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After banning cinema for decades, Saudi Arabia is making movies

Breathtaking Landscapes And Hefty Rebates Are Helping Foreign Producers Overcome Their Culture Shock

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Thick clouds of sand fill the air as a helicopter swoops low against a backdrop of sandstone cliffs. The crew are rehearsing a battle scene in “Kandahar”, a big-budget Hollywood war film set in Afghanistan. But the camera lies: the action is taking place 2,000 miles from Kandahar, in Al Ula, on the edge of the Arabian desert.

The location is doubly disorientating. Cinema was banned in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, under pressure from religious conservatives. But now the country is making an unlikely pitch to become a Hollywood of the desert. Cinemas are opening in every town. In early December Jeddah hosted the inaugural Red Sea film festival. And foreign producers are being tempted in to shoot their movies, as the government spends billions on a new local industry with international ambitions.

“Shameless and immoral” content would follow if cinemas were legalised, declared Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti in 2017. Then the country’s only screen showed documentaries at a science museum. The next year in Riyadh the first cinema in over three decades raised its curtain: a branch of amc, an American chain, was inaugurated with Marvel’s “Black Panther”. Around 500 more screens have since opened.

The ongoing u-turn has three motives. Saudi Arabia needs to wean its economy off oil. It must keep its young population content in the face of political repression. And it wants to improve its dire international reputation. So the conservative kingdom has become suddenly serious about the business of fun. It plans to invest $64bn in entertainment over the ten years to 2030, and hopes consumers will double their entertainment outlay from 2.9% to 6% of household spending. The day before the red carpet was rolled out on the cobbled streets of Jeddah’s old town for the Red Sea festival, the seafront corniche hosted the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, with music by Justin Bieber, a Canadian pop star.

The kingdom’s first task in building a film industry is to develop a domestic audience from scratch. By 2030 it aims to quadruple its number of screens, to 2,000, and have a box office worth $1bn. It will hit that target early, believes David Hancock of Omdia, a London-based research firm. Chains such as amc and vox, an Emirati brand, are keen to invest in one of the few cinema markets that is growing amid the pandemic. Restricted supply and high-spec theatres, with sumptuous seats and bone-chilling air-conditioning, allow operators to charge the highest prices in the world, at an average of $18 per ticket (vox also offers truffled hot dogs and popcorn sprinkled with gold dust). Omdia forecasts that by 2025, eight years after it had no box office at all, Saudi Arabia’s will be the tenth-largest in the world.

The next step is to bring in foreign film-makers, and learn from them. A few have already dipped their toes in the sand. In February Apple tv+ released “Cherry”, a drama about an American veteran; the scenes in Iraq were shot in Al Ula. “Kandahar”, now close to wrapping, is a co-production between Thunder Road Films, which made “Sicario”, and mbc, a Saudi-owned broadcaster. In Tabuk, to the north-west, mbc is working with Hollywood’s agc Studios on “Desert Warrior”, with a reported budget of $140m. Set in seventh-century Arabia, the sandals-and-camels epic stars Anthony Mackie, who in Marvel’s superhero franchise was recently anointed as Captain America.

Part of the Saudi pitch is the scenery. Al Ula’s endless dunes, punctuated by rugged outcrops and gullies, conjure “the Arabia of imagination”, says Stephen Strachan, a Briton who runs Film Al Ula, a government body. Nearby are the 2,000-year-old tombs of Hegra (pictured above), built by the Nabatean architects who made Petra in Jordan. Location scouts can choose from all varieties of desert, from grey (which makes a good Afghanistan) to red (a convincing Mars). “We cheat that stuff all the time for movies, but to actually go out and shoot in the real locales, it’s pretty unique,” says Eric Hedayat, a producer on “Desert Warrior”.

The other part of the pitch is money. On December 14th the Saudi Film Commission announced that it would offer film-makers rebates of up to 40% of their costs, one of the most generous incentive packages in the world. Local production partners have deep pockets, too. The Saudi government took a controlling stake in mbc shortly after its owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, was detained in the Riyadh Ritz along with other businessmen in 2017, in an “anti-corruption” operation widely seen as a shakedown. Following its boss’s release, mbc announced “a greater focus towards Saudi Arabia and neighbouring regions, in line with the current transformational positive changes occurring in the kingdom”. It has stumped up much of the money for “Kandahar” and “Desert Warrior”.

The riddle of the sands

All this increasingly makes Saudi Arabia a rival to locations like Jordan—Wadi Rum, a spectacular Jordanian valley, has starred in many Hollywood movies, most recently “Dune”—and Egypt, where a once-thriving film industry has been undone by market conditions and authoritarianism. Saudi Arabia’s aggressive push for business has upset some neighbours. It unsuccessfully tried to tempt the producers of “Dune” to switch locations for the sequel, according to an industry insider. In November the head of the Cairo film festival called for a “spirit of collaboration” in the region, after the Red Sea festival changed its dates, forcing Cairo to move its own to avoid a clash.

