Mega-budget epic Desert Warrior, starring Anthony Mackie and Aiysha Hart, has been a big talking point here in Jeddah this week as it nears wrapping production in Saudi Arabia’s Neom region. The $140M 7th Century-set action title marks not only the biggest production to shoot in the KSA since it lifted its ban on cinemas four years ago but it also represents a major collaboration between creative and financial models in the region and Hollywood talent.
“I think Desert Warrior is something of a statement movie, certainly on behalf of the Saudi film industry, but actually the entire Arab-speaking region,” AGC Studios’ Stuart Ford told delegates at a panel at the Red Sea International Film Festival on Wednesday. AGC Studios is producing the film with JB Pictures and MBC Studios, the in-house production arm of leading MENA media company MBC Group. The project is also the first tentpole-sized project to be shot at futuristic city Neom.
“The film and TV sector in this part of the world is growing very quickly,” Ford said. “And, like in any growing production sector around the world, initially you need to import some expertise and Hollywood know-how. But the goal is obviously to infuse that know-how into the local industry.”
Ford was joined on stage by MBC Studios’ Saudi chief Zeinab Abu Alsamh who noted that while this big-budget project has imported some of this Hollywood expertise for Desert Warrior, it was paramount to have a story that resonated with local audiences.
“We wanted to share a story that is rooted in this region and historically accurate but would have elements to travel,” she said.
Ford noted that the opportunities made available right now for international audiences to consume non-English language content were never better while Abu Alsamh added that she was encouraged by the local support happening by policymakers and the private sector in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a wonderful time to be a filmmaker here,” she said. “People are eager and hungry to help and be a part of this prosperous industry.”
Since his days at IM Global, Ford has always had a keen eye for spotting growth and opportunities in burgeoning markets, having built up strong slates of local language content from China, Southeast Asia and Latin America. He said he was confident that the Arab-speaking world would follow the same boom trajectory as these other markets.
“The parallels are that you see a desire to build a local industry and to create infrastructure, to create jobs, to generate a creative place to promote tourism off the back of that production,” said Ford. “But you have a huge diaspora audience of Arabic speakers around the world who, for the most part, have not been well served, just from an access perspective and as global distribution evolves, there’s more demand from that diaspora audience globally.”
He pointed to local UAE hit The Ambush, which is already the highest-grossing Arabic language film ever in that territory and Ford said AGC was setting up what he believed to be a “fairly high profile” global distribution framework for that film off the back of this unprecedented local success.”
Ford added that he was “excited” about the fact that “things happen quickly and with ferocity” in the Middle East.
“Local industries are muscling up and aiming to compete, but in Saudi [Arabia] and the Gulf, there are governments and state bodies who have decided it’s time to walk in,” he said. “There’s a level of investment both financially and in terms of resources to that process that is, in some ways, unparalleled anywhere else internationally.
“Having seen similar production boom periods in Southern Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America, I see a level of momentum here that in many ways, exceeds what we’ve seen before. Our perspective at AGC, which is in many ways one of the gatekeepers to the global universe, is that the Arab-speaking world is a coming force.”
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