Saudi Arabia has big ambitions for its burgeoning film and TV production sector as the country pushes on with its Vision 2030 plan, which has resulted in the partial opening-up of society and the lifting of a 35-year cinema ban in 2017.
Speaking at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah in late 2021, Bahaa Abdulmajeed, a business development manager at the Saudi ministry of investment, said the country had set a target of producing and shooting 100 films by 2030, across local and international productions. This ambitious plan had a high-profile start thanks to a wave of big-budget incoming productions, with Desert Warrior (produced by Stuart Ford’s AGC Studios and Jeremy Bolt at JB Pictures in partnership with MBC Studios) and Kandahar (Thunder Road Films and Capstone) shooting in Saudi at the end of 2021.
Seventh-century action picture Desert Warrior, directed by Rupert Wyatt, shot in the Neom ‘city of the future’ region in the northwest province of Tabuk, while Ric Roman Waugh’s military thriller Kandahar employed AlUla to stand in for Afghanistan. The region previously doubled for Iraq in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry. The Kandahar shoot took a year-and-a-half to prepare, and eventually involved some 450 crew, most of whom were flown in. Beyond the desert landscapes, another big draw was the support of the country’s Ministry of Defence, which loaned armoured personnel carriers, Abrams tanks, Black Hawk helicopters and four Air15 jets for a battle scene.
Desert Warrior and Kandahar are both believed to have been financially incentivised to shoot in Saudi Arabia, but details of the exact nature of the support have never been revealed. Before the shoots wrapped in late 2021/early 2022, the Saudi Film Commission announced a more transparent 40% cash rebate on qualifying expenses for incoming features, documentaries and animation projects. No further details have been released as yet.
The sites of AlUla and Neom are at the heart of Saudi’s locations strategy. The northwest region of AlUla spans deserts, mountains, oases and ancient cities such as Hegra (the Unesco world heritage site also known as Mada’in Salih or al Hijr), which was the second city of the ancient Nabatean people, after Petra, which now lies in Jordan. AlUla is also home to Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building which has already featured in several music videos. In June, Saudi filmmaker Tawfik Alzaidi made his debut with Norah, the first homegrown feature to shoot AlUla as AlUla. “It’s an extraordinary, unique environment, otherworldly and mythical,” says Norah’s US producer, Paul Miller of Escape Pictures. Budgeted at sub-$2m, Norah is a co-production between Riyadh-based Black Sugar Pictures and local service provider Nebras Films.
Film AlUla has broken ground on its studio complex, which will be up and running in early 2023. “Phase one is two 25,000 square foot studios, which are state-of-the-art and will have significant supporting facilities,” says Charlene Deleon-Jones, executive director of Film AlUla. Situated further north, on a stretch of the Red Sea also shared by Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Neom’s breathtaking landscape combines desert, craggy mountains and an untouched coastline. Beyond its natural beauty, Neom will be home to a futuristic eco-city as well as a major media hub, which is already open for business.
At the Neom Media Village and Bajdah Desert Studios, the first three soundstages — including a 2,400 square metre stage — are operational, with a further seven set to open in the first quarter of 2023. One of the seven will be a high-tech volumetric production stage. The Neom Media Village also features makeup rooms, production offices and back-of-house facilities.
Saudi Arabia continues to recover from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and provides an ongoing vaccination programme for its citizens. Applications to enter the territory are the same for vaccinated and non-vaccinated people. As the country continues to welcome international productions, there is a wealth of other archaeological and historical sites still to be discovered, while new mega-construction projects, such as the 250-floor Jeddah Tower in the Red Sea port city, are also likely to capture the imagination of location scouts, producers and filmmakers.
Joy Films' managing director, Ali Azarmi, notes that the film production industry is fresh, but as with the entire country, it is "growing and developing at an unprecedented pace."
For instance, the outfit have been involved in some of the most iconic productions marking the kingdom’s epic transformation — the global launch of NEOM and subsequent brand films for example. The many diverse projects of Riyadh and its rise to become among the top cities of the world which is all part of KSA’s 'VISION 2030' manifesto.
