The many forces propelling Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry forward

The many forces propelling Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry forward
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The picturesque landscape of AlUla has seen it grow into an exotic filming destination, with Film AlUla providing an ecosystem of skilled professionals for both domestic productions, and international film projects. (Supplied)
The many forces propelling Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry forward
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AlUla is beginning to attract a growing number of international and regional productions. (Supplied)
The many forces propelling Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry forward
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AlUla is beginning to attract a growing number of international and regional productions. (Supplied)
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Updated 14 July 2021

The many forces propelling Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry forward

The many forces propelling Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning film industry forward
  • Filmmakers are taking advantage of the opportunities presented by a new era of media and entertainment
  • The market is being driven by the opening of new cinemas and a rapid increase in streaming services

RIYADH: These are exciting times for Saudi Arabia’s film industry. Within the past fortnight, the Saudi Film Festival concluded in Dhahran, the Saudi-Japanese animation “The Journey” had its cinematic release and a “Saudi Film Night” was held at the Arab World Institute in Paris.

These events represent a significant departure from just a few years ago, when there was little or no film production or distribution industry to speak of in the Kingdom.

Behind this change are a number of factors, chief among which is the emergence of young talent, as ambitious Saudi filmmakers take advantage of the opportunities presented by this new era.

“I wouldn’t say it’s easy or hard to break into the film industry,” Sara Al-Munef, a young film director whose short feature “2020 Faces” screened at the Saudi Film Festival, told Arab News.

 

“We are being given all the chances: The festivals offer a platform for us to screen our films and to enter competitions with millions in prize money. Many companies are involved in financing new film projects.

“It makes no difference whether you are a man or a woman; now it’s just up to me to deliver something that will be appreciated.”

The market for quality film content is being driven in Saudi Arabia by the opening of new cinema theaters along with the mushrooming of global streaming services such as Netflix and its Gulf equivalent, Shahid VIP. This in turn is generating significant investment in the Kingdom’s film sector.

One such deal was the March 2020 purchase by Netflix of “Masameer: The Movie” following the success of the highly popular YouTube series.

Produced by leading Saudi animation studio Myrkott, the series and film depicts the adventures of Dana, a Saudi girl who attempts to improve the world through robotics and artificial intelligence. The film is now being globally streamed by Netflix in more than 30 languages.

 




Netflix purchased “Masameer: The Movie” and is now being globally streamed in more than 30 languages. (Supplied)

Further investment is coming from Spain-based producer Minimo VFX (co-producer of “The Dark Knight,” “Avatar” and the “Harry Potter” franchise), which recently unveiled plans to invest no less than $250 million in the Kingdom via a joint venture with local partner Saudi Next Level Co.

Their stated goal is to produce localized content while providing high-level training to aspiring film professionals.

Closer to home, Dubai–based MBC is actively backing Saudi content for its online streaming subsidiary Shahid VIP — one example being “Rashash,” a serialized drama with an all-Saudi cast, based on the true–life 1980s criminal of the same name, and the efforts by Saudi police to bring him to justice.

The series was conceived by Tony Jordan, a screenwriter of the long–running UK soap opera “EastEnders” with support from Sheikha Suha Al-Khalifa, and directed by Colin Teague, known for TV serials “Doctor Who” and “Jekyll and Hyde.”




Sara Al-Munef, a young film director whose short feature “2020 Faces” screened at the Saudi Film Festival. (Supplied)

Perhaps the most significant recent breakthrough is “The Journey,” a full-length animated feature film depicting the siege of Makkah by an Ethiopian army in pre–Islamic times. The movie was co-produced by Riyadh–based Manga Productions and TOEI Animation of Japan.

“We wanted to work with TOEI Animation because they are very well known and popular both in the region and across the world,” Abdul Aziz Al-Nagmoosh, director of marketing and distribution at Manga Productions, told Arab News.

“We collaborated with them on the children’s TV show ‘Future Folk Tales’ and then on ‘The Journey.’ We financed the training of about 300 Saudi animators over the past four years, both in Japan and the US. They also had work experience in both those countries and gained skills in production, direction, art direction and even marketing. Then we hired a number of them to work on our projects.”




