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Saudi and Qatar playing courtship role with Hollywood

Cinema box office revenues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are expected to grow by 4% to $1bn (Dh3.7bn) by 2024, compared to a 2.4% decline worldwide. Saudi is leading the pack

The kingdom’s public investment fund (PIF) took a significant stake in the Walt Disney Company AMC, the cinema owner, is spending around $1 billion to open 100 theaters in Saudi by 2030 Qatar’s aim is to become a bigger investment player in Hollywood

Cinema box office revenues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are expected to grow by 4% to $1bn (Dh3.7bn) by 2024, compared to a 2.4% decline worldwide, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).  

Saudi’s box office was up 3% to $115 million in 2020 and by 2030, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM), expects there to be around 350 cinemas and 2,500 movie screens in the country when the industry will be worth around $1 billion.

After making its debut on the Croisette in 2018, Saudi Arabia was back in Cannes with a national pavilion promoting the launch of a high-profile film festival on the Red Sea, and is looking to lure more international productions to come shoot in AlUla,  a sprawling area of desert and giant boulders that boasts an ancient city.

Since Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year-old ban on cinema in 2017, the kingdom has experienced a boom in all aspects of film industry activity.

“We hosted the shoot of ‘Cherry,’ which shot three days in AlUla and one day in Riyadh,” said Stephen Strachan, a film commissioner.

A coming Hollywood shoot in AlUla is a Gerard Butler action thriller “Kandahar,” that MBC, the Saudi-owned Middle East TV giant, is co-producing and co-financing along with The Capstone Group and CAA Media Finance in the next few months.  

Saudi movie investments

The kingdom’s public investment fund (PIF) took a significant stake in the Walt Disney Company from the open market last April, buying more than 5 million shares valued at just under $500 mn.

The Red Sea Festival is set to launch its inaugural edition in Jeddah from December 6-15. It is headed by producer Mohammed Al Turki, 35, who built his career in Hollywood.

The Red Sea Film Foundation, which oversees the fest, announced a $10 million fund, and later increased it to $14 mn,  for projects by directors from the Arab world and Africa with plans to support more than 100 film and TV projects in its first year. 

AMC, the cinema owner, is spending around $1 billion to open 100 theaters in the country by 2030.

Netflix’s Saudi deals are small in dollar terms. But it will spend $17 bn on content in 2021 and has eyes on the Arabic-speaking world, a market of 420 million people that stretches from Morocco to Oman.

Last October, Netflix inked a five-year deal with Telfaz11, a Riyadh production company. Telfaz11, like Myrkott with whom Netflix also signed a production deal, had spent years uploading youth-oriented feature films on its YouTube channel.

Now, it will develop and produce eight films to be shown on Netflix. The streaming giant has ramped up its Saudi content since 2019 with a range of series and movies. Last year Netflix released an original Saudi drama series called Whispers, about dark secrets in a family-run business, directed by a well-known Saudi woman filmmaker, Hana Al Omair.

In an email, Nuha El Tayeb, Netflix’s director of content acquisition for the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey, told Fortune she is on a hunt for female filmmakers in particular. “There’s incredible talent in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Last December, a Saudi bank with government backing plowed $50 million into AGBO, the production company of Joseph and Anthony Russo, directors of one of the biggest-ever box-office earners, Avengers: Endgame. Those investments represented a new step in a long courtship.

Qatar and Hollywood

Former Universal vice chairman Ron Meyer has reached an agreement to serve as a consultant representing Qatar in the film business.

Meyer will serve as an adviser to the Doha Film Institute. Sources say he will offer counsel on investment in content as well as potentially building stages to attract production.

Qatar’s aim is to become a bigger investment player in Hollywood. Industry sources have pegged Meyer’s fee at $6 mn a year.

In 2016, Miramax was sold to the Qatari beIN Media Group for a reported $1 billion. That company in turn sold a 49% stake to ViacomCBS in 2020 for $375 mn.

The Doha Film Institute has backed a number of independent films in recent years, including Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum and Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winner The Salesman. It had several titles at the Cannes Film Festival, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria.

The institute had launched the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which lasted from 2009 to 2012, to develop the film industry in Qatar.