Saudi Arabian movie incentives could produce a multibillion-dollar economic windfall

Saudi Arabia’s economy could reap a multibillion-dollar windfall through plans to offer generous incentives to lure global moviemakers to the Kingdom. (AP)
Updated 15 May 2018
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Saudi Arabian movie incentives could produce a multibillion-dollar economic windfall

  • The Kingdom hopes the trickle-down impact of the planned incentives will prepare groundwork for the country
  • The long-term goal is for the Saudi film industry to have an impact on GDP

LONDON/CANNES: Saudi Arabia’s economy could reap a multibillion-dollar windfall through plans to offer generous incentives to lure global moviemakers to the Kingdom.
The Kingdom hopes the trickle-down impact of the planned incentives will prepare groundwork for the country as it pushes through plans to open thousands of cinema screens countrywide.
Ahmad Al-Maziad, the CEO of Saudi Arabia’s General Culture Authority (GCA), said last week that the country will give productions that shoot in Saudi Arabia a 35 percent location rebate. Companies and studios will also get a 50 percent rebate for any local talent they employ. The location rebate is a baseline and could increase.
The long-term goal is for the Saudi film industry to have an impact on GDP.

“This means that we have to have a full industry, you have to have sizeable employment for it to impact GDP,” Al-Maziad said in an interview with Arab News.
He also revealed discussions were underway with studios and film production companies in both Hollywood and Bollywood about potential projects to be filmed in the Kingdom, but declined to give details at this stage.
“There will be some very big productions, from the initial discussions we’re having with them,” he said. “Hopefully, toward September or October we will start.”
The plans are part of a string of business and investment reforms intended to diversify the country’s oil-based economy. Saudi Arabia recently lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, and theater construction is taking place at a rapid pace throughout the Kingdom.
Chris Berry, professor of film studies at King’s College London, told Arab News: “It’s all about a broader transformation of culture and boosting creative industries — all these sectors converge to diversify the economy. Saudi Arabia is putting things in place to make this happen, but it won’t happen overnight.”
He added that the Kingdom’s 35 percent cash incentive is “not unusual” in a global context, nor is it the highest investment, as it is lower than Fiji (47 percent) and China (40 percent) and on a par with the Netherlands (also 35 percent).
“Governments offer incentives like this because the amount of production work that is bought in and the public relations value makes it worthwhile,” he added.

Saudi Arabia has already made a decision to increase its tourism outside Hajj visitors, so it is hoping this new incentive will allow filmmakers to build an image of what the country looks like to outsiders.

Chris Berry, Professor of Film Studies at King's College London

“Saudi Arabia has already made a decision to increase its tourism outside Hajj visitors, so it is hoping this new incentive will allow filmmakers to build an image of what the country looks like to outsiders. At the moment, much of the world probably thinks that Saudi Arabia is just sand … Featuring in a Hollywood blockbuster is a great way of building an image.”
By luring international acting and production talent to the country, the government aims to add new skills to Saudi Arabia’s indigenous talent pool, the professor said.
Last week Al-Maziad also announced a national grant program for Saudi talent with training programs and education initiatives including partnerships with the University of Southern California, independent filmmaker champion Film Independent and Studio School in Los Angeles as well as French state film school La Femis and Paris animation school Les Gobelins.
However, Berry said that for its film ambitions to progress, the Kingdom also needs to focus on building its own film schools and general arts education, as well as creating regional film bodies.
The creation of a fully-fledged film and TV eco-system could spur young Saudis to emulate the success of directors such as Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi filmmaker, whose 2012 drama “Wadjda” was nominated as Best Foreign Film at the 2014 BAFTA Awards in the UK, Berry said.


Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. (AFP)
Updated 15 min 37 sec ago
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Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

  • Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going”
  • The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release

WASHINGTON: In the summer of 2010, reporters at South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper decided to request data about the government’s food assistance program, previously known as food stamps. They thought the information could lead to a series of stories and potentially help them identify fraud in the now $65 billion-a-year program.
They sent a stream of what they thought were routine requests for information to Washington.
Government officials eventually sent back some information about the hundreds of thousands of stores nationwide where the food program’s participants could use their benefits. But the government withheld information reporters saw as crucial: how much each store received annually from the program.
Trying to get that data has taken the paper more than eight years and landed it at the Supreme Court, which will hear the case Monday.
Argus Leader news director Cory Myers, who directs a staff of 18 at the Sioux Falls paper, says getting the information is about “knowing how our government is operating” and “knowing what government is doing with our tax money.”
A supermarket trade association opposing the information’s release argues that the information being sought is confidential. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case could be narrow or could significantly affect the interpretation of a law that grants the public access to government records.
The Argus Leader is owned by USA Today publisher Gannett and is the largest newspaper in South Dakota. It wrote about the government’s initial release of information. But Jonathan Ellis, one of the reporters behind the requests, said there’s more to learn if the paper gets what it’s seeking.
Ellis said he would like to write about the companies who profit the most from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program , called SNAP. He would like to analyze how successful efforts to involve farmers’ markets in the program have been. And he is still hoping to use the data to identify stores that seem like outliers, an indication of potential fraud.
Megan Luther, the other reporter behind the requests, said the paper has been fighting for the information for reasons beyond “there’s a good story there.” Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going.”
The paper has gotten close to getting the data before.
After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. But the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute , a trade association representing grocery stores and supermarket chains, stepped in to continue the fight. The group lost an appeal, and the paper hoped it would soon get the data. Then the Supreme Court took the case.
The Food Marketing Institute, which declined interviews before Monday’s arguments, has said in court papers that the public already has access to a lot of data about SNAP. But SNAP sales data by store is confidential “much the same way how much business grocers do in cash, credit, debit, checks or even gift cards is confidential,” wrote Food Marketing Institute president and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin in a blog post last month.
To decide whether the information should be released, the Supreme Court will have to interpret the federal Freedom of Information Act .
It gives citizens, including reporters, access to federal agencies’ records with certain exceptions. In the Argus Leader’s case, the US Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, argued that disclosing the data the paper sought was barred by FOIA’s “exemption 4.” It tells the government to withhold “confidential” “commercial or financial information” obtained from third parties.
It will be up to the court to determine whether what the paper is seeking counts as “confidential.”
The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release. The Associated Press is among dozens of media organizations that have signed a legal brief supporting the Argus Leader.
Myers, the Argus Leader’s news director, said that in the years it has taken for the paper’s case to reach the Supreme Court, the paper has continued to do the kind of investigative reporting it was attempting to do in seeking the SNAP data.
In South Dakota, he said, “there are more stories and more malfeasance than one newsroom can root out, but we certainly try.”
The case is 18-481 Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media.