Amid the opening of Saudi Arabia’s movie theaters and a push to send an overall message that the Kingdom is open for business, representatives of the General Culture Authority and the Saudi Film Council had a huge first-time presence at the Cannes Film Festival this year. GCA CEO Ahmad Al-Maziad came by Deadline’s Cannes Studio to discuss how the Kingdom is developing guidelines for content, its ongoing discussions with Hollywood and lessons learned from China as well as how Saudi is dealing with outside perceptions. Check out the video above.
At a press conference earlier in the week to announce cash incentives designed to attract foreign productions to the Kingdom as well as grants for local filmmakers, the CEO fielded multiple questions about censorship and the roles of women. He tells me, “I think it’s a fair concern from everyone. We’re new to the game so people wanted to know what kind of restrictions and what kind of guidelines would be there. We wanted to make sure that we developed guidelines that are in line with what exists around us in the region, but also are aligned with what the society expects from us.”
He continues, “It is not limited by what we have as the norm. We’ve seen in some of the movies shot in Saudi. For instance, there’s a movie called Barakah Meets Barakah, women were shown wearing skirts and short skirts, and were walking outside in the streets, and in forms that people are not used to seeing… We’re a very young population. What was not tolerated two or three years ago is tolerated today and will continue to evolve as the society evolves.”
Storytelling and cinema, Al-Maziad says, “are a way to drive the way the society thinks and the way the society sees things. We don’t limit the society to what it believes today, but we also want to expose them to other things. This is the beauty of storytelling. There will be progressive guidelines and they will change and on an annual basis we will be reviewing them and changing them.”
Even before the GCA announced the rebate program this week, there was interest coming from abroad. “We’ve started talking to some projects in Hollywood… Even in Bollywood, there was an interest to come and shoot in Saudi. We’ve had some scouting, where some people came in and looked at the location, but we did not drive it aggressively because we wanted to launch the program first… We know that the incentive program is generous enough to attract the attention of Hollywood, Bollywood, as well as movie houses in Europe. We’re ready to talk to them.”
But Al-Maziad allows, “We don’t have the talent to shoot 100 movies at the same time. That’s the reality. We’re not claiming that we’re at that.”
Has the Kingdom has studied other markets that have opened up or been emerging over the past few years, specifically China?
“We’ve looked at China. We’ve looked at some of the smaller countries around Saudi with their experience over the past few years. Their experience had some success, had a lot of failure… We’ve done some interviews and we sat with Hollywood people who worked with deals almost 10 years ago with the Chinese and some of the GCC countries. We’ve learned that it’s not about splashing money. It’s not about going (to Hollywood) and buying rights to big movies and then starting from the movies and then going down. We’re learning that it’s about building talent… At the end of the day, everything comes to creating an industry. We’re not about marketing… We believe that the industry itself will become the marketing, rather than the other way around.”
And what about outside perceptions of Saudi? “You know,” says Al-Maziad, “perceptions take time to change… Perceptions are created through, whether through movies or through media. I think we haven’t done, in the past, our homework to challenge those perceptions. We’ve sometimes led them to become a reality and perception is not always reality. We’re a society that entrenched in history; thousands and thousands of years… Now, it is our role and our mandate to change the perception. We’re not unhappy with others that they have the wrong perception of us. The perception is what they see, whether in media or in movies. I think what we’re doing is one of the elements is the movie making, allowing other international to come and experience Saudi… We believe that most people are fair. When they experience something they see as reality, it will come out.”
The GCA also runs culture weeks outside its borders, such as in New York, Paris, London and other locations. “We’re showcasing our culture,” says Al-Maziad. “I think that’s part of the change, exposing others, and giving them the opportunities to see Saudi for what it is, not for what they thought it was.”