Saudi cinema poised for dramatic comeback

Saudi cinema is embracing globalisation and expanding economic development by highlighting culture, tourism, and entertainment as sustainable industries

Despite late entry into the film industry scene, there are several positive indicators which point to a bright future.
Cat O'Neil
Despite late entry into the film industry scene, there are several positive indicators which point to a bright future.

Saudi cinema poised for dramatic comeback

Riyadh: After a long hiatus, cinemas are back in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The return of one of the world’s favourite pastimes is a hot topic among Saudi writers, artists, intellectuals and officials, who are debating how to shape the future of cinema in the KSA after the 35-year pause.

It was mid-April 2018 when the country’s most prominent movie theatre chain, AMC, lit up its screens in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District, welcoming audiences two years after the Saudi Vision 2030 paved the way for the comeback.

By the end of the month, the first multiscreen theatres run by VOX were opened to the public. They were already pretty familiar to Saudis, via their widespread presence in other Gulf countries. The first domestic chain to enter the market, MUVI, was up and running by the end of the same year.

This boom also created an opportunity for resurgent filmmakers in the kingdom. Since then, there has been a surge in Saudi directors which has created the prospect of a homegrown movie boom that could position the country as a new, international hot spot for filmmaking and cinemagoers alike.

However, the opening of the Saudi cinema scene has coincided with the boom of streaming platforms, where audiences have access to countless television series and movies from the comfort of their homes.

We are now living in an age where conventional media is experiencing a transformation across the world, as seen in the surge of smart phones, TVs and tablet applications.

A booming industry

Luckily, this hasn’t seemed to have put a damper in Saudi cinema. According to the Saudi Press Agency, by April 2022, 56 cinemas with 518 screens had been built in 20 cities, showing 1,144 movies from 38 countries in 22 languages. Of these, 22 were Saudi films.

Tickets accounted for about SAR 31 million ($8.25 million) and approximately 4,500 Saudis are working in this sector. These numbers dismiss any concerns about the sustainability of cinemas in the KSA and the prospect of further investment in the sector is ripe.

But that’s not the only good news.

Major cinema operators continue to enter the Saudi market. Big names, such as EMPIRE — the movie theatre chain based in Lebanon and Iraq which later spread to other GCC countries — now has cinemas in Jeddah, Khobar, Jazan, Abha, and Arar.

Meanwhile, the Cinepolis brand — founded in Mexico in 1971 — is screening films in Jeddah, Dammam, and Jazan. Grand Cinemas set up its first branch in the KSA in Abhar, Jeddah, adding to its established presence in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon. Licenses to operate in the Kingdom have also been granted to the United Arab Emirate’s Reel Cinemas and South Africa’s Metro Nu.

Additionally, MUVI has announced the establishment of a movie-production subsidiary — MUVI Studios. Spanish movie studio Minimo — known for its world-class, iconic productions, from the Harry Potter films to Avatar — has also announced a $250 million cinematic joint venture in Saudi Arabia and a main regional office in Riyadh.

In 2018, Saudi VOX announced a SAR 2 billion ($500 million) investment to open 600 screens and create 3,000 jobs for Saudis. By 2019, another entertainment affiliate of the Public Investment Fund, AMC, announced a theatre-promoting partnership.

Half of its 11 Saudi cinemas in operation today are outside Riyadh and Jeddah, in Khobar, Hail, al-Majma'ah, Hafar al-Batin, and Dawadmi.

A father and his children wait by a poster advertising the Saudi comedy film

The decline of Saudi cinema began in the 1970s. During this time, films were shown in sports clubs and some households in Riyadh, Jeddah and Taif after a steady expansion from the first screens, which were part of the Aramco works in the 1930s.

Cinemas were officially banned in the country in the early 1980s.

Notable films

Despite their long absence from public screens, Saudi film production has a rich — albeit inconsistent — history spanning seven decades. Notable titles include Athubab (Flies) in 1950 and Ta’anib Addamir (Pricks of Conscience; directed by Saad al-Fereih) in 1966.

There was then an 11-year gap until 1977’s Eghtial Madinah (A City Assassinated; directed by Abdullah al-Muheissen, on the consequences of civil war in Beirut). Then, in 1980, there was Maw’ed ma’a Al-Majhoul (A Date with the Unknown), in 1982, there was Al-Islam Jesr Al-Mostaqbal (Islam: The Bridge to Tomorrow), a Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) award winner directed by Abdullah al-Muheissen, and then Assadmah (The Stun; by the same director on the invasion of Kuwait).

