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.