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Exhibitors at Dubai Forum Show No Signs of Pulling Back From Saudi Arabia

Hollywood may be reassessing its ties to Saudi Arabia following the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. But at a big international film industry conference underway in the Middle East, there are no signs anyone else is thinking about pulling back from what continues to be considered a global top 10 movie market in the making.

More than 500 film industry delegates from 45 countries are gathered at Dubai’s Grand Hyatt Hotel for the first edition of the MENA Cinema Forum, where “a lot of the discussions were about Saudi Arabia,” said the event’s director, Leila Masinaei. But Masinaei noted that, while some people did address the Khashoggi scandal, “everyone is trying to keep politics and business separate.”

Khashoggi’s disappearance inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 prompted a number of foreign media moguls, including several U.S. executives, to pull out of last week’s Saudi government-backed investment conference in Riyadh. After repeatedly denying any role in Khashoggi’s disappearance and death, Saudi officials now admit that Khashoggi’s killing was premeditated by Saudi agents with government ties.

The murder threatened to cast a cloud over this week’s two-day MENA forum in Dubai, which began Sunday. But the forum got underway as scheduled, with its attendance list more or lest intact.

The biggest delegations are from cinema chains such as AMC and Vox Cinemas, the two companies that have had the inside track in putting up movie screens in Saudi Arabia since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lifted the country’s ban on cinemas, in December 2017.

Regional execs from several U.S. studios, including Fox, Paramount, and Universal, also made the trek to Dubai, as did Stan McCoy, president and managing director of the Motion Picture Assn. for Europe, Middle East and Africa. In an e-mail, McCoy declined to comment on the Khashoggi murder, which has generated worldwide criticism and outrage.

The forum has “primarily been focused on Saudi cinema and the expansion plans of each exhibitor in the region,” said Gianluca Chakra, head of Dubai-based indie distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment. Chakra added that there “wasn’t really much talk about content, though, which kind of made it all about physical investment in the country.”

Vox Cinemas, which is owned by Emirati conglomerate Majid Al Futtaim, announced that it would be investing $100 million in Saudi Arabia in 2019 alone, with the aim of building 600 screens in the kingdom by 2022, CEO Cameron Mitchell said during a presentation. 

Also eager to put up screens in Saudi Arabia are Mexican exhibition giant Cinepolis, Persian Gulf chain Novo Cinemas, and Indian chain Carnival Cinemas, all of which gave presentations in Dubai about their plans.

PwC issued its projection that Saudi Arabia would have 2,600 screens across 300 to 370 sites by 2030 and admissions of 60-70 million tickets by 2030, for a total annual box office of $950 million. 

PwC estimates that, factoring in revenues from concessions and advertising, which typically make up 35% of overall exhibition revenue, Saudi Arabia has the potential to generate total revenue of $1.5 billion in 2030, which would make it among the world’s top 10 movie markets.

Asked during its presentation whether it envisaged a retreat in light of “recent news events,” PwC’s Martin Berlin said: “No, the train has left the station.”

A separate analysis presented in Dubai by London-based IHS Markit estimates that, by 2022, 15% to 20% of admissions in the Middle East (excluding Turkey and Cyprus) will come from Saudi Arabia. IHS analyst Pablo Carrera said that he has as yet had no information of any company “having changed course” in the wake of the Khashoggi killing. 

“There was no indication that anyone is pulling back,” said Colin Brown, an industry analyst and partner at Cairo-based distributor MAD Solutions.

“The only indication, if anything,” Brown added, “is that people are accelerating their plans with even more players emerging that are entering the Saudi market. This is a gold rush.”

Questions remain about whether Hollywood’s concerns over the brand-damaging effect of having studio movies play in Saudi Arabia could result in the supply chain being cut. The movies currently playing on Vox Cinemas’ three screens in Riyadh are Summit Entertainment’s “Hunter Killer” – for which star Gerard Butler recently canceled his planned promotional trip to Saudi – Universal’s “First Man” and Sony’s “Venom.” AMC’s one screen in the Saudi capital is playing “Hunter Killer” and “Smallfoot.”

The kingdom’s current screen capacity is five screens.

“The theaters are all being build predicated on Hollywood product,” said one MENA Cinema Forum attendee, who did not want to be identified. “If the tap is turned off because Hollywood has a PR problem and everyone is holding their nose, then there would be no business.”

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, is a major investor in Penske Media Corp., the parent company of Variety.

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