It's been a hectic few weeks for Saudi Arabia's fledgling cinema since public cinemas dramatically returned to the kingdom last month with a Riyadh gala screening of Marvel's blockbuster Black Panther.
Since then, we've seen the opening of a second cinema, and Saudi's first Imax, discussion over ticket prices given the demand, the launch of a new TV channel focusing on home-produced Arabic drama, and the announcement of generous rebates of 30 to 50 per cent to attract production to the kingdom.
There have also been rumours that all distribution in the kingdom will be taken on by a single, government-controlled body in the style of China’s state-run China Film Group (which controls all distribution within the People’s Republic), rather than through the existing regional distribution system.
Meanwhile, reports that the road to achieving a mutually acceptable version of Black Panther to screen was somewhat lengthy means that censorship remains a hot topic among industry watchers.
Of course, it’s very early days, and little is currently set in stone, but as the dust begins to at least settle a little, here’s what we know ...
On making films
There’s no doubt that the sudden arrival of a new audience of 30 million eager film fans and hundreds of cinemas over the next few years will be the biggest boost the regional industry could have ever wished for.
While Hollywood giants may have got in quickly with early cinemas, moving forward Saudi audiences will also want to see content of local and cultural relevance too. Of course, some of this will be imported – Egyptian cinema is already popular in the kingdom, and with large resident South Asian and South-East Asian populations, there could be a boost for these industries too.
Ultimately, however, Saudi Arabia will want to produce its own movies – the opening of cinemas is, after all, part of a drive to diversify the economy, not just spend more on imports. It has already announced its intention to improve infrastructure and offer training to homegrown talent, but this will take time, and in the meantime it will need help. This could present a major boom to the industry here in the UAE, as well as other more developed regional industries such as Lebanon and Jordan. MBC has already announced a deal to co-produce four feature films with Image Nation Abu Dhabi, and such early partnerships could prove vital as the kingdom's industry develops. Smaller filmmakers could benefit too.
Leading Dubai producer and director Nayla Al Khaja has described the shift in Saudi cinema as a “huge opportunity”, and has held meetings in Saudi Arabia and Cannes with investors from the kingdom over funding a four-film slate – including one film set in KSA itself. The entire industry is looking eagerly to the kingdom as a potential source of audience and investment opportunities.
The just-launched SBC TV channel, meanwhile, has promised to focus on Arabic drama and entertainment aimed at young Saudis, with a particular remit to produce its own content and offer training and experience to young Saudi actors, writers and crew who previously had to look overseas for opportunities.
Finally, the recently announced, extremely generous rebate scheme should attract foreign production to Saudi Arabia, bringing much-needed investment as well as the opportunity to rapidly develop infrastructure and skills.
On distributing films
Things are less cut and dry when it comes to the future of distribution in the kingdom. Currently, there are only two cinemas and a handful of films cleared for screening in the country: Paddington 2 and Masha and the Bear are the latest to join the Marvel pairing of Black Panther and Infinity War, as well as Ferdinand and Rampage on the approved list.
So it's looking like it is easy enough to get by on a case-by-case basis at this stage. With exhibitors clamouring to open up in the kingdom, and Hollywood studios desperate to get a toehold in this potentially huge market, this won't be the case forever, however. While nothing has been confirmed, Saudi Arabia's General Council for Audiovisual Media is reportedly planning on taking film distribution in the country into the hands of a state-run, regulatory body that will decide which films are released, in what format and, of interest for the studios, for how much money.
The Hollywood studios and local distributors have confirmed this to be their understanding, although with a slice of a billion-dollar market at stake, no one was keen to go on the record. Even more intriguingly, well-placed sources have claimed that this new distribution body will be none other than the regional broadcasting giant MBC. The TV channel has plenty of experience in the field, and is now believed to be majority government-controlled.
And while MBC has declined to comment at present, it is understood we can expect to hear confirmation of this news in the near future.
Where will the films be shown?
Cinema exhibition seems to be fairly straightforward. AMC and Vox have already been granted licences to operate in the kingdom, have opened their first venues and announced expansion plans, while other operators, including the UK’s Vue, are also believed to be seeking licences.
For TV, however, the prospect of MBC taking hold of Saudi cinema distribution could have major knock-on effects for the regional industry, because MBC would be well placed to demand TV rights alongside cinema rights. As MBC broadcasts to the whole region, and TV rights are sold for the whole region, this would have significance for pay-TV broadcasters.
MBC would hold the rights to the major studios' films, which are the bread and butter of the likes of OSN and, significantly, beIN. MBC doesn't operate a pay-TV service, and the studios are unlikely to drop prices to a level allowing free-to-air TV to screen their films profitably. So unless MBC plans to move into pay-TV, a possible scenario is that MBC could take the rights and sell them on to a buyer of its choice.
UAE cinema distributors could also be affected. It would be strange for one distributor to handle movies in the biggest market in the region, while a handful of smaller distributors do the job in the smaller markets surrounding it. It’s not unthinkable – the current situation is essentially the same, just with no Saudi involvement at all. MBC would be well placed here, should it choose to set itself up as a regional cinematic behemoth in the same way it dominates the local television landscape.
One local distributor, who did not wish to be named, suggested, with such huge rewards at stake, the studios would be prepared to play ball to gain access to the Saudi market. “The studios will follow the money, I’m sure of that,” said the distributor. “They’ll give them whatever they want as long as it’s paid up front. It’s risk-free.” The studios may well follow the money, and clearly any slice of a potential $1 billion (Dh3.67 m) market is better than a slice of the current nothing. Nonetheless, one source did say Motion Picture Association of America president Charles Rivkin was worried by the latest reports.
And what about film festivals?
The recent downscaling of the Dubai International Film Festival has left a huge gap in the market. Could Saudi be set to fill that gap? There are already some uncannily coincidental links between Diff and the rebirth of Saudi cinema, and the two seem inextricably linked, whether by accident or design.
One of the most-attended panels at the Saudi Pavilion in Cannes this week was a debate on “Does Saudi Arabia need a film festival?”
Wadjda director Haifaa Al Mansour was particularly vocal in support of the idea.
"Dubai International Film Festival was a hub for all the filmmakers to come and see each other and exchange ideas," she said. "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."
Clearly, it’s going to be a long and fascinating journey as Saudi Arabia seeks to position itself as a global centre for movies and entertainment, and it’s a journey that we’ll be following every step of the way.