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Saudi Arabia Resurfaces With Hollywood Ambitions in Cannes

Oasis Production Locations
Courtesy of Mohammed Alkaabi

After making its debut on the Croisette in 2018, Saudi Arabia is back in Cannes.

The kingdom has a national pavilion promoting the launch of a high-profile film festival on the Red Sea, and is looking to lure more international productions to come shoot in AlUla,  a sprawling area of desert and giant boulders that boasts an ancient city.

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 the Middle East’s top-grossing territory in terms of theatrical box office returns.

But 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 clam up.

Is that changing? The Saudi presence at Cannes 2021, which is testing the waters, provides some indications that it is.

“I can tell you that I hesitated a long time before accepting the challenge,” said former Directors’ Fortnight chief Edouard Waintrop, who was recently appointed artistic director of the Red Sea Film Festival, which will hold its first edition in December.

“When I accepted, in all my discussions with the authorities I made it clear that I did not want any censorship on the Arab films because I share the hope of the Saudi authorities to make Saudi Arabia a major player in the Arabic cinema game,” he added.

“I know there are politics behind the scenes,” Waintrop noted. And “in opening this door, we don’t know what will happen,” he pointed.

“But if movies are made it will change many aspects of society there,” said the veteran French film critic, who underlines that many of the films being made in the Arab world these days have a female empowerment theme “and we know that the most retrograde country in this respect is Saudi Arabia.”

While the crisis due to Khashoggi’s death prompted U.S. pullback such as Hollywood agency Endeavor’s decision to return a $400 million investment to the Saudis, Hollywood now seems to be tiptoeing back in.

The first major shoot at AlUla was 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,” said Stephen Strachan, who is film commissioner of the Royal Commission for AlUla. “It was second unit, but it was with the Russo brothers,” he added.

Another Hollywood pic currently prepping to shoot there is Gerard Butler action thriller “Kandahar,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh, that MBC, the Saudi-owned Middle East TV giant, is co-producing and co-financing along with The Capstone Group and CAA Media Finance. Strachan said he is expecting to announce more major international productions shooting in AlUla in the next few months.

Hollywood dealmakers on the ground in Cannes noted how aggressive AlUla was in trying to secure top meetings, pushing past any potential optics issues around working with the kingdom. Following this year’s Oscar push for Bryan Fogel’s documentary “The Dissident,” which detailed the murder of Khashoggi, public and private tensions over working with Saudi Arabia were renewed.

The kingdom’s public fund took a significant stake in the Walt Disney Company from the open market last April, and invested roughly $50 million in the Russo brothers’ production company AGBO around the same time.  SRMG, a Saudi Arabian publishing and media company which is publicly traded, remains a minority investor in PMC, Variety’s parent company.

Meanwhile, the Red Sea Festival is causing major disruption on the Arab festival circuit with its recent decision to move the dates for its inaugural edition in Jeddah to Dec. 6-15, three weeks later than the previously announced Nov. 11-20 slot. These dates now overlap with the upcoming edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, the region’s oldest and most prestigious event, running Dec. 1-10. They also leave the Marrakech International Film Festival, usually held in early December — though they have yet yet to announce their dates — up in the air.

Shortly before announcing its aggressive festival date change in June, the Red Sea Film Foundation, which oversees the fest, announced a $10 million fund — that during Cannes was increased to $14 million — for projects by directors from the Arab world and Africa with plans to support more than 100 film and TV projects in its first year.

Waintrop told Variety that the Red Sea event’s date change was not decided by festival management. It is believed to have been dictated by the government.

“It’s exactly the kind of situation we should be working together to try to avoid as Arab festivals,” said Cairo Film Festival chief Mohamed Hefzy, who is also a prominent Egyptian producer and has at least one Saudi-financed Arab cinema project in the pipeline.

“But we are cooperating with Red Sea,” Hefzy added. “Even though it’s not an ideal situation, we have to make the best of it and turn it into an opportunity.”