Screen stars Shah Rukh Khan, Jackie Chan, Jason Momoa and Jean-Claude Van Damme were the main draws on day one of the Joy Entertainment Forum (October 13-14) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The four leading men took the stage as part of the government-backed summit to promote the kingdom’s entertainment industry and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan to build the country into a leading regional film and TV hub. Bollywood icon Khan posted on Twitter while his manager posted the above image on Instagram.
According to organizers, the event includes “conferences, inspiring speakers and talent development workshops” from the fields of tech, business and entertainment. The event’s website promises “15+ celebrity” guests and industry speakers including former Universal Studios and Disney theme park executives Don Potts and Matthew Priddy – as the territory ramps up its parks infrastructure – and MPC Film’s Senior VFX producer Christoph Roth (The Lion King).
The attendance of high-profile screen stars at the conference will likely raise eyebrows, coming as it does one year after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The event is being held at the Ritz Carlton, the ultra-luxurious Riyadh hotel which two years ago was used as a detention center by Crown Prince bin Salman during a powerplay against hundreds of Saudi royals, billionaires and government officials. Detainees were made to sign away significant assets in order to be released.
Hollywood and international markets cooled their pursuit of Saudi money after the murder of prominent journalist and dissident Kashoggi. STX CEO Robert Simonds and Viacom’s Bob Bakish were among those to pull out of a Saudi investor conference in October last year. In November, Legendary denied a report that it was taking $700M from Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF. In March of this year Endeavor handed back a $400M investment from PIF, whose disparate U.S. investments include Uber and Deadline owner Penske Media Corporation. Actor Gerard Butler cancelled his trip to the country last year to promote his film Hunter Killer following the Khashoggi killing.
But there are signs that attitudes are relaxing towards the country once again. The stars attending the Joy Forum are among the most high-profile actors to take part in a media event in the country in the past 12 months. As part of a renewed charm offensive on the U.S., Crown Prince bin Salman took part in a CBS sit-down last month, giving his first on-camera interview about the Khashoggi murder.
Janet Jackson, Chris Brown and 50 Cent were among singers to take part in the Jeddah World Fest over the summer (though Nicki Minaj pulled out citing human rights concerns), and next March sees the launch of the Red Sea International Film Festival, the country’s first major film festival.
Organizers of the festival, who were at the Venice Film Festival this summer to drum up support for the occasion, are hopeful they will be able to attract a healthy contingent of U.S. and international guests. Former Sundance fest doc programmer Hussain Currimbhoy is artistic director, and managing director is former Dubai festival exec Shivani Pandya Malhotra. French industry vet Julie Bergeron will run the market.
Saudi Arabia plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in local cinema infrastructure in the next two years. Among companies listed as attending April’s Cinema Build KSA Forum in Riyadh were U.S. exhibition giant AMC, which is moving ahead with plans to build screens in the territory. It briefly put a pause on market expansion after Khashoggi’s murder. AMC opened the country’s first movie theater in Riyadh last April after Saudi Arabia ended its decades-long ban on moviegoing.
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