How Film AlUla is driving the growth of Saudi Arabia's creative economy

The agency has begun building a 30,000-square-metre studio complex to lure international filmmakers to AlUla year-round

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Film AlUla, the film agency of the Royal Commission for AlUla, has begun construction on a comprehensive, cutting-edge studio complex, signalling the next phase of the area’s emergence as a regional production hub.

The first part of the complex, encompassing a whopping 30,000 square metres, is scheduled to be completed in the fourth quarter of next year. It will include two world-class soundstages, production support buildings, workshops, a pyro and special effects building, catering facilities, a sound recording studio and a 6,500-square-metre backlot, which can be used for additional support facilities when big shoots require it.

Charlene Deleon-Jones, executive director of Film AlUla, says AlUla is a thriving centre for arts, culture and heritage. She adds : “With the film and screen sector of central focus, the first phase of this studio complex is carefully planned and part of a much larger programme of infrastructure development."

The complex will also be situated near 12 square kilometres of dedicated outdoor shooting locations that showcase the idiosyncratic beauty and ancient heritage of AlUla.

Historically, AlUla lay on the incense trade route, a land and sea network spanning the Mediterranean, north-eastern Africa, Arabia and India. The region surrounding the walled city of AlUla, established in about the sixth century BC, hosts remnants of civilisations dating back more than 7,000 years.

It is also home to Hegra, the second-biggest Nabataean city after Petra and the first Unesco World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia, as well as the stone city of Dadan, AlUla Old Town; and Jabal Ikmah, a mountain inscribed with pre-Arabic texts, described as an open-air library.

Located in the Madinah region of north-western Saudi Arabia, AlUla has come under renewed attention following the reforms that have swept across Saudi Arabia over the past few years, including the opening of cinemas in 2018 after a 35-year-ban.

The otherworldly landscape makes AlUla a prime filming location, perhaps comparable to Jordan’s Wadi Rum, but still nonetheless unique in itself. This helps to explain how Film AlUla has hosted 694 production days since opening in 2020.

Movies have included Kandahar, directed by Ric Roman Waugh and starring Gerard Butler, which was the first major Hollywood feature to shoot almost entirely in AlUla; the Iraq war story Cherry, starring Tom Holland and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; and Norah, the first Saudi feature film to be shot at AlUla and featuring an all-Saudi cast and over 40 per cent Saudi crew.

Several TV productions have also been filmed in AlUla including the British series Expedition with Steve Backshall and National Geographic documentaries, along with commercials, promos, photo shoots and short films.

Though the views may be a big lure for production companies, Deleon-Jones says Film AlUla aims to make the area much more than simply a backdrop destination for filmmakers — the coming studio falls within an initiative to ensure that AlUla is a place conducive for creative work year-round.

“We are building every aspect of the film industry itself,” she tells The National. “Local businesses will support the film industry, whether carpentry, catering, wardrobe specialist and makeup artists, but it’s also about developing crew, technical experts and local talent base. We also want to be involved in the entire process of filmmaking and not just as a location piece."

At this year’s Red Sea International Film Festival, Film AlUla is sponsoring the Audience Award and the Best Saudi Film Award, each with a prize value of $50,000. This is part of the agency's wider mission to boost the creative and cultural economies, Deleon-Jones says, by providing opportunities for young creatives in the screen sector.

"We're here for the film industry, but the film industry ultimately is about the audience, so we wanted to focus on the Audience Award for that reason," Deleon-Jones says. "With the Best Saudi Film, what we're going through now is a very special period when Saudi storytellers are having the potential to be on these platforms, so that was another natural one for us."

While establishing and bolstering the local talent base is a prime initiative, Deleon-Jones says the film agency is also maintaining a strong international focus.

“We are not exclusive to having just Saudi creatives and experts but are also focused on how to join with people from around the world, because that’s really how you share knowledge, develop and create a meaningful discourse.”

To entice filmmakers from abroad to come to AlUla, Deleon-Jones says, requires the correct policies to be put in place to “make filming as easy as possible".

“If you’re doing a large film, you may have a huge amount of customs. You may have dangerous goods, which you need to be able to ship easily and get it into the country easily,” she says. “We work closely with the Saudi Film Commission to make that work.”

The historical areas in AlUla will make the region a particularly enticing one for filmmakers, especially as there haven’t been many depictions of it on the big screen. Deleon-Jones says while the areas will be accessible, the agency has a special committee to ensure the preservation of the protected sites, to ensure they are left just as they were before any given project.

“AlUla has a lot of protected sites that have never been seen on film, but we need to make sure that that is being done in a way that’s sustainable, where it isn’t being damaged but that there is still access.”

While the studio is the latest initiative by Film AlUla to help the area’s filmmaking potential thrive, the agency has already done quite a bit in its two years to ensure a comfortable experience for incoming creatives.

“We’ve already established 150 self-contained residences for visiting film crew,” Deleon-Jones says. “You come in and there’s a beautiful kitchen, bedroom, and it’s all very comfortable. It’s set up to promote a communal experience. We’re also building another 150 for a total of 300. We have incubators for businesses and training programmes.”

In addition to that, the area is also equipped with a recreational area. Offices and restaurants are also being developed. “We want people to have a really great experience so that they’d love working there. We want it to be a place where people come together.”

Over the next year, Film AlUla will be taking part in a number of training programmes to help build a strong local foundation for the film industry.

“We’re going to be involved in talent development, schemes to help train up-and-coming writers, producers and directors,” Deleon-Jones says. “We have incubators for businesses and training programmes for crew. We’ll be doing partnerships with other entities who are in the Middle East and North Africa.

“AlUla already has a strong history of being a transit, cross-cultural place of storytelling. We’re building that for the modern age because in the modern age, a lot of storytelling is on screen.”

Scroll through images from the Red Sea International Film Festival below

Updated: December 06, 2022, 1:22 PM