"All our productions for KSA’s various entities and ministries were successfully completed despite very challenging timelines. We are looking forward to open our offices in KSA and help develop the industry," adds Azarmi.
The sites of AlUla and Neom are at the heart of Saudi’s locations strategy. The northwest region of AlUla spans deserts, mountains, oases and ancient cities such as Hegra (the Unesco world heritage site also known as Mada’in Salih or al Hijr), which was the second city of the ancient Nabatean people, after Petra, which now lies in Jordan.
Situated further north, on a stretch of the Red Sea also shared by Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Neom’s breathtaking landscape combines desert, craggy mountains and an untouched coastline. Beyond its natural beauty, Neom will be home to a futuristic eco city as well as a major media hub, which is already open for business.
Saudi Arabia offers a range of unique looks, from the vast deserts and stunning sand dunes that expand across most of the country to the greener mountain retreats. Date palms, wild grasses and hyacinths flourish in the oasis that pepper the otherwise arid, dry landscape. And exotic Arabian architecture and palatial villas compete with cosmopolitan urban architecture in the bigger cities.
The capital Riyadh is the first port of call and main entry point to the country. Seen from afar, soaring, sparkling, stunning modern towers rise above the desert and shiny 4WDs throng modern highways. Up close, Riyadh is conservative, cautious and sober (especially compared with Jeddah). Filming here is difficult due to its conservative nature (people are uncomfortable with being filmed, police halt filming even with a permit), but ironically many of the production companies are based here or in Jeddah, the second largest city.
Jeddah is the most easy-going city and perhaps, it’s most beguiling. The Al-Balad district is a nostalgic testament to the bygone days of old Jeddah with bustling souks and coral architecture.
Elsewhere, Taif, the unofficial summer capital, is a breath of fresh air in Saudi Arabia's hottest months. At 1700m above sea level, its gentle, temperate climate, wide-tree lined streets, traditional architecture, lively souk and beautiful surrounding scenery are the main attractions. Verdant, the area is known for its figs, grapes, pomegranates and prickly pears.
Another shady spot is Al-Hasa, the traditional oasis region in the eastern part of the country. It has the largest palm tree oasis in the world - containing 3 million palm trees. Renowned springs date trees, it is one of the greenest places in Saudi Arabia and will fulfill any filmmakers vision of a typical oasis landscape. Its magnificence is such that it has been nominated to compete for the title of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Madain Saleh is home to 131 tombs carved into honeycomb-coloured rock face.
Al-Hijaz Railroad, established to connect Damascus with Al-Medina Al-Munawrah, is a beautiful remnant of the Ottoman Empire, its station remain as archeological landmarks dotting the landscape.
There are six open parks in Saudi Arabia: Sud Al-Elb Park, Sud Wadi Hanifa Park, Bio Treatment Park in Otaiqah, Sud Park, Factories Lake Park and Lake Park.
Other locations of note are the Asir region, Farasan Islands, one of the most picturesque marine areas in all of Saudi Arabia, Dhee Ayn, a mountain village and Dir'iyah, the capital city of the first Saudi state and a World Heritage Site.
The variety of the locations in one country from the deep desert (empty quarter), to the ancient civilizations (Al Ula) to the modern futuristic cities (KAFD, NEOM) create a vast identity and unique film experience in locations that have never seen before, says Mohamad Naboush, executive producer at local production service providers Insight Studios.
As the country continues to welcome international productions, there is a wealth of other archaeological and historical sites still to be discovered, while new mega-construction projects, such as the 250-floor Jeddah Tower in the Red Sea port city, are also likely to capture the attention of location scouts, producers and filmmakers.
Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been slow in granting permits. Different permits may be required for shooting in cities, in the desert, in national parks and on public roads. But that is improving.
Most of the permits, visas and access can be issued and solved in an online advanced digital form, says Naboush from Insight Studios.
But it is worth noting that photographing government buildings, military installations, oil facilities and palaces is prohibited. Even if you have a permit police can, and often do, shut you down without reason. In theory filming is prohibited unless you do so as a guest of an important religious or political figure.
