From AlUla to Cannes: Saudi film industry blooms six years after cinema ban is lifted

The kingdom’s return to film following a 35-year ban is making a mark both domestically and internationally

Saudi Arabia celebrated six years since cinemas reopened in the kingdom this month following a 35-year ban. Filmmakers who were unable to shoot in the city streets for fear of the now-defunct religious Mutawa have returned home; the government has begun a range of incentives to encourage young Saudi filmmakers; film festivals are being staged across the kingdom and famous actors and producers from Hollywood and Bollywood are shooting in the rugged landscapes of AlUla and Neom. 

Big money is now being made from Saudi Arabia’s rising film industry: cumulative box office profits are approaching the $1 billion mark, according to Saudi’s Film Commission. 

“Cinema has always been a part of Saudi Arabia,” Maram Taibah, a Saudi fantasy author, screenwriter and film director living in Jeddah told The Circuit. “Before cinemas reopened, we were watching films from all over the world through different platforms. The appearance of cinemas in Saudi makes us the storytellers now. There are so many stories in the kingdom that haven’t been told yet.”

Backing the rise of the kingdom’s film industry is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. The planning document for the ambitious economic transformation plan states: “We consider culture and entertainment indispensable to our quality of life. We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy.”

Vision 2030 commits government funds and aims to attract local and international investors as well as forge partnerships with international entertainment companies. Eight years on from the plan’s rollout, its efforts to build a film industry have gathered pace. 

In 2019, the Red Sea Film Foundation (RSFF) was created to serve as a catalyst for the expansion of the Saudi film industry. The next year, in 2020, the Saudi Film Commission was established under the Ministry of Culture, and in December 2021, the first Red Sea Film Festival was staged in Jeddah attracting filmmakers from across the Arab world and internationally. 

The Saudi Film Commission also organized the fourth edition of the Gulf Cinema Festival which ran earlier this month, marking the first time a government agency backed the festival. There’s more where that came from. A $100 million Saudi Film Fund was revealed in February this year by the government’s Cultural Development Fund in collaboration with local investment firm MEFIC Capital and Roaa Media Ventures. 

All of these initiatives have impacted the Saudi film production market, which has become the largest consumer market for creative and cinematic content in the Arab world. International movie stars are taking notice and investing in Saudi’s blossoming landscape for filmmaking.

Over the past year, 60-year-old movie star Johnny Depp has spent several weeks in the kingdom, as reported by Vanity Fair, devoting much time to traveling with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Depp will direct “Modi,” a film supported by Saudi’s Red Sea Film Foundation that follows the life of the Italian artist and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani. The film is made in collaboration with Al Pacino who plays a supporting role as French art collector Maurice Gangnat. 

“Saudis have long been interested in filmmaking even before there was a film scene,” Todd Albert Nims, an American filmmaker and producer born and raised in Saudi Arabia told The Circuit. Nims produced the first Saudi feature films released to cinemas: “Joud” in 2018 and “Born a King” in 2019.

Before cinemas reopened and kickstarted the film industry, Nims said YouTube was “a large part of the film movement.” 

“It has been building momentum but when Vision 2030 was announced [eight years ago] it shifted the entire country,” he says. “This year we will have three film festivals.”

Government funding is not only encouraging and supporting young Saudi filmmakers but also aims to grow the private sector. Proof of this are the many Saudi and foreign-owned start-up production houses that have launched in recent years across the country, largely in Riyadh.

This year “Norah,” the debut feature film of Saudi director Tawfik Alzaidi marks the first Saudi film to be screened at 77th Cannes Film Festival. Premiered locally in December 2023 during the Red Sea Film Festival, it will launch internationally in Cannes’ prestigious Un Certain Regard section. 

Taibah, the film director from Jeddah, will join him. She is one of three female filmmakers selected by the Royal Commission for AlUla, a heritage development group backed by the Public Investment Fund, to create a short film shot in the desert location. Taibah’s film, titled “Malika” (translated to “Queen” in English), explores themes of female empowerment. “It’s about an endearing relationship between a little girl and her grandmother,” she says. “It’s a film that offers commentary on women’s sovereignty and the choices women make in their lives.” 

Taibah will share an excerpt of the film at an event Film AlUla is hosting at the Cannes Film Festival this year. She hopes to show the film in its entirety in Cannes next year.

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