Yet starting film production from almost nothing isn’t easy. Saudi crews have experience in television and commercials, but films are different. The 600-plus crew of “Desert Warrior” came from 45 countries. Even finding extras is hard. Saudi Arabia has little tradition of freelance work, and any job that involves waking before dawn for a 12-hour day in the sun has historically been done by immigrants—who can make plausible Martians but tend to be unconvincing Arabs. “Desert Warrior”, which needs 100 extras a day on average, topped up its ranks from Jordan and Georgia. It has an entire team dedicated to securing visas, though Mr Hedayat says conditions are easier than in China, where he once had to take his entire crew in and out of the country every 90 days.

The Saudi government is trying to iron out these problems. Film AlUla is building a “film camp”, with office space and a pool, to open early next year. In February it will launch a boot camp to train locals in the basics of movie-making. Co-productions are allowing Saudi crew to learn from the best in the business. Hollywood veterans bring “a calibre I haven’t personally seen before”, says Zeinab Abu Alsamh, who runs mbc Films’ operations in Saudi Arabia. For local crew, “it’s like having a degree”. The model is China, which in the past decade picked up the tricks of the trade from American co-productions and now makes blockbusters by itself.

To do the same, Saudi Arabia must become more than a backdrop and bankroller. Its hopes lie in Neom, an encampment of 2,000 people and a lot of diggers on the Red Sea, close to the Egyptian border. By 2030 the government expects this desert building site to be a city of 2m, specialising in digital industries. That will include the region’s “first true media hub”, says Wayne Borg, an Australian formerly of Fox Studios, who is in charge of developing media industries in the futuristic city. The hub would handle all stages of film-making, including the post-production and visual effects that are now generally done in the West. The first two sound-stages will be finished in January; at least six will be ready by the end of 2023, Mr Borg promises.

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The big remaining obstacles are cultural and political. Importing talent from Los Angeles is an uphill struggle in a country where homosexuality is a crime and the abaya is still the norm for women. Executives heading to the film festival in Jeddah from Al Ula were surprised when their in-flight entertainment was interrupted by the call to prayer and screens switched to a map pointing the way to Mecca. True, some laws have been liberalised since 2018, for instance to let women drive; aside from the absence of booze, the festival felt much like any other, attracting stars including Catherine Deneuve (pictured with Mohammed Al Turki, a Saudi producer and festival bigwig). Yet in much of the country local custom is unchanged. Female crew in Tabuk have found that local restaurants still operate segregated dining rooms, which the law no longer requires.

And the reputational risk of doing business in Saudi Arabia remains. It made its debut at the Cannes film festival in 2018, but stayed away the next year amid outcry at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist thought by Western spooks to have been killed on the orders of Muhammad bin Salman, the crown prince (he denies it). Vue, a British cinema chain, cancelled plans to build 30 multiplexes in the country. Endeavour Content, an American production company, returned a $400m investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Winning the Saudi Grand Prix on December 5th, Lewis Hamilton wore a rainbow helmet to decry homophobia.

Just as some Hollywood companies are prepared to look the other way, the Saudi authorities may be willing to bend their own principles. Neom will be a semi-autonomous state with its own government: “in many ways what Hong Kong was to China”, says Mr Borg. Its laws, due to get royal sign-off in 2022, are likely to include streamlined visas, easier import systems—and possibly a more relaxed social policy. Mr Borg says Neom will be an “open and inclusive environment”. Could that include a drink at the end of the day? “We have to provide the right conditions for that talent, to attract them.” Including gay talent? “Again, we’ll provide the right conditions.”

The dream of a Hollywood of the desert may yet prove to be a mirage. But Saudi Arabia’s investments have already bought it a weapon of soft power, to be deployed at home and abroad. The country will be able to spin its own narratives, on its own terms. “We can finally produce stories that look like us,” says Ms Abu Alsamh. mbc Films’ next feature aimed at international audiences is “The Ark”, a $100m picture in which Noah’s Ark surfaces on the shores of Neom, so allowing the kingdom to promote its new city. It also has plans for a dramatised history of Aramco, the state oil company, and a biopic of Antara ibn Shaddad, an Arab warrior-poet.

Western audiences may not buy it. Saudi producers cite South Korea’s “Squid Game”, a megahit on Netflix, to show how tastes have become more cosmopolitan. Yet China’s film industry, which has achieved extraordinary success in its domestic market, has had almost no international hits. Either way, when “Desert Warrior” is released in 2022, the world will be treated to a spectacle that for Saudi Arabia may make the whole enterprise worthwhile: the surprising sight of Captain America himself fighting for the Arabs.