HWJN — Saudi novel to become TV, film franchise

Saudis gather at a cinema in Riyadh Park Mall after its opening to the general public in the capital. (Supplied by VOX Cinemas)
Updated 16 May 2019

HWJN — Saudi novel to become TV, film franchise

  • The project is part of a new partnership between MBC Studios, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Majid Al Futtaim

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.

Left to right: Ali Jaafar of MBC Group, image Nation Abu Dhabi CEO Michael Garin and Khaled El-Chidiac, acting CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Ventures, on a beach in Cannes. (Ammar Abd Rabbo / Arab News)

“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.

Mohamed Hefzy, producer of vampire family drama “Three Four Eternity.” (Ammar Abd Rabbo / Arab News)

“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.”

Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

Updated 22 May 2019

Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

  • The director says Cannes is more than just a movie festival
  • Attendees wear color-coded badges, which specify their title and occupation

Film director Hadi Ghandour takes us behind the scenes at the Cannes Film Festival with his revealing diary entries.

Day 1

I am on a train from Paris to Cannes. A middle-aged woman maneuvers her way around my legs and sits beside me. She is on her phone, making sure to loudly telegraph to the entire train that she is attending the festival. “I hope Xavier Dolan doesn’t disappoint me like last time! And can you believe that Alain Delon is being honored? What a travesty!” We are all supposed to be impressed. My festival experience begins before I get there, it is a preview of things to come. I am forced to endure her pontification for the next five hours.

The train arrives on an overcast afternoon. The first thing I do is pick up my badge. Without it you are considered a third-class citizen. I inch past the security blocks that barricade the Croisette like a fortress and make my way to the Grand Palais.

What makes this place so distinctive and often daunting is the sheer amount of stuff going on. It is not only a film festival, but a massive market, an annual industry meet-up, a sprawling seminar, a paparazzi hunting ground, an awards ceremony, and an everlasting party.

Cafes, restaurants and hotel lobbies turn into networking hubs and industry meeting grounds. TV screens that usually broadcast football matches or music videos air live feeds of press conferences and red carpets. Beachfront apartments are transformed into movie company offices, with their logos hanging from the balconies and the harbor morphs into international pavilions for global cinema.

I often find that the most interesting films play at the Director’s Fortnight. It is late in the evening. My friend has snatched up a couple of priority invitations to Robert Eggers’ latest picture “The Lighthouse.”

Envious eyes watch us zip through the interminable line that wraps around the JW Marriott.

I sink into my chair but, within moments, a sense of dread washes over me when I hear the shrill voice from earlier today. It’s the woman from the train. The festival may be larger than life, but it is still a very small place.

“The Lighthouse” is hypnotic, terrifying and has remarkable performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. It is guaranteed to give me nightmares later.

Willem Dafoe stars in The Lighthouse. (AFP)

Day 2

I am having a breakfast meeting by the shore. A seagull swoops in and boldly pilfers a piece of bread from the basket. Even the seagulls here are fierce and determined.

 A 50-something gentleman interrupts our conversation and humbly introduces himself as a filmmaker from Saskatchewan who has been in the business for years.

He slides over a heap of DVDs. Films he has written, directed, produced, edited, shot, acted in and composed. He points at one of them, which is enveloped in a half-ripped cover. “This one here is my masterpiece,” he tells me.

Everyone has something to pitch. The whole town is like a never-ending speed date. Shifty eyes dart around mid-conversation. First, they land on your color-coded badge to decipher your title and worth, then swiftly onto the next person.

Ideas float around with the heft of low-hanging clouds over people’s heads. You can almost see them. The movies in competition may be front and center, but the energy is already directed at the future.

I swing by the Marche Du Film, the festival’s film market. Located in the Palais basement, it is a maze of industry booths where deals are negotiated and struck. It is not only the least glamorous part of the festival, but the least glamorous place you could ever visit.

The market begins to suffocate me so I decide to watch a movie, “Lilian” by Andreas Horvath. Waiting in line at this festival is a rite. You must always add an hour and a half to a movie’s running time to gauge your overall time investment.

The sun is setting and the sea is iridescent. A nighttime chill begins to emerge. One of my favorite things to do at the festival is to watch a film on the beach. There is something wonderfully primal and peaceful about it. A bunch of strangers gathered on a sandy shore beneath the moonlight, watching and listening to a story unfold.  A documentary is playing, “Haut Les Filles” by Francois Armanet. Everyone has sunk into their chairs and are wrapped up in blankets to protect them from the gusts of wind. They look so peaceful and vulnerable, a poignant end to the vicissitudes of their day.

A woman checks her phone in the Marche Du Film. (AFP)

Day 3

It is 7:30 a.m. and I make my way to a film screening — “Frankie” by Ira Sachs. On my way there I spot a group of people, one of them is in a wrinkled tuxedo that has lost its respectability. Last night hasn't yet ended for them. 

The film dips me in and out of a light and pleasant sleep, but I somehow suspect this could be its intended effect.

I walk out of the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The glare assaults my eyes and brings me back to the real world, which suddenly looks more mundane.

I begin to exit the Grand Palais when I am approached by a festival attendant. She randomly offers me a seat at the press conference for “Young Ahmed,” the latest movie by the Dardennes brothers. Perhaps she liked my countenance, but most likely she needed to fill a few empty seats. 

Things are in overdrive today. It’s the Tarantino film premier and everyone seems to be seeking access to the screening. I overhear a woman pleading for that golden ticket. “My son is diabetic!” she says. What in the world does that have to do with getting a movie ticket?

After lunch, I glance at my watch and realize I’m about to miss my train. I run to the station and just barely make it. 

Three days in Cannes feel like a week. It is a cycle that ebbs and flows between the mad rush of the movie business and the peace and refuge of movie watching. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. But it’s all about the movies, so who can really complain?

Quentin Tarantino premiered ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ in Cannes. (AFP)