Cinema Renaissance: Saudi Arabia welcomes the movies and has a vision for the future

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For the first time in three-and-a-half decades, commercial movie theatres are returning to Saudi Arabia. They’re part of a sweeping reform by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al-Saud to reshape his country’s future—and to use entertainment as one key building block in the transformation.

M.B.S.—as he’s often called—is a young man with the ambition, appetite and agenda to reimagine the cultural map of the Middle East—and the power base to make his vision a reality. Two years ago, he became the youngest defense minister in the world; a year later, he was appointed Crown Prince; today, he’s heir-apparent to the Saudi throne.

And he’s just 32 years old.

He’s restored women’s right to drive, to join the military, to vote and to own a business. In 2016, he created a new General Entertainment Authority (GEA), the General Authority for Culture, and the General Sports Authority. Their roles: develop the entertainment, culture and sports sectors; act as the subsectors’ primary regulators; promote events in Saudi; and participate in international platforms and organizations.

Already they’ve brought new concerts—including the first all-female-performer concert in the country’s history, a jazz festival, marathons, a ComicCon convention and a monster truck rally. All have been hugely successful.

“Before the GEA was established in 2016, there were only 500 events, 200,000 visitors, and ten cities were covered,” said His Excellency Ahmed Al Khateeb, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, speaking at “A Summit on the Future of Entertainment in Saudi Arabia” in Beverly Hills, CA in April. “In our first year, we held 2,200 events and sold eight million tickets—and food and beverage—in forty cities. This year, we are targeting five thousand events with 15 million visitors in 55 cities.”

There’s a new excitement in the country and it starts at the top.

In its 86-year history, Saudi Arabia has been ruled by seven kings; the next one will be very different. M.B.S. is described as charismatic, charming, tough—and, of course, young. In his position, he has influence without precedent in a kingdom whose human resources and business climate provide solid foundations for his ambition.

Saudi Arabia is a hub between Europe, Asia and Africa. There are 25 industrial cities in the kingdom, 27 airports and 10 seaports. Out of a population of 32 million people, the majority are under 30 years of age. The economy is fast-growing and stable; there are no taxes on personal income, sales or property.

But the economy relies heavily on oil—the kingdom exports almost nothing else; it imports nearly everything else. Education and healthcare are free; food, electricity and housing are subsidized. Yet, the ability to provide those services to a growing population depends on oil at prices they may never reach again.

When M.B.S. toured the U.S. in the spring, he met with venture capitalists in San Francisco. “In twenty years, oil goes to zero” he said in his remarks. “I have twenty years to reorient my country and to launch it into the future.”

Pressure is also coming from another source. Every year, the Saudi government sends 70,000 students to the U.S. for education. They return as highly motivated young professionals who want to work outside of the gas and oil industries. And they expect to have what they had in the U.S.—which includes access to the cinema.

To address those concerns and others, M.B.S. created “Vision 2030”—a plan with quantifiable goals to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, diversify the Saudi economy, transform its society—and make Saudi Arabia the best investment opportunity in the Middle East.

“This is leadership deciding that we have a huge potential we need to unlock,” affirms Mohammad al-Shaikh, the Saudi minister of state. M.B.S. calls it: Reform based on responsibility and accountability.

Over the next decade, Vision 2030 is intended to encourage entrepreneurship and foreign investment—and privatize state-owned industries, including all sectors except security and sovereign areas. They expect to raise non-government contributions from 45 percent to 65 percent of the Gross National Product and to make a quantum leap in many sectors, including entertainment.“

We have very strong ambitions to unlock the potential of the people of our country,” confirms Loai Bafaqeeh, CEO of the Kingdom’s Quality of Life Program 2020. “The challenge for us is how to capitalize on existing opportunities. The government can afford to do what we need, but that’s not the right model for the long term. We want to partner with others.”

The government itself is spending $64 billion to rebuild the country’s entertainment industry, including $10 billion to rebuild the film industry. They’re inviting exhibitors and others to join them. It’s a decided break with the recent past.

Forty years ago, cinemas were prevalent in the kingdom. Although they were seen as contrary to Arab cultural norms, they weren’t considered un-Islamic. But when rebels seized the Grand Mosque in 1979, King Khaled responded by giving religious conservatives more power. Among their actions: Close music shops and cinemas.

 

In the 1980s, some improvised movie halls were still operating in a few cities in the kingdom, but eventually they were also shut down. Until recently, there’s been only one public cinema in Saudi Arabia, an IMAX theatre in Khobar. It shows educational documentaries during non-prayer times.

The Saudi film industry itself continued to produce a limited number of feature and documentary films. Haifaa al-Mansour’s feature Wadjda became the first Saudi film submitted for Oscar consideration in 2013; Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2016. In March 2018, the fourth annual Dhahran Film Festival had 59 Saudi films on its program. The films ran from 10 to 30 minutes, with a new category introduced this year—50-minute movies.

While satellite television and movie downloads are readily available and short films on YouTube are highly popular, Saudis have an appetite for the cinema; it’s why many drive for hours to see a film in Bahrain or fly to Dubai for the weekend.

