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Saudi Arabia Reps Tout Production Incentives, Get Grilled on Women’s Rights

Saudi Arabia will offer generous tax incentives as it looks to lure Hollywood studios to the desert kingdom and bolster its local film and television industry.

The country will give productions a 35% location rebate on films that shoot in Saudi Arabia; it will also give companies and studios a 50% rebate for any local talent they employ. The location rebate is a baseline and could increase, emissaries from the country’s film council told reporters Friday in Cannes.

“This is clearly part of an overall message that Saudi is open for business,” said Ahmad Al-Mezyed, CEO of Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Culture. “We’re full of stories that have been around for thousands of year. Some have been shared, and some haven’t been shared yet.”

Al-Mezyed’s pitch came after event organizers ran a splashy video highlighting the region’s diverse locations, from snow-capped mountains to desert temples. The outreach to Hollywood and foreign film players is part of a sweeping series of business and investment reforms intended to diversify the country’s oil-based economy. Saudi Arabia recently lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, and theater construction is taking place at a feverish pace as companies such as AMC and Vox try to establish a foothold.

However, there are significant cultural and political challenges for outside investors and artists looking to work in the region. The country is poised to allow women to drive cars for the first time next month, but it remains a patriarchal society. Al-Mezyed was grilled at the hour-long press conference on whether his country would allow women to wear Western dress on film sets and whether movies with LGBT content would be allowed to film within Saudi Arabia, where same-sex sexual activity is illegal.

Al-Mezyed largely ducked the questions, saying that content guidelines were still being drafted and stressing that he did not want the press conference to be a “political discussion.” He said “big change” was under way, noting that Saudi actresses were being employed and that Haifaa Al-Mansour, a woman, is one of the country’s best directors. But the Saudi representatives seemed frustrated that many of the questions from the press focused on gender issues.

“About 70% of the questions are about women,” said Al-Mezyed, complaining that many of the questions were informed by a “pre-2015 idea of what Saudi used to be.”

Saudi Arabia has nine short films at this year’s festival, and Al-Mezyed predicted that this would be the first of many Cannes visits for the country. He added that the country’s booming economy and youthful, digitally savvy population will allow Saudi Arabia to quickly transform itself into one of the dominant entertainment players in the Middle East.

“We’re at the beginning of our journey,” he said.

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