By Patrick Elligett
Production in Saudi Arabia will get even better with cinema making an official comeback to the Kingdom.
Production in Saudi Arabia will get even better with cinema making an official comeback to the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia boasts what is arguably one of the strongest and most well-shielded economies in the Middle East. Being the world's largest oil producer provides the basis, but is not the sole reason for the country's economic strength.
Many industries far removed from oil continue to flourish in what is one of the world's most profitable business markets, with media production providing no exception, despite certain culturally-motivated restrictions and negative international perceptions of the local content delivery sector.
While television broadcasting and TVC production within the Kingdom have blossomed in recent years in what is one of the Middle East's most high-tech television markets, the thirty-year absence of cinemas has left the country's major production houses entirely dependent on commercials, corporate documentaries and television production.
Saudi Arabia's position as a regional leader in HDTV production has provided a platform for technology installation companies to thrive within the Kingdom while a satellite bandwidth glut hampers the progress of many of the Kingdom's GCC neighbours.
"The last seven TV studios we have worked on upgrading have been in high definition," says Naim Saidi, director of operations and CEO of Saudi-based systems integration specialist, First Gulf Company. "KSA is a pioneer in the region in terms of HDTV and also in terms of content production storage technologies."
He says the company maintains a market share of close to 90% of the nation's content production industry and is engaged in ambitious new projects within and outside the Kingdom, with HDTV, content management and storage among the company's top priorities.
"We are currently working with content management vendor, EMC, to deliver a new storage and archiving system. The main centre will be in Riyadh and a backup centre will be in Jeddah."
First Gulf also completed one of the most ambitious installations at Makkah and Madinah in time for the Hajj in December 2008 with more than 25 high-end Hitachi cameras.
But despite powerful content delivery technology and television broadcast sectors, KSA still finds itself lagging behind many other regional states in the production of feature and short films, such as Iran, Egypt, and Lebanon, since no local box office exists to fuel the development of the sector.
While many aspiring filmmakers can be found in the country, alongside a handful of more well-established production houses, the vast majority of regional production operators are still choosing to base the majority of their activities in some of the region's more developed media markets.
Rotana is, without a doubt, the juggernaut of the Kingdom's media production sector.
Owned by Saudi Prince HRH Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud, the company dabbles in broadcasting and distribution and produces the majority of its own film, music and television content in-house. It broadcasts six regional free-to-air TV stations, is in the process of amassing a vast radio empire and has accumulated a film library comprising more than 2000 Arab and international works.
It is also responsible for assisting in breaking the thirty-year cinema drought in KSA after screening the popular new Saudi comedy Menahi during December 2008 despite opposition from conservative forces within the Kingdom.
Screenings of the film in Jeddah proved extremely popular, packing-out specially designed auditoriums which allowed males and females to be separated according to custom.
Saudi Arabia has been steadily progressing towards a complete launch of its cinema industry, since the release of the nation's first feature film Kaif Al Hal? (How are you?) in 2006, and a five day film festival hosted by the Dammam Literary Club in early 2008, which featured a number of short films and documentaries.
A spokesperson for IMAX Corporation says the company has opened a cinema in Khobar, while there are also unconfirmed reports of IMAX theatres being constructed in the cities of Riyadh and Jeddah.
According to Scott Butler, CEO of the Arabian Anti-piracy Alliance (AAA), the establishment of a permanent cinema industry in the Kingdom could help to address the widespread issue of piracy that currently plagues the country's content production sector.
"The opening of big cinemas is the first sign that a market is developing. This is not stakeholder driven; this is a third party investing their own money in these cinemas," comments Butler. "This is the first place where you see the results of piracy levels coming down."
He says reducing piracy in the Saudi market and improving intellectual property rights and regulations is one of the AAA's highest priorities.
"Saudi is the key market for us. That is where all the numbers are - unfortunately that's where most of the piracy is now. We have set up offices in Riyadh, Jeddah and Damman."
