Since Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year-old religion-related ban on cinema in 2017, the kingdom has experienced a boom in all aspects of film industry activity, recently becoming West Asia’s top-grossing territory in terms of theatrical box office returns. Attracting international film and TV productions is clearly a key part of this government-driven effort.
The recent Cannes and Venice film festivals saw the launch of a film commission for AlUla, a sprawling area of desert and giant boulders that boasts an ancient city. The first major Hollywood shoot at AlUla took place earlier this year — Anthony and Joe Russo’s drama “Cherry,” starring Tom Holland as an Iraq War veteran turned opioid addict, an Apple Original film for which the Saudi desert stood in for Iraq.
“We hosted the shoot of ‘Cherry,’ which shot three days in AlUla and one day in Ryadh,” says Stephen Strachan, who is film commissioner of the Royal Commission for AlUla. “It was second unit, but it was with the Russo brothers.”
Another Hollywood pic now shooting in AlUla is Gerard Butler action-thriller “Kandahar,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh, that MBC, the Saudi-owned TV giant, is co-producing and co-financing along with the Capstone Group and CAA Media Finance. Cameras started rolling in mid-November with a crew of roughly 200, of which “I would say at least 8% to 10% of the crew is Saudi nationals,” says Strachan. “For next year, we’ve got a training scheme that we want to enact. So we’ll have many more locals who’ll be able to take part in filming.”
Saudi’s ambitions to build a film industry have been hindered by the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports that appear to implicate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination that prompted media companies from the U.S. and elsewhere to back off.
But Hollywood seems to be quietly returning. The kingdom’s public fund took a significant stake in the Walt Disney Co. from the open market last April, and invested roughly $50 million in the Russo brothers’ production company AGBO around the same time. Subsequently, the first U.S. productions have come to AlUla and others are expected to follow.
SRMG, a Saudi Arabian publishing and media company, which is publicly traded, remains a minority investor in PMC, Variety’s parent company