Saudi Delegation Pitches Ambitious Plan for Entertainment Industry to Hollywood Investors

A delegation of Saudi officials on Wednesday pitched an ambitious plan to build an entertainment industry largely from the ground up to about 250 representatives from major Hollywood financiers and players.

During an afternoon summit at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., a number of Saudi investment and private-sector leaders promised a cadre of services to facilitate U.S. investment and partnerships in the country. The event was sponsored by the Saudi General Entertainment Authority (GEA), a newly created board tasked with expanding entertainment options. Arianna Huffington served as a moderator during the three summit panels, which touched on a range of topics, including improving quality-of-life measures.

Already, a handful of deals have been secured. AMC, the world’s largest movie theater company, announced Wednesday that it had been granted the first licenses to operate movie theaters in the Middle Eastern country. The deal was made possible by the lifting of a 35-year-old restriction on cinemas.

Added to the list is Cirque du Soleil, which will put on its first-ever show for Saudi National Day later this year, said Jonathan Tetrault, chief operating officer for the entertainment company. National Geographic Explorer will also build 10 new locations for its “Ocean Odyssey,” an immersive walkthrough adventure, starting with a location in Riyadh to open in 2019.

Feld Entertainment, the Florida-based live touring company, is entering a long-term relationship with the GEA to produce international events, including “Disney on Ice,” “Disney Live,” “Marvel Experience,” and “Monster Jam.” The partnership is intended to also give Saudis an opportunity to receive training as professional performers. IMG Artists will work to build entertainment programs in the country as well, which will require the building of venues to support the programming.

The deals announced Wednesday are the start of what Saudi officials hope will be a steady stream of American investment in a country where there are limited options for entertainment for its 32 million residents, 70% of whom are 30 or younger.

Among Hollywood players entering deals is Endeavor, parent company of WME. The Saudi Public Investment Fund is nearing a deal to acquire a minority stake in Endeavor, worth anywhere from $400 million to $500 million.

“We’re starting from scratch,” Faisal Bafarat, chief executive of the GEA, tells Variety. “In some areas, we are starting from zero.”

Bafarat said the country is also planning to build its first water and theme parks. Movie production is going to be a focus on the Vision 2030 plan unveiled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The blueprint, aimed at diversifying the country’s economy and building its infrastructure, has set a number of ambitious goals to modernize the country.

Bin Salman has been on a multi-city tour of the U.S., visiting Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The crown prince and members of his delegation have been meeting with top dignitaries and business leaders, including Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger, studio heads like Warner Bros.’ Kevin Tsujihara and Fox’s Stacey Snider, and media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, who hosted a dinner at his home Monday night.

The oil-rich country is attempting to wean itself off its dependence on the resource for economic growth. Part of the aim of growing the film and television production industry in Saudi Arabia is to provide jobs outside of the public sector, a major employer.

Under the new crown prince, Saudi Arabia has announced a number of social reforms, including granting women the right to drive. Women now can also attend sporting events, and Saudi officials are loosening dress-code restrictions for women, who have traditionally been required to cover most of their bodies and faces and be accompanied by male chaperones.

To critics, however, Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights, which include aggressively squelching political dissent and punishing homosexual activity, is impossible for Hollywood to ignore. Its military intervention in Yemen has also come under criticism for contributing to a humanitarian crisis there that has included a major cholera outbreak.

Still, bin Salman hopes to promote a more moderate form of Islam and have the country emerge as a major force in the Middle East.

“This is a country that is being transformed in many fundamental ways and is going to become, in many ways, a more modern and more vibrant society than it’s been,” said Jerry Feierstein, an expert with the Middle East Institute who recently served as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama.

Loai Bafaqeeh, CEO of the Quality of Life Program, tells Variety the approach to improve the welfare of Saudi citizens is comprehensive. Saudi officials are exploring ways to improve health outcomes, reducing the rates of obesity and diabetes, and increase the number of Saudis who exercise regularly.

Huffington remarked during one of the panels that the plan by the Saudis to streamline investment is unprecedented, noting how quickly officials plan to expedite permits and business voices. Saudi investment officials said they would turn around business permits in as quickly as 48 hours. “That’s faster than in Los Angeles,” she joked.

But it was Cirque du Soleil’s Tetrault who best summarized the eagerness of Saudi Arabia to transform its economy. “The openness for bringing new product is voracious,” he said, shortly before the ceremonial signing marking the Cirque show.

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