Hollywood, London, Rome and Mumbai may want to watch their backs. There’s a new player on the international production scene that is set to become one of the elite global media hubs.
NEOM is a full-service regional production hub that, in its first 18 months of operation, has already hosted 25 productions including films, TV shows and commercials. Its Media Village and Bajdah Studio soundstages and film production support facilities together make up the country’s largest, and are located within the sustainable region NEOM, in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern corner. They have already hosted huge productions such as feature film “Desert Warrior,” the 7th century saga of a female battle chief who persuades Arab tribes to join forces against Persian invaders. It was followed by “Rise of the Witches,” a 10-part adaptation for television of a famous Saudi fantasy book series. Each, in its medium, represented the all-time highest-budget shoot in the region. “Desert Warrior” was a $150 million production with up to 500 people on set daily.
The name NEOM – derived from the Greek “neo” meaning new, and an abbreviation of the Arabic “mustaqbal” or future – signals a new future for the production needs of the entire Middle East and North Africa. Of course, that part of the world has always offered a range of breathtaking locations on land and sea. Now, with the coming of NEOM, producers will benefit from generous production incentives managed locally by the NEOM team, a best-in-class legal system and a uniquely project-friendly regulatory framework: by far, the most attractive value proposition for filming in the region.
For the first time ever, when the day is done, casts and crews don’t have to step right out of those amazing locations into makeshift tents. Instead, they are greeted by ultra-modern soundstages, resort style accommodation and catering operations rivaling the world’s best. (NEOM even boasts its own airport with direct 4.5-hour flights to London.)
The studios and village are part of NEOM’s vision of a future-facing community that covers over 10,000 square miles, designed to embody innovative approaches to sustainable, humanity-friendly and environment-friendly living.
Yet creating this new regional media hub was no mere economic initiative, explains Wayne Borg, managing director of media industries, entertainment and culture. “It will play a thought-leadership role, setting the standards for other jurisdictions around the world.”
Borg points out that as a marketplace for some 500 million people, plus millions more in the worldwide Arabic diaspora, the Middle East and North Africa have remained “underserved because of a fragmentation of infrastructure,” necessitating the creation of a “focal point for the region’s media industries to collaborate and harness opportunities.”
Even as the infrastructure was under construction, producer Eric Hedayat saw the potential for shooting “Desert Warrior” at “this amazing geographic formation” of red sand and monumental rocks at NEOM, with easy access to major hotels and the “amazing” Red Sea, as well as the desert and mountain environments that were also crucial.
“With their general attitude of wanting to promote film, NEOM was extremely supportive,” he recalls. Local staffers were invaluable in assisting with “environmental studies, setting up base camps” and catering. “You’re moving an army, and an army moves on its stomach,” he says.
“Desert Warrior” wrapped at the end of 2021, its early days devoted to building soundstages in the country’s interior and coast that became foundational for the continuing expansion. The results were apparent right away: “Rise of the Witches,” which created a complete fantasy world set in 500 B.C., was able to wrap in a mere six months.
“Rise” producer Dominic Barlow also uses a military analogy. “It was a bit like an army air base, where they just land and everything pops up. They were building around and alongside us while we were working and by the end, we had good studios when we needed them. It worked.”
Thanks to those early efforts, Barlow says, the complex now offers “what a producer like me needs. I like to walk into a place and it’s ‘plug and play’ … all there to service the infrastructure and facilities you need.”
Those factors aside, financing is job No. 1 whenever new projects are conceived and scouted. As Hedayat wryly notes, “The business has transitioned from ‘Where do we shoot a movie?’ to ‘Where do we go for a rebate to shoot a movie?’” Borg points with pride to NEOM’s incentives: “40% plus in cash rebates, not tax offsets. These are the most generous in the region, and among the most competitive globally.”
Borg is also bullish on the opportunities afforded to filmmakers for all manner of projects across genres, not just those demanding sun and sand. “There are about 500 kilometers of available coastline on the Red Sea,” he notes, “complete with incredible seas and coral reefs. Mountains that elevate 2,500 meters, and snow in the winter. Out-of-this-world landscapes, plus traditional desert. And with our volumetric soundstages, we can cheat just about any location.”
No matter how “Desert Warrior” and “Rise of the Witches” are received, the infrastructure is permanent, its growth proceeding quickly in mind-boggling dimensions. NEOM is expected to house 1 million people by 2030, and as many as 9 million by 2045. That growth will be echoed by the Media Hub, with 10 soundstages due to be operational in early 2023 and another 80 projected to open by 2045.
For all its advantages and novelty, the media hub must keep producers happy to survive, and those who have filmed there rave about the cooperation and hospitality of all NEOM personnel. “I’m excited to go back there and work again,” insists Hedayat, while Barlow reports, “My family came and lived with me for a bit. They really enjoyed it … I’m going back [to film in the future]. That says something, doesn’t it?”