Vox Cinemas calls for more Arab filmmakers to share local stories on the big screen

At the Red Sea International Film Festival, the group announced a debut slate of original Arabic films from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and UAE

Vox Cinemas has unveiled its debut slate of original Arabic films at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. Photo: Vox Cinemas
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Vox Cinemas, the cinema arm of Majid Al Futtaim and one of the sponsors of the Red Sea International Film Festival, has revealed the debut slate of original Arabic films that is in line with the group’s initiative to produce 25 Arabic films in the next five years.

The line-up features titles from new and established filmmakers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon.

Among these is HWJN (Hawjen), which will be made as part of a partnership between Vox Cinemas, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and MBC Studios that the three entities solidified at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. The collaboration seeks to launch a major production partnership for film and TV projects across the Middle East.

HWJN, a film adaptation of the best-selling Saudi fantasy romance novel of the same name, will be directed by Yasir Al Yasiri and due for theatrical release next year. The three entities have also joined forces on King of the Ring, a Saudi remake of the South Korean comedy drama hit The Foul King, which will be screening at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

Saudi Arabia contributes to more than 40 per cent of box office revenue in the region, says Mohamed Al Hashemi, Majid Al Futtaim's country head for Saudi Arabia.

While the country is among the world’s most eager consumers for blockbusters, Al Hashemi points out that Saudi Arabia’s cinematic potential is only just scratching the surface, and a more focused drive for quality Arabic content will help fulfil that potential.

 Top Gun: Maverick starring Tom Cruise. AP

“Saudi is eager for international content,” he says. “Top Gun: Maverick, as an example, was fourth [most-watched] here globally after the UK, Germany and Italy. More than six per cent of our Arabic content contributes to 25 per cent of our admissions. The question is what if we had more Arabic content from across the region, as well as locally produced content.”

It’s hard to believe that it has only been four years since Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas, given the scale and speed of developments that have propelled the kingdom’s nascent film industry.

Vox Cinemas has been at the forefront of these major developments. The group operates about 150 screens across the country. While expansion plans are underway, Al Hashemi says they are now more concerned with “optimising our assets and being where our consumers want us to be".

“We have three openings next year between Jeddah and Riyadh. But today it’s not only about going to the cinema to watch a movie. The movie is one component of the whole experience that we're trying to offer. It's more about the food. It's more about the seat. It's more about the experience itself.”

Curating content that better speaks to the local and regional audience will go a long way. Vox Cinemas has joined forces with several production companies in the region to help fulfil that increasing demand. One of these is with Sirb Productions, sister company of Myrkott Animation Studio and the creators behind the Masameer franchise, to produce their second live-action film billed as a Saudi comedy.

“In 2017, we signed a distribution agreement with Myrkott for them to produce Masameer: The Movie and for us to distribute it,” says Al Hashemi. “If you look at Masameer specifically, Saudi never had the chance to go to the big screen. The Masameer series had more or less 120 episodes on YouTube, but had more than one billion views. Now imagine the opportunities to get that big of an audience to watch the beautiful Masameer on the big screen, but more than that, what if we had more local content production.

“Born a King, which we also distributed, is another example. The story of King Faisal is not just a Saudi story. He is a figure that touched us all. That period of time presented challenges to all GCC countries, so it is relatable. Saudi is a country that has beautiful untold stories that, if you manage to get the right storyteller, those stories can go out loud. Stories from Makkah, Jeddah, AlUla, to name a few. You’ve had people who succeeded in getting some of those stories in novels or on YouTube, but today, we have the chance to get those stories to the big screen.”

As part of this drive for local content, Vox Cinemas has also signed a deal with Blue Engine Studios, which was established by media industry veterans Ziad Kebbi and Hani Ghorayeb, to develop a Saudi comedy that takes the protagonist on an international rescue mission filled with adventure, danger and bad luck.

However, Vox Cinemas’ production and distribution efforts are not limited to Saudi Arabia.

Also slated for next year is Voy! Voy! Voy!, a collaboration between Vox Cinemas, Film Clinic and Image Nation Abu Dhabi. The Egyptian film marks the cinematic directorial debut for award-winning director Omar Hilal, who is taking the leap from commercials to feature films.

Voy! Voy! Voy! is a dramedy inspired by true-life events that features an ensemble cast including Mohamed Farrag, Nelly Karim and Bayoumi Fouad, alongside up-and-coming talent Taha Desouky, Amgad El Hagar and Mohamed Abdel Azeem.

The group has joined forces with The Big Picture Studios, an Imagic Group company, on their debut feature film. The script is the result of a writers’ workshop hosted by Vox Cinemas with new voices from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

Also on the slate is director Hadi El Bagoury’s first Egyptian action-comedy feature film. The film is in partnership with The Producers, the minds behind Hepta — the highest-grossing romantic film in the history of Egyptian cinema.

All this, Al Hashemi says, fulfils the goal of bolstering the Saudi and regional creative economy.

“It falls into Majid Al Futtaim’s strategy, where we support the communities, the businesses and industry in the region. Getting those talents out there, helping them produce that content and distributing it with other entities in the region,” he says. “We’re still exploring further scripts that could potentially go within our plan to come out with 25 films over the next five years.”

Inside the Red Sea Film Festival 2022

Updated: December 03, 2022, 4:34 PM
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