This exhaustive list is an indication of what lies ahead in the industry that is coming back to life.

For insight into what the future may hold for the film industry, the year 2006 is important. That was when Rotana produced Keif Al-Hal (How is it Going). Filmed in Dubai, the Saudi Rotana film was featured in cinemas in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations. Directed by Izidore Musallam, a Palestinian, the cast was mostly Saudi. It marked the opening of the Red Sea Film Festival.

Major milestone

There was another major milestone when the Saudi Film Festival (SFF) was born as a fruitful cooperation between the Dammam branch of the Saudi Arabian Society of Culture and Arts and the cultural centre of the Eastern Province.

The Saudi Film Festival is a shining example of progress in the industry, featuring 44 local films, awards for filmmakers, including the Saudi director Abdullah al-Muheissen and a range of publications on the history of local cinematography.

The festival was the first official celebration of local cinematic history and culture. While it is no longer the only event of its kind, it has stood the test of time. Last June marked the eighth session of SFF.

Three years after Keif Al-Hal yet before Menahi, a production by the same company, a new experience was conducted before featuring the movie in Jeddah, Taif, Jazan, and finally in Riyadh to serve as an unintended pulse feeling of how appealing commercial cinemas would be almost ten years before fielding. Manahi was featured at King Fahad Cultural Centre in Riyadh that featured a Japanese film six months earlier.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour attends the 2013 Variety Screening Series Presents Sony Pictures Classics'

In 2012, Haifaa al-Mansour, a Saudi female director, shot her first local feature film, Wadjda. It made its way into several European film festivals, won several awards, and was on the long list of the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

Wider modernisation

This chronological account of the renewal of Saudi cinema is not exhaustive, but it features the main highlights of the industry’s fledgling period. It was made possible by the KSA’s supportive measures and policy overhauls — a part of the country’s wider efforts to modernise and open up the country.

Under the Saudi Vision 2030 reforms, regulation was overhauled. By mid-2016, the General Authority for Culture (GAC) was created comprising five areas, including film, which had previously been under the Ministry of Information. GAC was able to set up the Film Commission before it was replaced in October 2020 by the Ministry of Culture.

For the first time in Saudi history, all oversight on cultural matters would fall under the Ministry of Culture’s authority. Previously it was fragmented, spread across departments which had other priorities.

Now, the wider definition of culture covers 16 areas, from architecture and design to fashion and even cooking. It also covers museums and heritage affairs, which were previously looked after by tourism bodies.

Film strategy

The Film Commission became part of the ministry in February 2020. In November 2021, it launched a film strategy to produce attractive local cinematic content for Saudi and international audiences and to establish the Kingdom as a world-class film production hub in the Middle East.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, the Film Commission based its plans on the best-practice polices of 20 leading cinematography countries.

The move was designed to consider the requirements of the time and meet the needs of various Saudi filmmakers. The standard-based comparison included an analysis of the present situation; defining the sector as well as the duties and competences of the Film Commission; and determining the initiatives, programmes and projects needed.

The strategy envisages “building and incubating a Saudi creative film sector, while boosting its ability across domestic and foreign markets.” The Film Commission highlights six priorities: developing talent and infrastructure, local production, international production in the Kingdom, regulatory framework, and film distribution and exhibition.

The Saudi Film Commission's strategy envisages "building and incubating a Saudi creative film sector, while boosting its ability across domestic and foreign markets." Its priorities include: developing talent and infrastructure, local production, international production in the Kingdom, regulatory framework, and film distribution and exhibition. 

It aims specifically at uncovering qualified talents for the Saudi film sector, ensuring the provision of appropriate and cost-efficient utilities and services, boosting local film production, attracting international filmmakers to the Kingdom, creating a pro-film cinema-nurturing regulatory framework, and boosting demand for Saudi films in selected local and international markets.  

In doing so, the Film Commission has announced 19 enabling pro-sector initiatives with 46 projects.  

In October 2021, the Saudi Cinema Association (SCA), the first professional society of Saudi cinematographers, was set up as a permanent gathering for industry professionals.  

