne du Barry,” a historical drama starring Johnny Depp that was part-funded by Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Foundation. 
  • Also at Cannes in 2023, Saudi Arabia officially unveiled two separate film sector funds worth a combined $180 million to nurture the local film sector. These funds are linked to the Film Sector Financing Initiative, a $234 million program launched earlier in 2023 by Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Development Fund. 
  • Two sizable Hollywood films have chosen to shoot entirely in the kingdom in recent years, including “Kandahar” and the historic thriller “Desert Warrior,” which features Marvel star Anthony Mackie.  
  • The first released is “Kandahar,” which stars Gerard Butler as a CIA operative in Afghanistan. The film, which premiered in Riyadh on May 24 before its wider release, holds a 47% approval rating on critical review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes as of June 5.  
  • Through its first two weekends in theaters, “Kandahar” grossed a slim $4.7 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. For context, Disney’sThe Little Mermaid,” which opened on May 24, grossed $327 million during the same span. No budget was disclosed for “Kandahar,” which was co-produced by MBC studios.  
  • Ultimately, the release of “Kandahar” marks an important milestone. Filming centered on Al-Ula, a picturesque desert region in the country’s northwest that is key to Saudi Arabia’s moviemaking goals and tourism plans
  • Although it doesn’t yet have a release date, “Desert Warrior” is already the most expensive film ever made in Saudi Arabia with an estimated budget of $150 million. It also filmed in Neom, the kingdom’s much-hyped $500 billion mega project, which is investing to become a media hub and film destination. 
  • Neom launched a new sound stage in April 2023, bringing its total operational stages to four with a total of 12,000 square meters of production space in addition to support and backlot facilities. A further six stages are set to open by year end. 
  • Alongside international productions, the potential to boost production of Arabic content is tantalizing. Consider this: the long-awaited sequel to “Avatar” — the world’s highest-grossing film ever — was quickly surpassed at the kingdom’s box office in 2022 by “Sattar,” a locally made family comedy that broke Saudi box office records.  
  • MBC is also investing significantly in homegrown content, including the upcoming 2023 release of “Rise of the Witches,” supposedly Saudi Arabia’s largest TV production to date and likely the most expensive
  • Saudi Arabia’s rise comes as Egypt, traditionally the regional center for filmmaking, faces headwinds, while Jordan and the UAE have also become industry players. Both have welcomed big Hollywood productions and both offer significant incentives, like Abu Dhabi’s 30% rebate for productions in the emirate.  
  • Jordan has also produced homegrown success: the 2014 film “Theeb,” a low-budget coming of age drama that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film
  • Morocco and Tunisia have also sent numerous entries to major film festivals recently. Notably, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Fund has backed several of these productions
  • Streaming’s rise is another big factor: Netflix struck an eight feature film deal with Saudi studio Telfaz11 in 2020 and last year the streaming giant released “Perfect Strangers,” its first original film in Arabic
  • That said, Saudi Arabia’s industry is being built essentially from scratch and faces obstacles. For instance, local crews still lack experience, which is reportedly seeing reliance on Jordanian crews in Al-Ula. Ease of doing business and logistics could also cause issues. The government appears keen to facilitate access, but Al-Ula and Neom remain relatively remote. 
  • Not surprisingly, critics in the West have condemned Riyadh’s film industry moves as a whitewashing exercise designed to rehabilitate its image. However, Hollywood seems to be warming to Saudi Arabia’s offerings — as evidenced by stars showing up to the  Red Sea International Film Festival only a few years after the industry shunned the kingdom following Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder.  
Alternative Scenarios:

Scenario 1: Demand for Arabic content overshadows efforts to attract international productions  

As Hollywood productions filmed in the kingdom fail to make a splash, Saudi Arabia doubles down on development of Arabic content, a move providing economic impact alongside boosting Saudi influence across MENA.  

Still, Saudi Arabia is likely to continue aggressively courting international films in the near-term even if homegrown content becomes a more reliable economic growth driver.   

Scenario 2: Saudi Arabia scores a brand name movie moment 

Following the UAE’s success luring “Stars Wars,” “Mission Impossible” and others, Saudi Arabia rolls out the red carpet for a top-grossing Hollywood franchise, with the goal of featuring Al-Ula or Neom prominently in an upcoming blockbuster. 

That said, Saudi Arabia may struggle to persuade global franchises to invest heavily in the kingdom — or at the level Riyadh wants — as the UAE and Jordan remain attractive filming locations and have less potential PR risks for a brand like Marvel or Disney.

Conclusion - Most Likely Scenario:

Saudi Arabia’s ambitions will have significant ramifications for MENA’s film industry, but early returns will be mixed. Look no further than the lackluster debut of “Kandahar,” which raises the stakes for “Desert Warrior.” However, box office flops won’t deter Saudi Arabia in the near-term; it will continue to covet international productions and industry partnerships. Like LIV Golf and contracts for aging soccer superstars, Saudi Arabia will likely overpay to stamp its brand on a blockbuster and secure its own “Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa” moment. Upon achieving that, next moves become less clear. Plenty of international productions will likely descend on Saudi Arabia in coming years, but producing Arabic content at scale may easily deliver more reliable economic impact. 

Contributor Background:

Samuel Wendel is a senior market research analyst with Al-Monitor covering economic, tech and business trends across the Middle East. He has previously served as a journalist with Forbes Middle East and Wamda, where he reported on key industry developments spanning a range of sectors in the region.

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