Masameer was produced by leading Saudi animation studio Myrkott. (Supplied)

Manga Productions is a subsidiary of Misk Foundation, which was established by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2011 with the aim of empowering the youth of Saudi Arabia in three main areas: Education and entrepreneurship; culture and creative arts; and science and technology.

Commercial projects such as “The Journey” demonstrate the wider effort to diversify the national economy away from its current focus on the oil sector. Another indication of this strategy is the positioning of the AlUla historical district as an exotically beautiful film location.

The Hollywood feature “Cherry” — directed by Antony and Joe Russo of “Captain America” and “Avengers” fame — was shot in AlUla in 2020.

Film AlUla — working in coordination with the Saudi Film Commission and the Ministry of Culture — now provides an entire film-production ecosystem, with a range of skilled professionals and production services on hand. The act of shooting a film in the Kingdom has become a lot simpler as well.




Fahad Al-Otaibi, a producer and director of TV commercials and short films. (Supplied)

Speaking to Arab News, Fahad Al-Otaibi, a producer and director of TV commercials and short films, said: “Getting permission to shoot is way easier than before. You used to have to get a lot of different permissions, but now it’s all online and it only takes three to five days.”

All of this reflects the growing perception — in both public and private spheres — of the media and entertainment industry as a key growth area for the country, driven as it is by the almost universal adoption of smartphones and social media across the Saudi population.

As Al-Nagmoosh puts it, “most Saudis are online most of the time, which is why there will be a focus on movies made for streaming services as opposed to theatrical releases. And that is a shift that is taking place worldwide.”

Indeed, online streaming is opening up possibilities that were never previously available to independent producers and directors lacking the financial and marketing clout of global corporations.




The Saudi-Japanese animation “The Journey,” a full-length animated feature film depicting the siege of Makkah by an Ethiopian army in pre–Islamic times, had its cinematic release. (Supplied)

Al-Otaibi said: “Online platforms such as Netflix are changing the game because they have such a big reach. It can enable a low-budget Saudi film to potentially be a huge international hit. I think we have a better chance with that than we do with cinema distribution.”

He added: “Nobody would have believed seven years ago what is being achieved today, and I’m sure we can’t even imagine how it’s going to be three years from now. You don’t need $100 million to produce the next ‘Friends’ — you need a very good team, a very good story and a very good vision.”

The general consensus of industry hands is that what is needed is time. Saudi Arabia “has to prove itself with its films before it becomes integrated with the global media and entertainment industry — it took South Korea decades of hard work before ‘Parasite’ won the Oscar,” Al-Otaibi told Arab News.

“We need time, we need to try hard, we need to be patient, we need to invest and we need to learn — that’s what’s got to happen over the next 10 years.”

For his part, Al-Nagmoosh of Manga Productions said: “With all the new regulations, and with the new focus of the government on movie production, I think we’ll see a huge increase in production in Saudi Arabia over the next five years.”




The market for quality film content is being driven in Saudi Arabia by the opening of new cinema theaters. (AFP)

The key word for now is “patience.” If there is one message young Saudi filmmakers wish to convey to potential investors, it is that film production is not a rapid-profit, quick-turnaround business.
A full-length feature film can require several years from conception to release, and rushing that process could undermine the quality of the final product.
But with the opening of hundreds of cinemas across the Kingdom, active government support, ample public and private funds, new distribution channels and a talented and ambitious cadre of young filmmakers, the future is looking bright for Saudi Arabia’s film industry.

From being a distant outlier, it appears not long before Saudi Arabia becomes a major player in this sector.


