In late 2017, a seismic shift began in Saudi Arabia, an ultraconservative and once-insular Kingdom, when it was announced a 35-year ban on public movie theaters would be lifted—and it wanted the world to know it was serious about entertainment. The bold initiative was sparked by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, heir to the throne and a progressive looking to diversify the Kingdom’s economy.
The Crown Prince, or MBS as he’s called, is known for his decisive business moves, ones currently causing Hollywood to salivate over the prospect of another deep-pocketed player. An executive says, “We need fresh blood as we have been through most other sources, so step on up.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, in February 2018, the Kingdom announced a staggering $64 billion investment earmarked specifically for the entertainment sector within Saudi Arabia. Though its citizens do have access to YouTube, Netflix and Amazon, they routinely cross over to the UAE or Bahrain seeking entertainment, and the Kingdom wants that money to stay within its borders.
The Kingdom is also making a $400 million investment in Endeavor, and industry watchers wouldn’t be surprised to see a slate deal here or a co-fi pact there. An additional $10 billion content fund could see investment in Hollywood and around the Gulf region, which is expected to yield announcements about production incentives and other enticements this year in Cannes.
But MBS isn’t only looking to give; he wants to bring investment home. The exhibitors that are coming in are “putting up significant amounts of money” to get their multiplexes built, an observer says, along with more side deals that would bring other Hollywood brands and businesses to the Kingdom. Opines another, “They’re not going to jump head-first into investing in Hollywood. I think they want Hollywood investing in them and building their infrastructure.”
Either way, many are optimistic about future partnerships and cite a hangover from China, which has been a recalcitrant bedfellow. “We know this money is real,” said one exec. But the lack of a local industry means that unlike China, Saudi doesn’t have a booming box office market to dangle in front of Hollywood — yet. The Kingdom’s 33 million population is dwarfed by China, but it is expected to become a $1 billion annual box office play once the build-out is complete. That would land it in the Top 10 territories worldwide. “That’s a huge thing for the industry,” says an international exhibition exec.
Saudi also has something to offer that China did not. By 2008 when the Middle Kingdom began opening up, it already had a local industry which has grown exponentially since. USC professor Stanley Rosen notes, “Unlike China in the earlier days, the Saudis seem fully committed to spending money quickly to jump-start the market, and they do not have a competing product as China’s domestic films would be.” Bollywood, however, is expected to be a serious competitor to Hollywood on the ground in Saudi which is also very keen to cultivate homegrown filmmakers. Says one observer, “They have stories that haven’t been told. There’s a lot of untapped talent there.”
Exhibition chains quickly jumped on the Saudi bandwagon once it was clear the ban was being lifted. Among those moving in are Vue International, AMC, Cineopolis, iPic, Vox and MAX. MBS recently toured the US, meeting and rubbing shoulders with everyone from President Donald Trump to Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Iger, Kevin Tsujihara and Stacey Snider among many others.
Among recent partnerships Saudi has unveiled are with Cirque du Soleil, live touring family entertainment producer Feld Entertainment, National Geographic, IMG Artists and The Marvel Experience. It’s not only the U.S. that Saudi is courting. MBS made recent visits to the UK and France. The Kingdom signed an accord in April with the Paris Opera to help Saudi with its own national orchestra and opera. It also agreed a training program with leading French film school La Fémis.
Overall, MBS has been seeking to change the perception of Saudi Arabia as an extremist state. To be sure, it carries some nasty political baggage and it has a poor track-record on human rights. In a March interview, he told 60 Minutes that his goal was to take Saudi Arabia back to a time before the Iranian Revolution. “We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world.”