Cinema is no longer a mere collection of stories filmed to entertain moviegoers and make money through advertisements, nor is it the standard transformation of international novels into blockbuster movies.
Many countries across the world that understand the film industry’s integral role in advancing humanity have invested in the sector to help spread their ideas and share their cultural and intellectual wealth with a global audience.
Cinema has become a key tool of soft power, reflecting each country’s unique culture, identity, heritage and story, offering a glimpse into the joys, sorrows, dreams, and ambitions of its people.
Since the launch of the Saudi Ministry of Culture, efforts to realise the dream of an integrated film industry in Saudi Arabia have been afoot, with many endeavours currently being pursued to develop infrastructure, support promising developments, and shape talented cadres.
In an interview with Engineer Abdullah Al-Eyaf, CEO of the Saudi Ministry of Culture’s Film Commission, he tells Al Majalla more about these efforts and the commission’s role in supporting the film industry so that it can leave its print on the Kingdom’s social and cultural fabric.
He also discusses the motivation behind Daw’ (“Light”) — the commission’s initiative to support film production through partnerships with international production companies and cooperation with global universities — and the private sector’s contribution to the biggest film industry renaissance in the world.
Cinema is one of the most influential tools of soft power at the international level. How do you view this influence, and how can it be leveraged to realise the commission’s objectives?
States tend to invest in media platforms and cultural sectors that allow them to tell their story instead of letting others tell it for them. Given the augmented experience it offers the audience, cinema is the most efficient and capable sector in terms of marketing ideas and identities.
Saudi cinema has seen some promising developments that have been praised at both the regional and international level, and we are working to promote these experiences by nurturing national talent capable of making competitive Saudi films that adhere to the highest quality standards throughout the filmmaking process.
Be it in screenwriting, acting, direction, production, high screening, marketing or distribution capabilities, there is great potential and promise.
Empowering our citizens is the central pillar of the Kingdom’s soft power, and we firmly believe that these creative talents will go on to paint a true picture of the current cultural, social, and economic renaissance in the Kingdom.
Empowering our citizens is the central pillar of the Kingdom's soft power, and we firmly believe that these creative talents will go on to paint a true picture of the current cultural, social, and economic renaissance in the Kingdom.
How do you envisage support to produce films that reflect and spread the Kingdom's culture locally and globally? Is local production capable of playing this role?
Yes, local production can play this role.
We believe that empowering filmmakers is the first step toward producing local films that reflect the Kingdom's culture, identity, and heritage. Film production in the Kingdom began many decades ago with some notable achievements in which we take pride.
Today, we strive to support Saudi filmmakers in every way possible to ensure the continuous production of local films and participation in international production projects which are drawn to our filmmaking sector.
To this end, the commission provides support in multiple areas together with other local partners and entities, such as the Cultural Development Fund, the Red Sea International Film Festival, non-profit groups working in the sector, and others.
Any filmmaking sector must be an integrated, clearly structured industry where stakeholders have great expertise in their respective areas, be they cadres and technicians or production and marketing companies. How far have you come in building the film industry in Saudi Arabia?
The first initiatives that the Film Commission launched when it was established in 2020 were training and qualification programmes for local talent. Even today, programmes aimed at developing the capabilities of our creative talent continue to be a priority for the commission.
These training programmes are designed to cover all aspects of filmmaking, such as screenwriting, character development, production, direction, acting, editing, music, visual effects, and even distribution, screening, and promotion.
Training was conducted in collaboration with prestigious international academic bodies, such as the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, La Femis and the Gobelins School in France, and the British Film Institute.
Some of the Arab world's best filmmakers also took part in the training, sharing their expertise with us.
Among them was Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, whose film The Man Who Sold His Skin was nominated by the Oscars for Best International Film, along with veteran Egyptian director Sherif Arafa, and many others, along with several Saudi experts who are passing on their rich knowledge and experiences to the younger generation.
Training programmes have been held in seven Saudi cities so far, and we expect to reach other cities in the future. More than 1,300 people attended these training sessions in 2022 where they learned about all aspects of film and developed their skills.
As for private companies working in the film industry in production, distribution, logistics, infrastructure, and other areas, we have recently witnessed significant growth given the surge in cinema and television production in the Kingdom.
Our wise leadership has also offered the sector generous support and empowerment at both the financial and legislative levels, which immensely contributed to gaining investors' trust. This, in turn, helped boost the number of SMEs working in the film industry.
The film industry is considered a profit-making industry. How will you capitalise on that? Do you have specific plans in this regard?
Our country has all the ingredients for success in the film industry. The sector has seen exponential growth since movie theatres were opened in the Kingdom in 2018, with 528 screens spread across 20 Saudi cities today, making the Saudi box office market the fastest growing in the Middle East.