The popularity of recent film screenings among KSA's film aficionados has provided evidence of the potential for the development of a sustainable cinema industry within the country. Such an advent would create an extra source of business for regional operators, while boosting the profile of those companies already operating in KSA, according to the CEO of SilverGrey Picture and Sound, Silvio Saade.
After operating in Saudi Arabia for close to a decade, the company has managed to establish itself as one of the dominant production houses within KSA. It has also expanded to include an audio production firm, a still photography company and an equipment rental arm, called SpeedTrack Productions, which is set to be expanded to accommodate the potential influx of filmmakers that could accompany the opening of cinemas within the Kingdom.Saade says that although negotiating the country's seasonal market can be challenging, most negative perceptions of the KSA production industry have been fabricated by some of the Middle East's dominant film houses.
"I think that the misinformation out there about Saudi Arabia being a difficult place to operate is just a myth created by some of the big producers in the region that have considerable investments in places like Beirut, Jordan or Dubai," reveals Saade. "They don't want people to go there, so they make it look like a difficult market in order to protect their investments elsewhere in the Middle East."
It is frustrating that people feel it is too difficult to shoot feature films in Saudi Arabia. We have been working here for quite a long time and we haven't had any problems with it because we know how to go about operating here," he explains.
Lack of permanent film infrastructure in Saudi Arabia combined with the void left by the absence of a true cinema box office, however, often draws many production houses to more lucrative locations such as Dubai or Beirut.
Dubai-based production company Aether films has occasionally operated within the Kingdom. However, its managing director, John Robins, says setting up permanent operations in the country is out of the question.
"We have no interest in increasing our presence in Saudi Arabia due to the fact that the logistics of operating in the Kingdom and the costs associated with overcoming those logistics are, in our opinion, disproportionate to the business and revenue opportunities that exist in the market," states Robins.
"Our sales agent based in Saudi has become relatively quiet over the last six months but we still operate in the Kingdom with a support service to one of our clients based here in Dubai so we will continue to film and edit there," he says.
While many regional production companies echo the view of Robins, there are still independent filmmakers and production houses which have managed to establish themselves as purely Saudi-based operations without having to rely on external business opportunities.
Hussam Abo-Sabra, CEO of Riyadh-based firm Donya Production says, his company, which specialises in commercials and corporate documentaries is perfectly content within the confines of the Saudi Arabian market and emphatically conveys his passion for the development of the local industry.
"We have no reason to go anywhere else. There is no need to go to Lebanon, Egypt, or other places in the world when you have a location like Saudi Arabia," he says.
But Abo-Sabra admits that operating within the developing market can pose significant challenges for filmmakers.
"There are two or three production houses in Saudi Arabia but one might do the lighting, someone else might have a crane and another might have the camera. In Saudi Arabia, it is very hard to find a company that has everything under one roof and this is the issue," he says.
"We need more production houses. There are some in Riyadh, Jeddah and Damman, but there are not enough. So much of the market in Saudi is being controlled by companies based in Lebanon or the UAE, but every time they want to do anything here, they have to pay for taxes and shipping, which can potentially cost them quite a lot."
As the cinema industry within KSA continues to emerge, a new generation of independent filmmakers have begun to make their mark on the Kingdom's film industry, although their generally low-budget films currently find audiences at festivals and cinemas outside of Saudi Arabia.
These filmmakers are looking to corner their share of the massive market surge that will occur when Saudi Arabia's population of 27 million people instantly become potential consumers of cinema content.
From a distribution and integration perspective, however, the market for studio equipment remains steadfast due to the frequency of commercial and television programme production driven by the Kingdom's state braodcaster.
In the long-term outlook, the expected inclusion of an "AV City" within the King Abdullah Economic City development also offers a promising prospect for the future of the country's content delivery sector.
But while there are various opportunities within KSA's broadcast and commercial production fields, industry experts say the opening of a true cinema box office is needed before the country can properly become a broadcast and media leader on a regional or global scale.