Saudi Arabia records 1 COVID-19 death, 43 new cases

Saudi Arabia records 1 COVID-19 death, 43 new cases
Updated 13 sec ago

Saudi Arabia records 1 COVID-19 death, 43 new cases

Saudi Arabia records 1 COVID-19 death, 43 new cases
  • The health ministry says 26 patients have recovered from the virus in the last 24 hours
  • More than 22.6 million people have been fully vaccinated throughout the Kingdom so far

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia confirmed one new COVID-19 related deaths on Monday, raising the total number of fatalities to 8,845.
The Ministry of Health confirmed 43 new cases reported in the Kingdom in the previous 24 hours, meaning 549,955 people have now contracted the disease. Of the total number of cases, 37 remain in critical condition.
According to the ministry, the highest number of cases were recorded in the capital Riyadh and Jeddah with 14 cases each, while Makkah confirmed three and Dhahran recorded two cases.


The health ministry also announced that 26 patients had recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries in the Kingdom to 539,082.
Over 47.7 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered since the Kingdom’s immunization campaign started. More than 22.6 million people have been fully vaccinated.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected over 266 million people globally and the death toll has reached around 5.27 million.


Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sends letter to UAE president

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sends letter to UAE president
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sends letter to UAE president

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sends letter to UAE president
  • The message dealt with ways to develop bilateral relations
  • It was delivered by Saudi foreign minister during a meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sent a written message to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, regarding their strong bilateral relations and ways to support and enhance them, Saudi Press Agency reported on Monday.
The message was delivered by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan during a meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, UAE vice president and prime minister and ruler of Dubai.
During the reception, Prince Faisal conveyed greetings from King Salman to Sheikh Khalifa, wishing him and the Emirati people continued progress and prosperity.
Sheikh Mohammed said the UAE president expressed appreciation for the Saudi monarch, wishing him good health and wellness and the Saudi people further development and growth. 


Saudi crown prince leaves for Oman on first leg of GCC tour

Saudi crown prince leaves for Oman on first leg of GCC tour
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi crown prince leaves for Oman on first leg of GCC tour

Saudi crown prince leaves for Oman on first leg of GCC tour
  • The tour is aimed at boosting and strengthening ties with GCC countries
  • Oman says his visit affirms the fraternal ties and historical relations binding both nations

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman left the Kingdom for Oman on Monday, the first leg of multiple stops in his tour of Gulf states.
Prince Mohammed’s visit comes “based on directives from King Salman, his keenness to communicate with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and to strengthen ties,” the Royal Court said in a statement issued by Saudi Press Agency.
During his tour, the crown prince will meet with leaders and senior officials in the sultanate, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, to discuss bilateral relations and ways to enhance them in all fields, as well as other issues of common interest.
Expected to be on the agenda when he meets with Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq are issues of mutual concern and ways to promote the interests of the two Gulf countries as well as ‘fulfilling the aspirations and hopes’ of their peoples, Oman’s state news agency ONA reported earlier on Monday.
The visit is an “affirmation of the ties of fraternity and kinship, and the historical relations binding the Sultanate of Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” ONA said, adding both countries “are set for a new stage of economic and investment cooperation in all fields.”
Last July, the two countries reaffirmed plans to engage in joint investment in advanced technologies, innovation, renewable energy projects, industry health, real estate, tourism, petrochemical converting industries, supply chains, logistics partnership, information technology and financial technology, the ONA report said.
“The achievements made over the past five months and the active exchange of visits among officials reflect the keen desire of the two countries to work together.” This includes establishing the Saudi-Omani Investment Forum that was held in Muscat in August, where a number of agreements and memoranda of understanding were signed.


Saudi defenses destroy several drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward the Kingdom: Arab coalition

Saudi defenses destroy several drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward the Kingdom: Arab coalition
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi defenses destroy several drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward the Kingdom: Arab coalition

Saudi defenses destroy several drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward the Kingdom: Arab coalition
  • Bahrain strongly condemned the attack

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s air defenses destroyed Houthi drones targeting the Kingdom, the Arab coalition said early on Monday.

The drones were shot down in Yemen before they could cause harm.

This follows the downing of several drones launched by the Iran-back militia on Sunday.

The action comes as the Arab coalition forces have been eliminating militia assets in recent weeks, including weapons and personnel.

The militia frequently launch cross border attacks using explosive-laden drones and ballistic missiles targeting populated areas in the Kingdom’s southern region.

