Back in business, Saudi's film scene is set to take off

10 October 2022 4 min. read
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Saudi Arabia re-opened its cinemas for business four years ago, as part of its Vision 2030 drive. While the film industry is currently booming, however, to get the best out of the burgeoning market, the Kingdom needs to do more to empower production companies in the long-term, and open up decentralised sources of funding.

In 2018, the government announced that as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 modernisation programme, cinemas would be allowed to open in Saudi Arabia again. The move ended a period of 35 years without cinemas, and it took only four months after the end of the ban for the doors of the first cinema in Riyadh to open.

Fast forward four years since the first commercial screening (‘The Pink Panther’), and the population of almost 35 million people has embraced the new entertainment opportunities and in its slipstream a whole new domestic industry has emerged.

Size of the Saudi film market

By 2030, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM) – a governing authority regulating and operating cinemas – expects there will be around 350 cinemas and 2,500 movie screens in the country. To reach this goal, the Kingdom has to open at least 32 new cinemas every year.

The institution anticipates that as the burgeoning industry bounces back from a pandemic lull, it will soon be worth around $1 billion, while the Kingdom more generally hopes household spending on entertainment will double from present rates, to make up 6% of GDP by the end of the decade.

However, to get to that point is easier said than done, according to a new study from Saudi-based management consultancy Strategic Gears. Like any thriving market, a successful film sector does not only require massive conglomerate corporations, pumping out expensive blockbusters. It also requires a larger number of independent production companies – and due to the nature of the Kingdom’s historically top-down economy, this second part is something which is still underdeveloped in Saudi cinema.

Matters of funding

Saudi films are still subject to the strict censorship of the Kingdom, both via its laws, and through its financing of culture. Without a pre-existing private sector for film production, film finance in the Kingdom is still intrinsically linked to the Saudi state, and comes with a list of guidelines as a result.

5 Factors Driving Growth

At present, production companies can receive financial and artistic support from three government-backed institutions: the King Abdulaziz Center for World Cultures; a new film commission overseen by the Saudi Culture Ministry; and the Red Sea Film Festival.

Against this backdrop, a recent report by the British Council in Saudi Arabia found that 43% of respondents said that lack of commercial funding is one of the biggest obstacles to the film industry’s advancement.

Reflecting this, the Saudi box office is almost totally dominated by foreign productions. This is not simply an inevitable process which comes with opening up cinemas to global blockbusters, either. While the standard fare of the US studio system performed well in Saudi cinemas in 2021 – ‘Spiderman: No Way Home’ doing the best by bringing in $11.2 million – it was Egyptian production ‘Waafet Reggala’ (‘A Stand Worthy of Men’) which topped the box office, taking a $15.1 million haul.

According to Strategic Gears’ report, this suggests that there is a massive opportunity for distinctly local productions to do very well in Saudi Arabia, if producers are supported sufficiently in their content production journey.

As it stands, the financial support and investment offered to content producers is most commonly directed to individual film projects at the production stage, instead of production companies and at the development stage. Flipping this could contribute to supporting the Saudi film production sector, and making it more sustainable and vibrant, towards a plan to focus on the growth of companies and not products.

This would emulate the model introduced by the UK Government in 2018. The Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) is an entrepreneurial investment in the UK screen industries and high-risk companies in their early stages, especially those that have a clear plan for growth and development.

This kind of availability of financial support to film companies and development funding (as opposed to larger incentives for actual production spending) could “make a big difference in enhancing the investment appeal and commercial performance of more Saudi film companies and films. It would also help the Saudi film industry grow its domestic and international market share over the long term”, the report concluded.