Dramatic shift evident at Cannes
LOS ANGELES, May 18, (RTRS): Saudi Arabia once had grand ambitions to become the movie capital of the Middle East, but the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has cast a dark cloud over those dreams. Amid reports that appeared to implicate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination, media companies that had rushed to embrace the Saudi leader as a reformer and had touted the potential of his country clammed up.
That dramatic shift in attitude is evident at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. A year ago, Saudi Arabia used the festival to court studios and film financiers. It set up its first national pavilion and trumpeted local rebates to lure Hollywood productions. But there is no Saudi tent on the Croisette this year, the promised incentives have not materialized, and the Khashoggi killing and various Saudi government policies continue to cause widespread revulsion.
“Everybody slowed down when the events around Khashoggi happened,” Imax CEO Rich Gelfond acknowledged at an event in Cannes, adding: “But I think people are starting to move forward again.”
For some companies, Khashoggi’s brutal murder, by Saudi security agents whom the kingdom insists acted on their own, made it impossible to do business in a country rigidly controlled by the royal family and, in particular, the crown prince. Endeavor returned a $400 million investment from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, and companies such as Viacom and Uber dropped out of a Saudi conference dubbed “Davos in the Desert” that had been intended to highlight bin Salman’s modernization efforts.
But other Hollywood players ultimately decided to plow ahead with plans to enter a market that boasts a young population of wealthy consumers.
“You have to go in with your eyes open about the political situation and not be naive about it, but it’s potentially a very lucrative opportunity,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners.
Movie theaters, banned prior to 2018, are opening at a rapid pace in the kingdom, with Middle East-based Vox Cinemas on track to have more than 100 screens in operation by year’s end. AMC, the world’s largest exhibitor, expects to open as many as 50 theaters in the next five years. Imax has two theaters in operation through licensing deals. Major studios continue to release their films such as “Avengers: Endgame”.
In Cannes, the Saudi contingent is keeping a lower profile this year, but it includes former Dubai Film Festival exec Shivani Pandya, who has been named general manager of Jeddah’s ambitious new Red Sea International Film Festival, Variety has learned. The festival is set to kick off next year.
“The road might be bumpy in its initial stage, and we may be witnessing some setbacks,” said Dubai-based producer Fadi Ismail. “But for sure things are moving forward.” Ismail, the former general manager of Saudi-controlled Dubai-based broadcaster MBC’s production arm, is now launching his own company with a slate full of projects based on Saudi intellectual property.
In Cannes, Abu Dhabi-based production powerhouse Image Nation, MBC, and Vox Cinemas on Wednesday announced a partnership to jointly produce and distribute Arabic film and TV projects in which “Saudi Arabia factors in enormously,” said Image Nation chief Michael Garin.
But outside the region, the killing of Khashoggi is impacting Saudi Arabia’s ability to forge international ties to make movies and attract top talent. It probably won’t be easy to get movie stars to attend the Red Sea fest. “It was tough enough to bring stars to Dubai,” said a prominent Middle East film exec who asked to not be identified, adding that “the current perception of Saudi is going to make it even tougher.” Nor have any major Hollywood productions announced plans to shoot in the kingdom – something that seemed possible when the country teased a generous round of film incentives.
“When we talk about the Saudi film industry … it’s sort of starting from zero, and it’s going to be quite a long process to build up anything that’s meaningful,” said David Hancock of research firm IHS Markit.
The Red Sea fest, which will include a year-round incubator/film lab, was announced in March, along with other initiatives, by Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan, who was appointed Saudi Arabia’s first culture minister last June. The prince, who is in his early 30s, is believed to be determined to lay the groundwork for an entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia, as is Turki Al-Shabana, who was appointed Minister of Media in December. Al-Shabana is a former top exec at MBC and the Rotana Media Group.