The group, who seized the Yemeni capital in 2014, have been fighting the internationally recognized government, which is supported by the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

Earlier on Sunday, the coalition said Saudi defenses intercepted and destroyed four drones that tried to target the southern region.

The Arab Parliament denounced the attacks and said they constitute a clear violation of the Stockholm Agreement, which stipulates a cease-fire.

It “called on the international community to take an immediate and decisive stance to stop these repeated terrorist acts, and to prevent this militia from acquiring advanced military technology, which the Iranian regime supplies and used to target vital and civilian facilities.”

The UAE strongly condemned the attempts to target the Kingdom and said the continuation of these terrorist attacks by the Houthi militia reflects its blatant defiance of the international community.

Bahrain also strongly condemned the attacks, saying it “reflects the militias’ continued sinister and systematic attacks to target civilians and innocent lives.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed Bahrain’s support for all measures Saudi Arabia takes to ensure the security and safety of its territory, citizens and residents.

The war in Yemen has now raged for seven years, with some of the fiercest fighting taking place this year in the resource-rich and government-held province of Marib.

On Sunday, three Yemeni civilians were wounded when four Houthi missiles landed in residential areas in Marib.

Large explosions rocked the city after the four missiles hit the airport, Al-Shareka and Rawdha neighborhoods, residents said.

Footage on social media showed thick smoke billowing from shelled areas as people fled.

“The Houthi militia’s repeated targeting of the city of Marib, which is crowded with millions of residents and displaced people, with ballistic missiles is part of its attempts to inflict a big number of casualties among civilians. This is a cowardly act of revenge,” said Moammar Al-Eryani, Yemen’s information minister.


Finnish runner to cross Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert

The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, covering most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. (Shutterstock)
The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, covering most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. (Shutterstock)
Updated 06 December 2021

Finnish runner to cross Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert

The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, covering most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. (Shutterstock)
  • Jukka Viljanen will set off on Dec. 6 on a 25-day journey through 1,300 km of desert terrain, with the aim of becoming the first person to run across the massive desert
  • "This dream to run across the Empty Quarter has been my passion. I am very passionate about it because Rub Al-Khali is the biggest and the most beautiful sand desert in the world, it inspires me. My passion keeps me motivated to run for adventure"

RIYADH: A Finnish adventurer has set himself the challenge of joining the ranks of record-breaking pioneers who have made the grueling journey across Rub Al-Khali, Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. Adventure runner Jukka Viljanen will set off on Dec. 6 on a 25-day journey through 1,300 km of desert terrain, with the aim of becoming the first person to run across the massive desert.

The Empty Quarter is the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, covering most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. The vast landscape of ever-shifting dunes was explored between the early 1930s and the 1950s by the likes of Bertram Thomas, the first recorded Westerner to cross the desert, and Wilfred Thesiger, and their Arab companions.

More recently, photographer Anna Aiko crossed Rub Al-Khali on camel in 2019, and Italian explorer Max Calderan, a long-time resident of Dubai, completed the first solo crossing of the Empty Quarter in 2020. Previous explorers have crossed shorter sections of Rub Al-Khali on camels or in off-road vehicles.

Given the inhospitable terrain and testing conditions, the journey is a test of endurance however it is undertaken but Viljanen aims to take the challenge to another level by running the whole way, covering about 50 kilometers a day. His challenge has been organized by Delta Adventures, a leader in desert journeys and adventures in Saudi Arabia.

Finnish adventure runner Jukka Viljanen (file photo)

“I started as an adventure runner 15 years ago,” Viljanen said during an exclusive interview with Arab News. “I am very passionate about the sand dunes; they energize me. I love the desert.

“It has become a challenge for me as the Empty Quarter has not been crossed fully yet. I want to make it with my team. I am very passionate about creating history by crossing it successfully.

HIGHLIGHT

Given the inhospitable terrain and testing conditions, the journey is a test of endurance however it is undertaken but Jukka Viljanen aims to take the challenge to another level by running the whole way, covering about 50 kilometers a day. His challenge has been organized by Delta Adventures, a leader in desert journeys and adventures in Saudi Arabia.

