Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we’ll shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re sitting down with Wayne Borg, Managing Director of Media, Entertainment and Culture and Fashion at Neom, and he tells us how the Saudi Arabia-based media hub, which recently housed $140M epic Desert Warrior, is quickly ramping up its offerings to the film and television sectors.
Wayne Borg is not one to say no to a challenge. When the industry stalwart was approached to set up the media efforts of Neom, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious futuristic city that is the beating heart behind the country’s efforts to diversify its infrastructure, he considered it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
“To be part of the Neom vision and the scale of the ambition was something I just sort of jumped at because it’s so unique in the sheer scale of it,” Borg tells Deadline.
And indeed, there is scale. The semi-autonomous region is set across 26,500 kilometers (roughly the size of Belgium) in the northwest of Saudi Arabia and is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to liberalize the country and its young population (70% of the country is under the age of 35). It’s a $500BN effort that will be built along a single, integrated creative campus of more than one million square meters situated on The Line, an incredibly ambitious mirrored wall that aims to accommodate some nine million people. There will be no roads, cars or emissions and, says Neom, will include “hyperconnected, cognitive cities, ports and enterprise zones, research centers, sports and entertainment venues and tourist destinations.” Oh, and it will run on 100% renewable energy.
For many, the idea of setting up camp in the middle of the desert to spearhead the media branch of this highly aspirational project in a country that only lifted its 35-year-old region related ban on cinema in 2017, it would be a daunting prospect. But for Borg, who is no stranger to the region after having worked in the UAE with the twofour54 media hub, it was an opportunity he couldn’t resist.
The Australian native has had more than two decades of experience in the business having held executive posts at Walt Disney, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and Universal in Australia, the UK and Los Angeles. He was instrumental in helping establish Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 media hub from 2008-2014, so he was familiar with the Arab world and had experience in building something from the ground up in a region where the media sector was at its infancy.
“That was a pretty formidable time in terms of what we were capable of doing by developing an industry sector that hadn’t existed before and it was really amazing,” he said of his time in Abu Dhabi. “So, when the opportunity at Neom came along, I didn’t really think lightning would strike twice. I think off of the back of the success we had in Abu Dhabi, to be able to bring that together, that sort of armoury of experiences and skills that run across the industry, was an opportunity I was keen to take.”
Now, four years into the post as Neom’s Managing Director for Media, Entertainment Culture and Fashion, Borg says what has become clear is that the project is moving at the rate of knots, driven by Saudi Arabia’s desire to develop an entertainment sector that will match the GDP of other modern nations.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that we’ve been able to mobilize very quickly, I think to the significant surprise of the region and the international industry,” he says. “Being able to make things happen and become operational so quickly is something I’m really proud of.”
There are two main locations for production at Neom: Neom’s Media Village and its Bajdah Desert Studios. Both are about a 30-minute car journey from each other. Last week, the Media Village officially opened the doors to its second soundstage, bringing the total number of operational stages in the region to four, (the other two are located at Bajdah Desert).
The two stages within the Media Village are 2,400 square meters of capacity and are kitted with state-of-the art technology and back-of-house facilities including make-up rooms, green rooms and production offices. A further six stages, including a volumetric stage, are currently in development and are set to open by mid-2023. There are long term plans to encompass 37 stages and studios, tenancy space, vocational learning facilities, industry incubation and start-up space.
Producers looking to shoot in the region will be able to tap into Saudi Arabia’s generous 40% cash rebate production incentive scheme for feature films, TV dramas, reality series and docs, which was launched last year.
To date, 27 productions have shot at Neom, including the $140M epic Rupert Wyatt project Desert Warrior, starring Anthony Mackie and 10-part fantasy-adventure Rise of the Witches, from MBC Group’s high-end production arm, MBC Studios. Those projects are, respectively, the biggest film and television show to shoot in the KSA to date.
Speaking about the experience of Desert Warrior specifically, Borg says, “I think there was huge scepticism when we announced that was happening and, indeed, it was a real challenge. It was a test for us in that there were 500 plus people on set every day, but I do think we demonstrated the capacity and capability of the team to deliver that production.”
At present, one soundstage at its Media Village has been booked out for a long-running drama series, which is set to shoot in March (Borg wouldn’t disclose the name of the series) and there’s a Turkish co-production currently shooting in the region.
For Borg, while he’s of course keen to attract Hollywood and international productions to shoot in the region, there’s a big onus on being an incubator for local productions. He’s encouraged that he’s seen “a lot of interest from the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE.”
“The big piece for us is trying to consolidate the region’s industry,” he says. The Arab world, he says, makes up about 6% of the world’s population but less than 1% of that content is Arabic.
“I think that reflects just how much we’re underperforming as a region and I think what is tremendously exciting now is that off of the back of what the streaming sectors have created, this is effectively a global marketplace. People don’t shy away from watching content that isn’t in their native language anymore.”
Indeed, the MENA region has a population of more than 550 million people, roughly a similar size to all of North America and that’s a huge marketplace that Borg says is not being catered to or reaching its full potential.
“That’s something we want to address and believe we can,” he says, noting that local content is a critical part of the mix for he and his team as Neom grows. “People want to see their own stories and their own culture reflected on the screen and that’s not just the foreign markets – even Australia and New Zealand are looking for their own local stories.”
Borg is cognizant that in order to develop these stories and for Neom to truly be an incubator for the Arab world, the infrastructure must be there. Structuring Neom to be fully integrated physical and technological media hub that will work across film, television, games and digital productions will have “huge ramifications in terms of workflow efficiency and development and training of talent.”
He says, “It’s about those critical success factors that the industry is looking for which is critical mass of infrastructure, competitive and globally attractive incentives and a talent pool that has depth. It’s also about eliminating as much bureaucracy as you can, which as we know for production, is about time and money and the smoother we can make that process, the more effective we can be.”
Of course, since KSA started ramping up its efforts in the media space, there has been a lot of question marks within the industry as to whether the country is capable of building something sustainable in the long term for the film and television sectors. Previous efforts from Qatar and the UAE, which have both invested heavily in attracting Hollywood to come to its shores, have since largely fallen by the wayside. There is also the issue of KSA long having had a reputation of being one of the most patriarchal and conservative nations in the world (women were only permitted to drive from June 2018).
Is it an arduous task for Borg to untangle these issues from the directive he is being tasked with?
“For me, I was relatively comfortable about the scale of the ambition and the scale of the reform,” he says. “The ambition is to create a project that is truly global and truly unique in terms of what it is trying to do. For me, it was less about apprehension and more about ‘How big can we go, how much support and commitment is there going to be?’ And I’m pleased to say that from day one I’ve had absolute support from our board in terms of what I believe we should be doing here.”
He says that he is currently planning “well into 2045” and stresses that this is “absolutely for the long term.”
When queried whether there will be leans on alcohol within Neom, which is currently still banned in the Muslim country, Borg responds, “We’re preparing for a modern, forward-looking society that is going to promote a culture of diversity and a commitment to values that include cooperation, respect and tolerance.”
He adds, “This isn’t just a one-off initiative – it’s about the economic opportunity and what it means for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at a global level. This is the world’s first cognitive city and jurisdiction. There’s so much momentum in the ambition of leadership and the focus from everybody at Neom across our board. With the long-term thinking and planning that we are working to, I can confidently say that it certainly won’t end in my lifetime.”
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