(Bloomberg) -- When Johnny Depp made his return to the red carpet last week, premiering a costume drama at the Cannes Film Festival, his film and several others had Saudi money to thank.
Depp’s Jeanne du Barry and two other films competing for the Palme d’Or award at the industry event in the south of France featured Saudi producers in the opening credits. The kingdom also sponsored multiple events in Cannes: a Saudi cinema night followed by cocktails and a DJ, ads on the covers of Variety and Hollywood Reporter’s special Cannes issues, and a two-hour long forum where executives from the Middle East and North Africa pitched tips for finding financing, partners and locations in the region.
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Promotional posters offered to subsidize directors who shoot in the country. Saudi Arabia’s booth at the Marché du Film, an event that runs alongside the film festival where filmmakers look for buyers, was among the largest, welcoming visitors on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
Saudi movie executives interviewed in Cannes on the condition of anonymity said they believe cinema will be a way to dismiss what the government views as foreign misconceptions about the country. Becoming a regional movie powerhouse is an easily achievable first step, and the festival is an opportunity to showcase the country’s emerging know-how and willingness to expand, locally and abroad, they said.
The kingdom’s strategy is twofold: develop a domestic market through subsidies and film studios and investment in theaters, and to attract the interest of foreign producers and international media companies. Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Development Fund announced two funds at Cannes valued at $180 million for production infrastructure and film industry investment, Variety reported.
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“It is good that we are not just labeled as a country that comes with money and the biggest pavilion in Cannes,” said Emad Eskander, the head of the Red Sea Fund and a co-producer of the opening film at the festival. “These films have been selected by panels, there is a lot of pride.”
The country’s expansion into cinema would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In the early 1980s, films were banned under pressure from religious conservatives, and Saudis had to travel to Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates to see a movie in a theater. It’s only since 2018 that theaters started to open across the country, relaunching the local market for films. Black Panther was the first movie shown in cinemas after the ban lifted.
Much of the renaissance is being supported by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and its Neom initiative. Neom is a $500 billion project that includes a development on the Red Sea coast about the size of Belgium that will target luxury travelers and high-tech industries, but also includes plans to create more of a tourist trade. The Red Sea Fund is partnered with Neom to promote the domestic movie industry in the kingdom, and offers funding to attract filmmakers. The kingdom has also invested in esports and video games and committed billions of dollars of spending on football stars, teams and tour sponsorships.
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Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is overhauling the kingdom’s image, aggressively investing in industries outside of its core business of producing oil, modernizing the economy and its laws and working to put space between its popular image and controversies such as the war in Yemen, the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights issues and the jailing of dissidents.
Ibrahim Alkhairallah’s comedy Sattar, about a group of freestyle wrestlers, has sold around 900,000 tickets since December, a record for a Saudi film. The co-founder of the Telfaz11 production house was at the Cannes event’s film market looking for distributors for a potential sale in China, Indonesia and the US. Alkhairallah’s backing was provided in part by wealthy Saudi families tied to the Red Sea Fund.
His company struck an eight-movie deal with Netflix Inc. in 2020, an early sign that Hollywood is seeing the country and the Arab-speaking market as an opportunity.
The biggest Cannes success for the Red Sea Fund, an arm of the Jeddah-based Red Sea International Film Festival launched in 2019, was Depp’s return in the €20 million ($21.6 million) French language drama about Louis XV’s last official mistress, Jeanne Bécu. Eskander declined to comment on how much late-stage financing was provided, but said it was mainly because “the film itself was good.”
The film’s director, the actress known as Maïwenn, said in a press conference that her film had been difficult to finance before the Red Sea Fund came in.
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“I am very proud that the film is produced by the Saudis,” she said. “Mentalities are changing. I will be very proud to go there to present the film with my ideas.”
Maïwenn’s French-Algerian roots qualified her to apply for a grant, Eskander said. The Red Sea Fund has supported over 100 films for a total of $14 million, and is aimed at directors of Arab or African nationality or origin, according to its website.
--With assistance from Matthew Martin and Sam Dagher.
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