“This dream to run across the Empty Quarter has been my passion. I am very passionate about it because Rub Al-Khali is the biggest and the most beautiful sand desert in the world, it inspires me. My passion keeps me motivated to run for adventure. It’s my passion that brought me here.”

Viljanen said he chose Dec. 6 as the start date for his adventure for a special reason: “It’s the Finnish National Day.”

The expedition will be his first experience of running in the Empty Quarter, though has run in other Saudi deserts. In fact he has run in a number of challenging environments around the world.

“In 2007, I went to the North Pole where I participated in a marathon with snowshoes,” he said. “Then I did another marathon with a mountain bike.

“After the North Pole I decided to challenge myself more so I entered another race, which was in the Libyan Sahara in 2008. I did a 200km race over there. Then I went to Antarctica, the southernmost continent and site of the South Pole

"Some years later, I decided to run across (more) deserts. My first event was at the Kalahari Desert in 2010.”

I am very passionate about the sand dunes; they energize me. I love the desert. Jukka Viljanen

Viljanen ran across more than 1,000 km of the Kalahari in 20 days, including some of the most remote wilderness areas in Botswana.

“A few years later I was the first one to run across the Sahara Desert, which was 1,628 km in 31 days,” he added. “Two years ago I was able to run across the second-biggest ice sheet in the world … across the icecap of Greenland. That was approximately 600 km.”

His experiences and achievements are remarkable but he has no intention of stopping any time soon — quite the opposite.

“I want to go further and out of my comfort zone,” Viljanen said. “I want to raise the bar for myself, and that’s the reason I am here in Saudi Arabia: I want to be the first person to run across the Empty Quarter.”

He will run alone but will be accompanied by a backup team consisting of Saudis and a friend from Finland. The team leaders are Mohammed Al-Khamis and Ady Al-Khamis, the owners of Delta Adventures.

“I have known them since 2014, when I was here in Riyadh for the first time,” said Viljanen “They have been to the Empty Quarter before. I consider them my extended family.”

The climate in Saudi Arabia is a lot different to his native Finland but Viljanen is taking it all in his stride.

“Yes, it’s a lot warmer but I am quite used to it because of my experiences in the Sahara and Kalahari deserts,” he said. “I like that it’s warm, I take that as a bonus.”

He said he hopes he will have a chance to talk to young people in Saudi Arabia to share his experiences and help inspire them in their own lives and ambitions.

“I would like to speak to the Saudi people after the voyage,” Viljanen said. “I will be back here to share my story. People should raise their bar and they should have new goals in their lives, coming out of their comfort zone. It cannot be achieved sitting in their comfort zone. People have lots of potential but they don’t know it; we should motivate them to become role models for others.

“The main message is ‘challenge yourself.’ I am a motivational speaker and will give motivational talks to Saudi students and people to inspire them to accept the challenge and get out of their comfort zone, because the magic happens outside of the comfort zone. The Empty Quarter is not a comfort zone; the magic will happen there.”

This visit is Viljanen’s fifth to Saudi Arabia, and he said he is always impressed by Saudi traditions and the reception he receives.

“Besides my passion to run, I want to learn about new cultures,” he added. “I am amazed by the warm hospitality of the Saudi people. I attended a Saudi wedding ceremony on Wednesday. It was a blessing. I joined them in traditional dance and enjoyed it.”

It remains to be seen how his Empty Quarter challenge will compare to previous tests, but he is clear about what has been his most difficult undertaking so far.

“It was Greenland,” Viljanen said. “Crossing the ice sheet in 2019 was very difficult. It was full of snow and very cold. The terrain was really very difficult but it was very rewarding. I realized that I have potential, and here I am because of my North Pole experience.”

If running across the ice was his most challenging test, deserts present their own challenges.

“Sand makes it tough,” he explained. “It can ruin your legs so you really need to focus on taking care. Hot weather is another challenge but I keep myself very much hydrated. I drink every 20-30 minutes. I keep myself energized by eating every hour so my sugar level does not drop.”