Saudi Arabia is getting an annual film festival that will aim to nurture cinema from parts of the world that are underrepresented on the global storytelling stage, particularly that of the Middle East.
The kingdom's first ever Minister of Culture, Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan Al Saud, announced on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia will host The Red Sea International Film Festival, starting from 2020. It will be held annually in Jeddah, the historic town on the shores of the Red Sea.
It is the first major film festival in the Arab World to be announced since Dubai Film Festival was put on pause last year. The new KSA festival is part of a pivot towards entertainment and film in Saudi Arabia following the decision to end a 35-year ban on cinemas last year. The first cinema opened in Riyadh in April last year.
The Red Sea International Film Festival will focus on new storytelling trends, and emerging talent from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world and the rest of the Global South (meaning much of Asia, South America and Africa).
The festival will be organised by the Red Sea Film Foundation, which is the first registered non-profit cultural organisation to focus on films made in KSA. The foundation is chaired by the Minister of Culture.
Saudi producer and director Mahmoud Sabbagh will take on the role of President of the Red Sea Foundation. He is a pioneer in the Saudi film scene with his films Barakah Meets Barakah, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and Amra and The Second Marriage.
The aim of the foundation is to support the growth of a sustainable film culture and industry in Saudi Arabia.
No firm date has been set for when the new film festival will take place, but the spring of 2020 is thought to be the favoured option. It is also believed that the festival will initially be focused on industry initiatives, with an Arab focus.
Last year, one of the most-attended panels at the Saudi Pavilion in Cannes was a debate called "Does Saudi Arabia need a film festival?" "Dubai International Film Festival was a hub for all the filmmakers to come and see each other and exchange ideas," said Wadjda director Haifaa Al Mansour. "It was where I was able to develop this film [Wadjda] at the Dubai Film Market, contact producers and all that. It provided a platform for young filmmakers to develop their ideas and their scripts. I'm sure we will have a film festival in Saudi." She was right.
Year-round incubation and more cinemas
There will also be a new Saudi industry body, The Red Sea Film Lodge, which will act as a year-round incubation film lab programme aimed at developing film projects from local and regional directors. As part of the scheme, production and co-production prizes will be awarded to top projects.
The announcement was made as part of a string of new cultural initiatives announced at the King Abdulaziz Historical Center in Riyadh by the Saudi Minister of Culture, as part of the efforts to develop the cultural sector to achieve the goals of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, part of which is to make culture an essential part of the national economy.
Also announced is a deal to open 15 sites by UK independent exhibitor The Light Cinemas. The UK exhibitor is teaming with London-based consultancy firm The Big Picture to create the Saudi cinemas under the name MUVI.
They are working with Saudi retail giant Fawaz Alkohair Group (FAHG) to integrate MUVI cinemas into the FAHG’s Arabian Centres Malls in locations across the region, including Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
This is the first UK exhibitor to obtain a licence to operate venues in Saudi Arabia, one of only five companies to currently have the Saudi government’s operating licence. Other companies to have launched cinema sites in Saudi Arabia include AMC – which opened the first post-ban venue in Riyadh – and Vox.
Keith Pullinger, co-founder of both The Light Cinemas and The Big Picture said, “Saudi Arabia represents the biggest opportunity for box office growth in the world.”