By government estimates, 80 percent of the total Saudi spend on entertainment—$5.8 billion—is spent abroad. To plug that “leak,” M.B.S. has vowed to move his country towards a more tolerant form of Islam, which will allow the return of movie theatres.

“The restoration of cinema will be an important lever, stimulating economic growth and diversification, creating more jobs and enriching the entertainment options here in Saudi Arabia, the largest such market in the region,” believes Dr. Awwad Alawwad, Saudi minister of culture and information.

In December 2017, when the kingdom’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM) passed a resolution allowing the authority to grant licenses to cinemas, support from the international exhibition and distribution industry was immediate and enthusiastic.

AMC Entertainment Holdings quickly signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia to “explore a range of commercial opportunities for collaboration that will support the growth of the Kingdom’s entertainment sector.”

Barely four months later, on April 18, Black Panther opened in AMC’s 624-seat theatre in a converted symphony hall in Riyadh. “Our goal is to make the GEA a one-stop shop where it takes as little as 48 hours to get a license to do business in Saudi Arabia,” observes Faisal Barafat, CEO of the General Entertainment Authority. “In cinema, we’re starting from scratch.”

Today, there’s just one AMC screen; three more will be added in the future. AMC has a partnership with Noon.com togive people the opportunity, every day, to buy a limited amount of tickets online.

Initial screenings of Black Panther were reserved for families only; men and women sat together. It’s unclear yet how movie theatres’ seating will need to be configured in a kingdom that enforces gender segregation in most areas of life. As new cinemas are planned, current wisdom is to design them for the realities of today—with the ability to convert them easily if restrictions change.

Two weeks after the AMC premiere, VOX Cinemas opened a four-screen multiplex in theMagic Planet Family Entertainment Centre in Riyadh Park. It will include the first IMAX screen to show features and VOX KIDS, a concept designed especially for young movie fans. The premiere film, Avengers: Infinity War, opened day-and-date with the U.S.

U.K.-based exhibitor Vue International announced plans to build up to 30 multiplexes in Saudi Arabia in partnership with Abdulmohsin Al Hokair Holding, a Saudi real estate group. Other circuits like iPic, Cinépolis and Cinema City are watching closely, developing their plans.

“We believe that international partners and local talent need to work hand-in-hand,” said Abdullah Al Dawood, chairman of the Development and Investment Entertainment Company, “because we need IP and know-how—and external partners need internal knowledge.”

GCAM, which regulates the movie theatre sector, anticipates more than 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens will open by 2030, part of an overall industry that would contribute more than $24 billion to the economy and create 30,000 jobs over that period.

Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry is expected to be a major beneficiary of the country’s cultural reforms. The establishment of the Saudi Film Council, which includes a fund for Saudi filmmakers, is one positive sign; another is the appointment of celebrated local filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda, Mary Shelley) to the board of directors of the General Culture Authority.

And, for the first time in a long time, filmmakers will have venues for their films. It’s a country with stories to tell, but there will be limitations on which stories can be told in the cinema—and how.

Content will need to conform to the media policy of the kingdom; movies must be in line with the Sharia laws, ethical values and conservative principles. That means no sex or nudity. Bottles or glasses of alcohol, bare shoulders and other displays of flesh must be obscured. Romance, homosexuality and religious issues must be avoided, but graphic violence in many forms is largely acceptable. Less than 40 seconds were reportedly cut from Black Panther.

Although the Saudi Center for International Communications (CIC) has quickly put in place a movie-rating system with six different categories, including an “over 18” rating, some wonder if it’s fully developed and final. GCAM, which grants cinema licenses, has spent extensive time with cinema boards in the UAE, the U.K., Singapore and Malaysia—to learn from their experiences.

A ratings system has already been introduced for videogames. Fahad Al-Moammar, head of the CIC, the agency that developed those ratings, believes they’ve benefitted everyone. “More titles have been approved to come in than before,” he insists, because game publishers “understand what kind of content to put in their pipeline.”

Many expect the final cinema censorship restrictions will be similar to those in Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE, where offensive scenes are simply chopped out. As some observe: “Most movies that play in Kuwait last for about an hour.”

Beyond censorship, there are other concerns—including fears that the GCAM may set up a single entity as the sole distributor of films—so all studio releases will have to go through a government-owned company that would control the market. Studios worry that one monopolizing body—that determines which films play, where and when, and potentially under what terms—would severely hamper their business.

It would be exponentially worse if the sole distributor rumored to be chosen were to insist that Saudi TV rights be included in any deal—because that could put the movie business firmly in the hands of the government.

These issues and more were on the agenda for panel discussions and roundtables planned for the Cannes Film Festival. Decisions are coming; growing pains continue.

Still, it appears that the risks are worth the potential reward.

“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?” asks AMC chief Adam Aron.

“We have a young population, a vibrant society and a low supply of entertainment,” concludes GEA chairman Al Khateeb. “Welcome to Saudi Arabia.”