Return of Cinemas in Saudi Arabia

Whether the recent changes in Saudi Arabia are a sign of future changes to come is difficult to ascertain. Saudi Arabia King Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) issued a royal decree to re-open cinemas in the kingdom, after a ban of more than 30 years. A high-profile meeting took place between MBS, the IMAX Corporation, and Canadian film director James Cameron in Los Angeles in April 2018, portending great future plans for the kingdom. The plans are to open more theaters in the kingdom as part of a consummate social and cultural reform plan extending to 2030.

On the other hand, Abu-Dhabi, one of the major hubs of filmmaking and festivals in the region, suspended its signature festival SANAD, starting from 2015. The reasons publicly are that they need to focus on the festival and other functions, not on funding.

Netflix, the pioneer online video rental and streaming service, has penned distribution deals with Imagenation for Zinzana and The Worthy. Imagenation financed those two flicks also, as part of its mandate to finance Emirati films and invest in co-productions with its Hollywood partners.

This is all great news!

Given the 1000s of aspiring filmmakers in the region and the disproportionately small number of film grants in the region, the region is in strong need of financing. Most of the film finance sources are European and American, not Arab. They include the Berlinale Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and others. This points to a gap in Arab film financing, whether for documentaries, narrative features, animated features, and even short films.


Examples of Arab features that Middle East foundations financed are The Prophet and Reluctant Fundamentalist, from the Doha Film Institute (DFI). DFI understandably seeks to co-finance movies with local appeal, meaning that would appeal to Arab audiences. But because of this very goal, its selections for co-financing seem so general that they appear arbitrary and subjective. Abu-Dhabi’s SANAD Fund financed Theeb, an Oscar contender in 2016. Imagenation also has a steady stream of feature films, and has launched internship and training programs. These two entities, DFI and Imagenation, are the only film funds in the region, meaning that are dedicated to film financing and have the money.


Another promising activity for film production in the region has been the rising number of Hollywood runaway productions; they shoot in Morocco, Jordan, or the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In fact, Jordan and the UAE have enacted tax rebates that have proven effective as incentive for foreign films. Star Wars: Episode VII was partially filmed in Abu-Dhabi and Jordan had almost sealed the deal. Abu-Dhabi won the production over because of the cash rebates. The Jordan cash rebate stipulates 10% to 20% cash back on all eligible expenses in the country on all qualifying movies.

This, by itself, generated jobs and internships while the movies were shooting on location. Aspiring directors, producers, and actors (to name the key categories) have benefited from them. This should be an opportunity for more and more film production jobs in the region. The more film production there is and the more people are aware of the ROI on film production, the more jobs and internships there can be.

Cinema-goers also show inconsistent attitudes towards movies, which necessitates a systematic push from the governments and public sectors to create awareness of the cultural, artistic, and industry value and ROI of movies. Most audiences in Egypt prefer Arabic movies, while most in the UAE and Lebanon prefer foreign movies, mainly Hollywood ones. Thus, promoting Arab cinema and production is crucial now. Cinema and movies are not an option in this day and age, but a necessity.

The “blindside” is that there has been systematic, although understandable and inevitable, limited or scattered attention to film financing geared to the public. The UAE has done very well promoting local film production and training and, indeed, its plans have borne fruit. The next step ought to be more film finance sources, in number and quality.