During this period, Saudi Arabia was able to attract some big-budget international productions to be shot entirely on our sets, such as Desert Warrior, which was shot entirely in NEOM, in the north of the Kingdom, and Kandahar, which was shot in the cities of AlUla and Jeddah.
Budgets of Arab-made flicks will grow: "Desert Warrior", a new film co-produced by Saudi Arabia's biggest media company, is reportedly the most expensive film ever made in the kingdom https://t.co/Aukqk4LoxU
In May 2022, during the Cannes Film Festival in France, the Film Commission launched a 40% cash rebate programme to support local and international production, to attract more international film production to the Kingdom and bring more jobs to the film sector.
The commission also launched its incentive programme, Daw', aimed at experienced local film production companies and institutions as well as individual filmmakers.
The initiative, which offers non-refundable logistical support and cash grants, was launched in two batches, with 260 filmmakers participating in the first edition in the feature and short film categories.
If we want to talk numbers, 24 filmmakers won a total of 40 million riyals in grants across all categories, 132 filming locations were used in seven cities, and 12 hotels and 300 hotel nights were booked.
Additionally, 38 local entries were submitted in the feature and short film categories, and five contracts were signed with international and regional companies participating in the feature and short film categories.
These numbers demonstrate the programme's outstanding success.
The second edition of Daw' was launched in parallel with the 2022 Red Sea International Film Festival and has received submissions all year long, in a bid to ensure a lasting impact.
Not only did this initiative boost opportunities in the production of local feature and short films by Saudi filmmakers in line with global trends, but the Kingdom's achievements in this sector in such a short period have also caught the eye of investors, bringing in local and international investments.
Not only did the Daw initiative boost opportunities in the production of local feature and short films by Saudi filmmakers in line with global trends, but the Kingdom's achievements in this sector in such a short period have also caught the eye of investors, bringing in local and international investments.
Many young talents are making a name for themselves in the film industry, particularly in short films. What do you make of this? How will you nurture these talents and help them advance professionally?
Opportunities for Saudi filmmakers are growing in parallel with the industry's rapid expansion which we are currently witnessing in the Kingdom. More films are being made locally, with some titles being produced in cooperation with international and regional studios, platforms, and companies, such as Netflix and Shahid.
During the last edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival, four Saudi feature films had their international premiere screening, and one of them was screened at the closing ceremony.
Additionally, five short films and four feature films participated in local and international festivals recently.
These exciting developments have energised the Kingdom's film industry and motivated Saudis to push to greater heights.
The Film Commission's cash grants, and the knowledge and logistical support it offered to local filmmakers, obviously helped to enhance the quality of films and put Saudi movies on the map.
There are great and promising opportunities ahead, and our ambitions have no limits.
The Film Commission also supports the Saudi Film Festival, which is considered a key platform to discover talent and is the most important incubator for short films and student projects in the Kingdom.
Over the years, the festival has supported many novice filmmakers — capitalising on its strong local and international connections in the film industry — through its training programmes and exhibition spaces.
NEOM recently launched its Media Village, which provides world-class integrated film production services, and has effectively begun stimulating local and international production. Where does this effort fall in terms of alignment with the Film Commission's strategy for the film industry?
The fast-paced development taking place in NEOM, AlULa, and many other cities in terms of studios and production is in line with the commission's strategy, which aims at establishing film industry infrastructure across all parts of the Kingdom.
We have high hopes for the incredible filmmaking movement happening in AlUla and NEOM and look forward to seeing some highly competitive productions in these two regions, which not only offer mesmerising landscapes but also competitive strategic and logistic enablers.
Do the current efforts aimed at including arts in public education in the Kingdom cover filmmaking and cinematographic production?
We recently announced that we are working with our partners at the Ministry of Culture to include filmmaking in curricula as part of our cultural talent development strategy.
Filmmaking is one of the main channels of communication between cultures and the filmmakers of the future are the students of today.
This is why it is important to equip them with the necessary tools and knowledge to make movies that speak to Saudi, Arab, and global audiences through stories rooted in their own identity and culture.
Some Saudi universities like King Saud University, Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, and Effat University have already joined this new cultural environment by opening art, film, and theatre institutes.
How do you determine market needs, programme and curricula design, and academic tracks? What role can these experiences play in advancing the local film industry and shaping new cultural paths?
We are constantly in contact with the competent academic authorities to provide advisory services and coordinate between the public and private sectors to empower universities with the expertise needed to create educational programmes that serve their academic objectives but also provide the labour market with the competencies and skills needed in the sector.
We believe that universities play a strategic and central role not only in creating a pool of highly skilled filmmakers and film industry professionals, but also in enriching academic research in the field.