Saudi Arabia came to the world’s largest film market to declare its newly launched film industry “open for business”.
The country established its first pavilion at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, signalling its debut on the international movie stage.
The desert kingdom recently lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, opening the country of 33 million — 70 per cent of which is under 30 — to both theatres and film productions.
On Friday, the country’s new national film organisation, the Saudi Film Council, announced a 35 per cent rebate on films shot in Saudi Arabia and a 50-per cent rebate for studios that use local talent, as a means to entice international productions to the Middle Eastern nation.
In April, Saudi Arabia showed the first commercial film in decades.
Speaking to reporters, Ahmad Al Mezyed, chief executive of the General Culture Authority, said it was “a call to come shoot in Saudi.”
“Once supported, we (will) leapfrog a lot of the regions around us to become a dominant player in the industry,” said Al Mezyed. “We’re welcoming the world to Saudi.”
Al Mezyed said guidelines based on “what’s acceptable in the society” will be announced in the coming weeks on matters like women’s dress on film sets.
But Al Mezyed also noted that Saudi Arabia — where women will first be allowed to drive in June — is changing.
He said the country’s initial moviemaking training programme will be 50 per cent for women.
“Probably 70 per cent of the questions are about women,” sighed Al Mezyed, responding to a question about the freedom of female filmmakers. “A lot of the ideas that people have are pre-2015, what Saudi used to be, because it’s embedded within the media.”
Freedom, he said, already exists.
He noted the success of director Haifaa Al Mansour, whose 2013 film Wadja was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.
The first production backed by the Saudi Film Council will be Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, about a Saudi female doctor who runs for office.
Saudi Arabia is planning to establish a national grant programme for Saudi filmmakers, scholarships for film students for studying abroad and to build domestic film academies of its own. It’s all a part of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s efforts to transform the ultraconservative Saudi society.
The opening up of Saudi Arabia to the movies is seen as a potential oil rush for a Hollywood with few new markets to tap.
Saudi officials last month opened the country’s first new movie theatre (Black Panther was the first film shown) and expect to eventually have 2,000 screens throughout Saudi Arabia.
The US National Association of Theatre Owners has said Saudi Arabia could be a $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) market within a few years.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Al Mezyed, who added: “The object is to empower Saudis to tell their own stories.”
This year, there are nine short films from Saudi Arabia playing in Cannes.