Three years after the first movie theater reopened in Saudi Arabia – following removal of a religion-related ban – the kingdom has become the top theatrical market in the Middle East and is turning into a major driver for Arabic film production.

“At the moment Saudi is on a different path from the rest of the world,” says David Hancock, an analyst at London-based Omdia, which sees this new market as having the potential to be ranked among the top 10-15 territories for box office worldwide by 2024.

By 2024 Omdia estimates there will be 1,400 screens in Saudi Arabia, up from a current count of less than 300 screens in 2020 with more than 600 screens expected in 2021. In 2020 Saudi box office was up 3% to $115 million, bucking the downward trend in the rest of the world.

But besides growing box office and screen count, just like in other parts of the world such as China where there is moviegoing growth, “getting local content into Saudi cinemas is the key to the game,” Hancock adds.

In January Dubai-based indie distributor Front Row teamed up with Saudi’s sole local exhibition chain, Muvi Cinemas, to jointly release English, Arabic, Japanese anime and alternative content across Saudi.

“The interesting aspect is that we are trying to grow a different audience there,” says Front Row chief Gianluca Chakra.

He notes that in the United Arab Emirates, which has a small local population and plenty of expats, “it’s just the commercial product that works and theaters don’t really give a chance to any other type of film, whereas with Saudi you have a virgin kind of market that is wide enough to give space to a different kind of product.”

Front Row in December announced production of an Arabic version of hit Italian concept movie “Perfect Strangers,” which a high-caliber ensemble cast comprising star Lebanese actor/director Nadine Labaki, being co-produced with leading Egyptian indie shingle Film Clinic (“Yomeddine,” “Paranormal”) and prominent Lebanese distributor Empire International.

Cameron Mitchell, CEO of top Middle East exhibitor Vox Cinemas, which will be opening roughly 100 new screens in Saudi Arabia sees the kingdom becoming the top film business driver in the region, and is very aware of the need to diversify product offerings and steer toward local titles. “Vox has a very discerning customer base that craves local content and we are dedicated to making it accessible to both audiences in the region and internationally, to avoid over-reliance on Hollywood releases,” he says.

Alongside U.S. actioners such as “S.W.A.T.,” “The Marksman” and Bruce Willis-starrer “Anti-Life,” in late January Vox released Saudi director Abdulaziz Al-Shalahi’s drama “The Tambour of Retribution,” which won the Special Jury Prize at the Cairo International Film Festival in December.

Vox Cinemas, Emirati production company Image Nation Abu Dhabi, and broadcaster MBC Studios have forged a production pact which is spawning several upcoming Arabic feature films, including a road movie working-titled “Empty Quarter,” directed by Lebanese director Omar Naim (“The Final Cut”), currently shooting in Abu Dhabi, where even during the peak of the pandemic production never stopped.

“Having the Saudi market open up has made us more active in production and enabled us to concentrate our energies on creating product for the region,” says Image Nation executive producer Hanna Maki. “That’s why we’ve had such a busy year with six local productions going on.”

Standout Arabic titles in various stages:

“Memory Box” (pictured) – Lebanese visual artists and filmmaking duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (“The Lebanese Rocket Society”) have crafted an intergenerational story centered around three women whose lives are bound by a box that resurfaces containing notebooks, photographs and audiotapes, using photographs, journals and audio recordings they had made while growing up in Beirut of the 1980s. In Berlin competition.

“Perfect Strangers” – The Arabic adaptation of the hit Italian concept movie that’s spawned a dozen remakes is being directed by Lebanese first-timer Wissam Smayra, who has co-written the Arabic “Perfect Strangers” screenplay with Gabriel Yammine. Besides Nadine Labaki the pan-Arabic “Perfect Strangers” ensemble cast also features Egypt’s Mona Zaki (“30 Years Ago,” “Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story”); Egypt-based Jordanian actor/director Eyad Nassar (“The Blue Elephant 2”); Lebanon’s Diamand Bou Abboud (“The Fixer”), Adel Karam (“The Insult”), and fellow Lebanese actor/director/playwright/composer Georges Khabbaz, who co-wrote Labaki’s “Capernaum.”

“Kira and El Gen” – Egyptian director Marwan Hamed (“The Blue Elephant”) has been shooting this big-budget pic based on “The Blue Elephant” author Ahmed Mourad’s book “1919,” about Egyptian resistance to British occupation. Produced by Ahmed Badawy, managing director of Tamer Morsi’s Synergy Films, the “Kira and El Gen” budget is north of $10 million, being touted as the most expensive film in Egyptian cinema history. The film stars some of the biggest names in Arab cinema, including Karim Abdel Aziz, Ahmed Ezz, Hind Sabri and Ahmad Malek. British actor Sam Hazeldine also appears.

“Bullets and Bread” – Egyptian director Mohammad Hammad (“Withered Green”) has re-teamed with prominent producer Mohamed Hefzy’s Film Clinic and Kholoud Saad on this drama based on a story by Egyptian author Tamer Abdrab Elnaby, about a young man named Youssef who is serving his mandatory military service on the Egyptian eastern desert border, while dreaming of becoming a writer. He intersects with a dangerous bandit from one of the tribes that roam the remote desert region.

“Empty Quarter” (Working Title) – Siblings journey from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi on the infamous Route 10, where they are tormented by an unknown assailant and must fight, and drive, for their lives. Directed by Lebanon’s Omar Naim (“The Final Cut”), and co-produced in Abu Dhabi by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, MBC Studios, and Majid Al Futtaim, which owns Vox Cinemas.

“Costa Brava Lebanon” – a dystopian drama set amid Lebanon’s never-ending garbage crisis, directed by first-timer Mounia Akl, who studied film at Columbia University. Pic, which is in post, is produced by Georges Schoucair’s Beirut-based Abbout Productions.