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Saudi Arabia: Will Film Business’ Next Big Hope Pan Out?

Saudi Arabia may be the biggest star at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The Arab kingdom, which is hosting three panels at the film gathering ranging from theatrical distribution to digital content, has taken up a sprawling space at the Marché du Film, and is handing out ornate booklets to festivalgoers that tout its wealth, burgeoning population of consumers and exotic filming locations. It’s part of a global coming out party for Saudi Arabia, a culturally conservative and oil-rich nation, that just lifted a three-decade ban on cinemagoing.

“You’re starting with a clean slate,” said Hamid Hashemi, CEO of iPic, a luxury theater chain that’s building theaters in Saudi Arabia, at CinemaCon last month. “There’s a market of 33 million people… It’s a sophisticated, affluent audience. They’re well-educated and all speak fluent English. They travel to Dubai and all over the place just to watch a movie.”

Where once no theaters existed, the desert region has in a matter of weeks unveiled eight sparkling new screens with dozens of cinemas expected to open in the coming months. By 2030, Saudi officials say there will be roughly 2,000 screens in the country.

But Saudi Arabia is moving beyond theater construction. Nebras Films, the company’s first full-service production studio, has hit the Croisette to sell filmmakers on the merits of shooting in their newly opened 42,000-square-foot production facility, a space that offers everything from aerial drones to 3D animation tools. Films have already started shooting in the country. Historical epic “Born a King,” the first international co-production shot in Saudi and filmed for three weeks at the newly launched studio.

“We will be doing seven movies a year for the next few years,” said Nebras head of production Matty Beckerman. “It’s all focused on showing the culture in a positive light — good messages and creating a bridge between us and the rest of the world.”

The opening of Nebras wouldn’t have been possible were it not for a move towards greater liberalization in the fiercely conservative country — a nation that will only allow women to drive next month. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been allowing more forms of cultural expression and is looking to diversify his country’s natural-resource-based economy. As part of that effort, he’s earmarked $10 billion to fund entertainment and media investments.

Stuart Ford, CEO of AGC Studios, a newly launched content company that counts Image Nation Abu Dhabi as a major investor, says he hopes his company can help the country be strategic in the way it goes about building its local film business. But he warns other would-be partners might be more exploitative.

“What we’ve always been very strong at with these new entrants into the marketplace is coaching them and unlike most of Hollywood — which basically approach them with their hand out, like: what can you give me? — we come to the table and say: what can we offer you?” said Ford.

There are still several issues that need to be resolved. Saudi Arabia continues to fine-tune its censorship guidelines and the country is being flooded with requests from media companies and exhibitors looking to establish a toe-hold in a place that’s been closed off to Hollywood investment for decades.

Rumors are swirling that, like China, Saudi will create a government gateway for international distribution rather than let foreign distributors come in. There will possibly be two local distribution entities. One would be media company Rotana, which has a vast Arabic content library, and the other Dubai-based, Saudi-owned MBC, which is the Middle East’s top terrestrial broadcaster.

Imax CEO Richard Gelfond, whose company recently partnered with Dubai-based Vox Cinemas on a new location in the Saudi capital Riyadh and is planning to team with AMC Theatres on other venues, is at Cannes to talk up the move into the country. He sees parallels with the movie business’ infatuation with China — an association that has greatly expanded its box office haul and the reach of exhibitors, but has also come with several investments gone south.

“The Saudis need to sort out and distinguish who the players are and who are the people looking to jump into the market without much experience,” he said. “They have to be discriminating in what they want to invest in. In China some of the early entrants didn’t pan out.”

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