Middle East set for silver screen renaissance

When the Hollywood action blockbuster Black Panther opened at a brand new multiplex in Riyadh a year ago the show was a sellout.

It was not just Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of a mythical African prince, or even Ludwig Göransson’s Oscar-winning score, that pulled in the crowds. The main draw was that this was the first public showing of a film since the lifting of Saudi Arabia’s 35-year-old ban on cinema.

The opening up of the Saudi market as part of the kingdom’s overall reform agenda is not the only catalyst for growth in the film sector in the wider Middle East. Growing interest among a new generation of cinemagoers is prompting the international cinema industry to target millennials across the region, with hundreds of new screens due to open.

New multi-screen theatres are the latest attraction in the sprawling malls of the Gulf region and beyond. Since the Saudi ban was lifted, Canada’s Imax, which has screens from Dubai to Beirut, has already opened a second cinema in Saudi Arabia at Jeddah’s Red Sea Mall that took almost $1.5 million in its first four months.

In some locations, operators are using variable pricing based on screening times to attract a broad spectrum of cinemagoers. At the upper end of the market, a new eight-screen theatre with VIP facilities at Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower has been described by local media as the Middle East’s most luxurious cinema.

In what was once a negligible contributor to global box office, growing interest is spurring demand for more local content at a time when Middle East films are beginning to gain a higher profile at international festivals.

Last year’s Cannes Film Festival saw an upsurge in interest in Middle Eastern films, from Lebanon’s first ever Oscar-nominated production The Insult, to a trio of Egyptian hits, and Syria’s Last Men in Aleppo. The Syrian film received a 97 per cent critics rating from review site Rotten Tomatoes which called it a heartbreaking and hopeful portrait of the war-torn country.

The pace was maintained at this year’s festival where seven Arab films made it on to the Cannes programme including entries from Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

At this pace, a new golden age of Middle Eastern cinema beckons. For there was a time in the 1950s when Egypt, for example, was home to the world’s third largest film industry. In cosmopolitan centres such as Cairo and Beirut, cinema had in fact taken off from the advent of the silent era. Family-owned Empire International, now a major regional distributor for top global production companies, just celebrated the centenary of the group’s founder opening Beirut’s first cinema.

Fashion and economics led Egyptian output subsequently to slump, but in recent years that decline has begun to turn around. The main focus of growth in box office and cinema infrastructure, however, is on the now prosperous states of the Gulf, which were underdeveloped backwaters in the early days of cinema.

Participants at the MENA Cinema Forum in Dubai last November heard that cinema is the fastest growth market in the region. The organisers put progress down to rapid population growth, urbanisation, development of the leisure sector and the emergence of a Saudi market.

Recent research by consultant PwC predicted the next three to five years would see an almost 40 per cent rise in the number of cinema screens in the Middle East and North Africa region from 1,300 to around 1,800, largely driven by Saudi demand. Projects announced by major operators suggests an even bigger expansion. Investment in the sector is expected to exceed $3.5 billion by 2030, including $2.7 billion by a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund.

Dubai-owned Vox Cinemas is one of several companies seeking to tap the new Saudi market, investing more than $500m in 600 screens over the next five years. Other cinema licensees tapping the new market include the US’s AMC Theaters, Mexico’s Cinepolis, and India’s Carnival.

A new enthusiasm for cinemagoing is also apparent further afield, with Northwestern University in Qatar reporting a growing number of people opting for a night out at the cinema in countries as far apart as Tunisia and Qatar.

One further reason for local growth may be the rising argument about cultural appropriation. Over the years, western actors in films have often been assigned roles that reflected a fanciful perception of Middle East reality: think Rudolph Valentino and The Sheik. That is no longer tenable, and more recently, Middle East audiences and critics have complained of what they regard as the negative portrayal of Arabs in western films.

That may be a factor in the recent blossoming of local actors in local productions, some of which have been garnering attention at Cannes. With Middle Eastern actors in Middle Eastern locations and touching on contemporary Middle Eastern themes, there are these days a growing number of examples of what could be called a Middle Eastern New Wave.