CANNES, France: “HWJN,” a popular novel in Saudi Arabia by Ibrahim Abbas, is set to become the Middle East’s first multiplatform franchise, with a film and a 13-episode TV series in pre-production.
The project is part of a new partnership involving MBC Studios, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Majid Al Futtaim, according to an announcement on Wednesday on the sidelines of the 72nd Cannes film festival in France.
The trio plan to produce several projects annually, focusing on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, but with potential for more from across the Middle East.
Also on the way is a vampire family drama called “Three Four Eternity,” produced by Mohamed Hefzy, who was behind “Sheikh Jackson” and “Yomeddine,” and writer-director Rami Yasin, who produced the Image Nation films “The Worthy”, “Zinzana” and the upcoming comedy “Rashid & Rajab,” directed by “Freej” creator Mohammed Saeed Harib.
Ali Jafaar of MBC Group said: “We have a number of projects in development. Those two (‘HWJN’ and ‘Three Four Eternity’) we intend to be in production by the end of the year.”
The novel “HWJN,” which tells the story of a God-fearing jinn who grows close to a talented female medical student, has sold 1 million copies in Saudi Arabia alone, said Michael Garin, CEO of Image Nation Abu Dhabi. The novel was first published by Yatakhalayoon in Saudi Arabia, where it became a phenomenon, and was later released as an e-book in English.
“HWJN” has been praised by international science-fiction authors such as the Nebula Award-winning American writer Eileen Gunn, who called it “thoroughly charming,” adding: “I recommend it highly. In fact, I couldn’t put it down.” The book’s popularity is what makes the trio so confident that the adaptation will be a hit on TV and in cinemas in Saudi Arabia, the region and worldwide.
“This could be another ‘Twilight.’ That’s how we’re positioning it actually. This could end up being a franchise,” Toni El-Massih, chief content officer of VOX Cinemas, told Arab News.
The TV series, set to follow the release of the film, will be aired on MBC. The aim is to appeal to younger viewers. “Our network is desperately keen to get the 13 episodes. It’s one of the projects they constantly enquire about because it’s a very young demographic. That’s a difficult group to get to TV,” said Jaafar.
While Saudi- and UAE-produced Arabic-language TV shows continue to be popular, feature films have yet to find the same mass audience. “Two percent of local box office is made up of Arabic movies, which is unacceptable. It gives us a massive opportunity to increase that and give Arab audiences their own stories. If it can work everywhere in the world, there’s no reason it can’t work in our own region,” said Jaafar.
No details have been released regarding the talent in front of and behind the camera for the “HWJN” film or TV series. But it will be filmed in Saudi Arabia, with at least partial involvement by Saudi cast and crew. “Every film will be made where it should be made. We’re not going to specifically say a film should be made in Saudi Arabia unless it should be made in Saudi Arabia. But if it’s a Saudi story, of course it will be made in Saudi Arabia with Saudi actors,” Cameron Mitchell, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas, told Arab News.
The aim of the project and the partnership between the companies, Jaafar said, is to build an ecosystem in which new stars from the region can be created, instead of relying on the star power of actors and filmmakers from other regions. “We want to show people … our stories from a different perspective, to see hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions and aspirations, and to launch … a new generation of Arabic film stars,” he added.
“Where’s our Javier Bardem? Where’s our Antonio Banderas? Where are our stars? We haven’t had anyone since Omar Sharif, God rest his soul. Where’s our local Rami Malek?” Jaafar asked.
“How do we take kids from Egypt, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine or Iraq and turn them into big stars, locally and then internationally?” he added.
“The talent is there. It’s a region where two-thirds (of the population) are under the age of 30. It’s incredibly exciting, incredibly dynamic, incredibly connected and ambitious with the kinds of stories they want to tell. We’ll give them those opportunities to tell their stories locally and abroad.”
Since cinemas reopened just over a year ago in Saudi Arabia, they have been regularly running at full capacity, with nearly every film released finding a receptive audience, according to Majid Al Futtaim. The company currently operates five cinemas, located in Riyadh and Jeddah, with a total of 47 screens. It plans to launch 63 more by the end of 2019.
“Saudi Arabia sees (the expansion of cinema in the Kingdom) as something that’s impacting and changing people’s lives in a positive way. The feedback we’ve received is unbelievably positive. Our theaters are packed,” said Khaled El-Chidiac, acting CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Ventures.
The company’s VOX Cinemas operates 400 screens in eight countries, with a goal of 1,000 screens in operation by 2023, 600 of them in Saudi Arabia. In another five years, the Kingdom could well boast 2,000 screens, said Mitchell.
As cinemas proliferate to meet huge unmet demand, Saudi Arabia and the wider region are quickly becoming one of the world’s most important film markets.
“Within three to four years, the region, including Saudi Arabia, will be a top 10 market. It will have a box office worth $1 billion to $2 billion in a $41 billion industry. It’s massive,” said Mitchell.
Part of what has held back Arabic cinema in particular, he added, is the fact that production, exhibition and distribution are disconnected, with films not often getting a proper multichannel marketing push to make audiences aware of their release.
Many times, he said, posters for Arabic-language films are not delivered until a day before release, hurting audience awareness.
The partnership between MBC Studios, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Majid Al Futtaim will ensure that regionally produced films get the same support system in the region as the biggest Hollywood and Bollywood hits.
“MBC wants to produce films. It needs amazing films that perform really well at the box office for their free-to-air network,” Mitchell said.
“Image Nation wants to make films because they’re filmmakers. For us, we want MBC to promote the films very well so they perform very well in our cinemas, so that feeds back to make them successful on MBC,” he added.
“None of us will hold back, and we’ll do everything we can do. It’s the perfect ecosystem to promote this content.”