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Saudi Arabia Announces New Film Initiatives, Including Its First Film Festival

Saudi Arabia’s recently established culture ministry has announced a slew of arts initiatives, including plans for the kingdom’s first film festival, a film school and a national film archive. The plans are designed to foster a local film industry.

During a ceremony Wednesday evening in the capital of Riyadh, Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan, who was appointed Saudi Arabia’s first culture minister last year, unveiled a document called “Our Culture, Our Identity” outlining initiatives to kickstart the local arts sector. The effort is part of social and economic reforms championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the Vision 2030 banner.

Saudi Arabia’s first film fest has been named the Red Sea International Film Festival and will be based in the historic district of Jeddah, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. The festival’s president is young Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh, known for groundbreaking comedies “Barakah Meets Barakah” and “Amra and the Second Marriage.”

The ambition is to make it a major pan-Arabic event for emerging talent, centered on a year-round incubator/film lab called the Red Sea Film Lodge. Organizers are trying to forge ties with other film labs around the world. The first edition of the fest is slated for 2020.

Other initiatives include a film fund and a co-production scheme. All the film initiatives are in an embryonic stage, but signal a new impetus.

Saudi Arabia’s lifting in December 2017 of a 35-year-old ban on movie theaters has prompted a race to build screens in what is considered a potential major movie market. The first Saudi multiplex was opened in April 2018 by Middle East exhibitor Vox Cinemas, which now says it is on track to open 110 screens in Saudi Arabia by year’s end.

But aside from construction of theaters to show Hollywood movies, there hasn’t appeared to be much in terms of industry-building activity. Tax rebates announced last year in Cannes were meant to lure producers to shoot in Saudi Arabia, but that is not a very viable proposition at the moment.

And attempts to forge international ties have been undermined by the fallout from the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered in Istanbul in what the government insists was a rogue operation by Saudi operatives. Other evidence has strongly suggested that the crown prince at least knew of, if not ordered, the killing.

Hollywood talent agency Endeavor returned a $400 million investment from the government’s Saudi Public Investment Fund in protest. The fund is an investor in Variety’s parent company, Penske Media Corp.

More recently, Italy’s La Scala opera house returned a $17 million investment from the Saudi culture ministry, but on Wednesday it emerged that La Scala has agreed to open a Saudi conservatory for young boys and girls.

There is currently uncertainty over whether Saudi Arabia will have a national pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival this year. The new culture ministry is overhauling the country’s existing film council, which was unveiled on the Croisette in 2018. According to a well-placed source, the ministry is now in the process of replacing that council with a new Saudi film commission, and until a new film entity is firmly in place, the ministry may decide to skip having an official Cannes presence.

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