There were similar moves to modernise policies over the KSA's non-profit cultural sector. In March 2021, the Saudi Minister of Culture, Prince Badr bin Farhan Al-Saud, launched an overhaul to create 16 professional societies for intellectuals and artists. The societies are to be backed by the Quality-of-Life Programme — a key Saudi Vision 2030 initiative.  

Nonprofit societies 

Various nonprofit film societies have emerged in addition to SCA. They include the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation, which was created by the Ministry of Culture to run the organisational aspects of the Red Sea International Film Festival of Jeddah.  

There was also an initiative to support the Red Sea Fund and the Cinema Society in the Eastern Province that is now responsible for organising the Saudi Film Festival.  

A host of film fan clubs have emerged, including the Cinema Colours Club, Salon Cinema Club, Arab Act Club in Jeddah, and Wathiqah (documentary) Club in al-Ahsa. These bodies represent civic involvement in the sector and are driving local communities to take part in the cinema industry.  

The renaissance of Saudi cinema is proving to be both a cultural and an economic phenomenon.   

It began with a need for screens which slowly grew in the 1970s and then disappeared. There was uneven progress in the years that followed. Some exceptional developments unfolded in the mid-2000s, but the full transformation happened in 2018 when the cinema ban officially ended. 

In the 1950s, film production in the KSA was limited to isolated, individual efforts to make movies. Progress was slow and the industry relied on private sector funding. Films were produced in batches of short films which were featured on screens nationwide and abroad.  

Benefits of modernisation 

While these first pioneering efforts are critical to the history of Saudi cinema, the new era that we are currently witnessing is finally on par with world-class standards and ambition. 

Today's cinema shows the benefits of modernisation and less regulation, which made room for the movie theatre boom and wider investment from a commercial, as well as cultural perspective.  

Saudi women enter a movie theatre at a cinema in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 22, 2020.

Now, state-of-the-art screens across the country feature new movies from all over the world. And finally, Saudi citizens are able to see the newest cinema productions as soon as they are released. That has helped create a market vibrant enough for local filmmakers to thrive.  

Growing institutional support has boosted the market, helped Saudi cinema assume a leading regional position, and boosted its prospects of becoming an international cinematic destination.  

Media coverage on the emerging Saudi cinema scene has also helped to develop the sector, not least through film reviews. There is further support from new cinema education programmes, both locally and abroad, as well as marketing campaigns.  

These conditions are helping the KSA become an attraction for industry professionals and interested parties, both domestic and international. The whole arc of progress, like the best movies, combines several elements to enthralling effect — in this case industry, commerce, and artisanship.  

Promising future 

The future of Saudi cinema looks more promising than ever. The conditions are in place to nurture the capabilities of filmmakers such as the development of critical reviews to boost the quality of films and the engagement of audiences.  

Saudi cinema can seem like an enigma. While it's not new, it also does not have a consistent history.  

It is now entering an unprecedented phase of professionalism and is growing in a distinct social and cultural context.  

The future of Saudi cinema looks more promising than ever and is now entering an unprecedented phase of professionalism and is growing in a distinct social and cultural context. 

Along with the development of other sectors nationwide, Saudi cinema is embracing globalisation and expanding economic development by highlighting culture, tourism, and entertainment as sustainable industries. It is also a new form of social change, boosting underlying values, vitality and quality of life.  

The commercial success of attracting the public to the big screen speaks for itself, as does the committed support from legislative and administrative circles. 

Long road ahead 

Nonetheless, there is much work to be done. Homemade Saudi films have a long way to go to be competitive, even judging by local box office receipts, although that is true of any new industry.  

Saudi filmmaking inherits problems from the TV industry, including weak scriptwriting and immature plots which reflects the abilities of casts and directors.  

There are also external disadvantages for the industry. Saudi films can face unfair competition alongside other Arabic and foreign options cinemagoers have. Non-Saudi productions have had more financial, political, and cultural support over the years, which shows in their higher production values. 

It will take time to overcome these constraints. In the early stages of its modernisation, the Saudi film industry will have to work hard to attract and develop world-class producers and sophisticated audiences, all while it seeks a balance between cost and innovation. 

Meeting these challenges requires a blend of international learning and the rediscovery and celebration of the Kingdom's authentic domestic arts.  

It could turn out to be a blockbuster combination for audiences and the industry alike both at home and around the world. 

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