The Red Sea International Film Festival is set to take place for the first time in November 2021 in the Red Sea city of Jeddah. Originally planned for launch in March 2020 but delayed due to COVID-19, the film festival will take place in Jeddah’s Old Town – a UNESCO world heritage site – between November 11-20, 2021. The event is the country’s first film festival to fall under the management of the Ministry of Culture. The Red Sea Film Foundation, the organizer of the festival, is the first Saudi, independent, nonprofit organization with an official mandate to promote film culture. The festival will be open to films and filmmakers from Saudi Arabia, the greater Arab region, and the rest of the world.
The festival’s theme, “Metamorphosis,” celebrates cinema as a force for positive change and “reflects on the festival’s local context: the impact of cinema’s triumphant return to Saudi Arabia since 2019, as well as the blossoming local and regional film scenes, exploring how cinema culture can create an interface connecting a new, outward-looking Saudi and the world,” according to a statement from the festival’s organizer. The festival places its theme within the context of “cinema’s ability to adapt to a post-industrial, digital new normal and as an interface between Saudi Arabia and the world,” reflecting the changes that Saudi Arabia, along with the rest of the world, have undergone since the start of last year. The festival will further focus on the growing role of women in the cinema sector in Saudi Arabia and worldwide and the country’s new, outward-looking vision.
The Red Sea Film Foundation also launched the Red Sea Lodge as an incubator for productions by Saudi and Arab filmmakers. The Lodge, now in its second edition, provides production grants for regional and local filmmakers, offers mentoring and training programs, and supports creative and professional development for filmmakers. The 2020 Lodge’s session awarded its prize for Saudi projects to “Sharshaf,” a short film about a Saudi woman whose life was transformed by cinema, which was also selected by the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) to represent the country in 2020’s TFI Network as part of the Tribeca Film Festival (held virtually due to the pandemic). The 2021 Red Sea Lodge’s first workshop took place from April 3 to April 10, 2021, with the fifth and final workshop’s date to be announced after the fourth workshop takes place in September. The 2021 Red Sea Lodge selected six Saudi projects and six projects from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon to participate, with half the projects notably led by female directors and three more women holding producer roles. The teams of directors, producers, and scriptwriters will participate in virtual and in-person workshops over the course of eight months before ultimately competing for two possible awards of $100,000 each. Furthermore, the two winning films will have the privilege of premiering at the 2022 edition of the Red Sea Film Festival. The launch of the festival and the Lodge will support development of amateurs and professionals throughout the country’s growing film sector, including script developers, cinematographers, producers, scriptwriters, sound designers, post-production specialists, directors, sales and marketing specialists, and more.
The Red Sea Film Festival’s managing team consists of Saudi and international curators, film specialists, and industry experts. The senior team of the festival, split evenly between men and women, is led by Ibrahim Modir, Head of Shared Services and includes two veterans of the Dubai International Film Festival: Managing Director Shivani Pandya and Director of Arab Programs & Film Classics Antoine Khalife. The managing team also includes internationally recognized film critic Kaleem Aftab as Director of International Programming, Jumana Zahid as Manager of the Red Sea Lodge, and Zain Zedan as Manager of the Red Sea Souk, which serves as the industry platform for distributors, sales agents, and producers for the festival. The Red Sea Film Foundation is chaired by H.R.H. Prince Badr Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture. In March 2020, officials from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh and the U.S. consulate in Jeddah met with Ms. Pandya to express support for U.S.-Saudi film industry partnerships, explore the possibility of networking events between U.S. film companies and Saudi content creators, and reaffirm the U.S.’s interest in supporting collaborations between directors and film makers of each country.
Opportunities in the Saudi Film Industry
The festival comes at a time of burgeoning creativity, growth, and international recognition of Saudi Arabia’s film scene. In 2018, for the first time in 35 years, cinemas were permitted to return to the Kingdom. The Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media, a part of the Ministry of Media that regulates the operation of cinemas, expects that more than 350 cinemas with a total of 2,500 screens will generate $1 billion in ticket sales (box office market only – PwC estimates an additional 35 percent of revenue from concessions and advertising to generate a total of $1.5 billion) annually by the year 2030. Many cinemas in other countries are evolving into establishments that provide a greater experience such as dine-in, IMAX, and 3D/4D, which is a trend that is likely to also take root in the Kingdom once cinemas become more established. Since 2018, 11 different companies have opened 34 cinemas, for a total of 342 screens and 35,000 seats, in 12 Saudi cities. In those three years, 12 million tickets were sold and the sector has directly created over 2,500 jobs. In the short term, the Saudi government expects another 70 cinemas to open.
Vision 2030’s other goals for the sector are to see household spending on entertainment double from 3 percent of GDP to 6 percent by 2030. The Development Investment Entertainment Company (DIEC) is the Public Investment Fund (PIF)’s investment arm for the entertainment sector, acting as a catalyst for developing the country’s network of cinemas. DIEC works to attract foreign entertainment and cinema companies, like AMC Entertainment, into the country to help spur the sector’s development. In 2018, DIEC worked with AMC to open its first cinema in the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh; AMC now plans to open 50 to 100 cinemas across the country by the year 2030. VOX Cinemas, part of Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim Group, is another early partner in the entertainment industry, planning to invest $533 million in opening 600 screens across the Kingdom that will create 3,000 new jobs over the next 5 years. In addition, VOX recently partnered with IMAX to open a minimum of 4 multiplex IMAX theaters in Saudi Arabia in the coming years. UAE-based Emaar Entertainment also plans to invest $270 million over the next five years to build cinemas and entertainment centers under its Reel Cinemas brand. Saudi Arabia’s first domestic cinema chain, MUVI Cinemas, launched in April 2021 with an SAR820 million plan to open 23 new sites with 204 screens over the next 12 months, for a total of 307 screens. The number of cinemas expected to open under the direction of Vision 2030, measured by screen density (number of screens per person) is on par with other developed economies, and leads to expected yearly admissions totaling 60-70 million by 2030.
The films to be shown at the Red Sea Film Festival join several other acclaimed productions out of Saudi Arabia in recent years. To see a list of other Saudi-made movies and how to watch them, click here.