Written by Gaia Zol, Italy
There is a country where you can stand at the Edge of the World. Literally. You are standing on high cliffs overlooking a peculiar landscape. No matter where you turn, you can only see dry desert, rocks, and camels. You are standing 1,000 feet above sea level, looking down on what once was an ocean bed. From the high cliffs, you can see trails and ancient caravan routes. But the best view is the uninterrupted line to the horizon.
You are at the Edge of the World, a landmark northwest of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. This is the country of the holy Mecca, of the delicious shawarma, and of the scarf called “keffiyeh”. Soon, Saudi Arabia hopes to become Hollywood’s next movie set, investing $64 billion in its nascent entertainment industry. The Kingdom’s strategy is to diversify the economy, which now relies on oil. Instead, Saudi Arabia is betting on tourism and movies.
From festival to festival
Representatives of the country joined the 2021 Cannes Festival. The Saudi pavilion showcased names of the newborn entertainment industry, such as the Film Authority, Arabian Pictures Group, and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU). Filmmakers also joined the Cannes expedition, hoping to learn more about the field. Through seminars, the delegation showed its opportunities to the industry and the meetings connected Saudi investors with the international participants in the Festival.
The participation at Cannes 2021 was also a platform to launch the Red Sea Festival, the country’s first international film festival, which will take place from December 6th to the 15th under the artistic direction of Edouard Waintrop. The organization has also launched a fund to promote over 100 directors thanks to its $14 million fund. The project is aimed at directors of Arab nationality, of African origin and nationality, and the documentary and short film categories are for Saudi directors only.
The festival will feature over 5000 events, with concerts from Maroon 5 and shows from the Cirque du Soleil. While Saudi Arabia is getting ready to promote itself as a hub for Hollywood, controversies abound.
“I hesitated a long time before accepting the challenge,” said Edouard Waintrop, “when I accepted, I made it clear that I did not want any censorship on the Arab films because I share the hope of the Saudi authorities to make Saudi Arabia a major player in the Arabic cinema game.”
Between censorship and doubts
When talking about Saudi Arabia, it’s almost impossible to leave politics behind. Although the entertainment industry hopes to leave the controversies in the rearview mirror. While the country lifted the 35-year old ban on cinemas in 2017, censorship is still a concern. Especially after the country’s ban on the “Eternals” movie. The Marvel title features a gay superhero, Phastos, and same-sex relationships are criminalized in this Middle East country.
The association Freedom House has rated the Kingdom’s freedom of speech as 25 over 100, with 100 representing the most free. According to the report, “authorities block a wide range of websites under rules prohibiting content deemed harmful, illegal, anti-Islamic, or offensive, and do not tolerate criticism of the Saudi royal family or its allies among.”
This censorship might deter international investors as well as Saudi’s attempt at being a movie set. Another deterrent could be the country’s history, especially after the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s a rollercoaster of controversies and compromises. After all, the Kingdom’s Public Fund invested in the Walt Disney Company. Quietly, Saudi Arabia is trying to turn its goals into reality.
The change has already begun, since“Desert Warrior” is filming in the region. Starring Anthony Mackie and Aiysha Hart, the movie is set in the planned cross-border city of Neom. Founded in 2017, this city is the proof of Saudi’s commitment to a bright future. Another movie shooting in the country is Gerard Butler’s latest thriller “Kandahar,” filmed in the UNESCO World Heritage site of AlUla. Butler’s movie is also financed by MBC, Saudi-owned Middle East TV.
Saudi entertainment Industry is on the rise
It’s one of the first examples of international and Saudi producers collaborating and receiving mutual benefits. Predictions suggest this collaboration will be fruitful, since a report showed that the entire entertainment industry will be worth $1.17 billion by 2030. If true, this will be a 47% growth, according to US-based Research and Markets.
Contributing to the growth is AMC’s sixth movie theater in the country with the goal of opening 44 more by 2024. The United Arab Emirates' chain VOX Cinemas is also planning on opening new theaters, investing $533 million to create 600 screens. Saudi’s very own MUVI Cinemas plans on adding 370 screens in the country.
More cinemas, more movies, and more investments. Saudi Arabia definitely has Hollywood aspirations. If censorship and controversies won’t get in the way of this development, the investments might soon pay off.