Non-Muslims cannot enter Mecca religious sites. During the Hajj, all Muslim visitors must have a valid Hajj visa. Non-Muslim visitors traveling to these destinations may be asked to explain the purpose of their trip or asked to show evidence of appointments before being allowed to board a flight to Jeddah. Women traveling alone are not allowed to enter the country unless they will be met at the airport by a husband, a sponsor or male relative. A woman traveling with a man who does not fit into those criteria can be arrested. This is a consideration when bringing crew in from abroad.
There are likely to be restrictions on filming alcoholic drinks and nudity, such as those imposed in neighbouring UAE, but no formal Film Commission exists to indicate and delineate the rules and regulations to filming in Saudi Arabia.
If wishing to film in Saudi Arabia it is crucial to have proper local guidance and servicing, insist Chammas and Abou Zeid from Truffle.
Saudi Arabia is making strides in scaling up homegrown crew through training and attaching locals to gain experience on big-budget productions in return for support. Though crews are mainly brought in for the interim, there are a growing number of full-service production companies available locally.
Joy Films for instance, are a full-service film production company providing creative services, advertising concepts, script writing, editing, animation, CGI and VFX management, photography production.
According to the outfit's managing director, key to the kingdom's evolving success is its "ambition to transform and become a leader in every field."
He adds that in terms of film industry KSA provides "fantastic unseen locations ranging from scenic and expansive landscapes with a diversity that will surprise many. Snowy mountains, amazing coral reefs and beaches, industrial sites, authentic urban cities and villages with unique textures - both ancient and modern."
VIP Films meanwhile boast long-established experience in the Middle East, and having shot many times in Saudi Arabia, possess an understanding the culture and the language which is essential for shoots in the kingdom.
According to the outfit's regional producer, Martha Nassar, Saudi Arabia has witnessed "significant developments that make it an attractive destination" for filmmakers through the following:
Infrastructure: The country has made substantial investments in developing infrastructure for the film industry. This includes modern production facilities, studios, and advanced equipment rental services. The infrastructure caters to various production scales, from small independent projects to large-scale international productions.
Film Incentives: Saudi Arabia offers attractive film incentives to encourage local and international filmmakers to choose the country as their filming destination, whether you are working on feature films or documentaries, the Saudi film commission can offer up to 40% cash rebate.
Cultural and Natural Diversity: Saudi Arabia boasts a rich cultural heritage and diverse landscapes that provide a unique and visually captivating backdrop for filmmaking. From historical sites to modern urban landscapes, and picturesque deserts, the country offers a range of locations to suit various storytelling needs."
Additionally, AlUla has opened a new ‘film camp’, offering 300 fully furnished accommodation units, production office space and recreational areas. “As a producer, one of the big nightmares is where is everybody going to sleep?” says Norah’s Paul Miller. “The film camp is purpose-built for crew and it’s great. There’s going to be a pool there soon and, eventually, a recreational room and a dining room. It’s perfectly designed. It’s very well insulated. And during the evenings or weekends, there’s a communal space where people hang out and make food and play games. We also took some of the rooms to use as production offices, for our camera department as well as accounting.”
The first phase of its studio development strategy is underway to deliver two film stages, support offices, dressing rooms, green rooms, a warehouse and workshops by the third quarter of this year. Neom is also planning to bring operational soundstages and production facilities online this year.
Other facilities include Nebras Films in Riyadh. The 3,900 sq m studio offers post-production services alongside art workshops, 3D animation, audio, casting, crew, equipment, props and sets.
Saudi Arabia spans around 2.1 million square kilometres and most of the Arabian Peninsula. This makes it roughly nine times larger than the UK, but with half the population. The key cities are widely spaced out — capital Riyadh and port city Jeddah lie just under 1,000 kilometres apart — but there is an extensive network of airports, including nine with international flights. There is also a modern train network, but with only three routes. The easiest way to get around within regions is by road.
First person to contact
Royal Commission for AlUla firstname.lastname@example.org
Saudi Arabia spans around 2.1 million square kilometres and covers most of the Arabian Peninsula. This makes the country roughly nine times larger than the UK, but with half the population. The key cities are widely spaced out — capital Riyadh and port city Jeddah lie just under 1,000 kilometres apart — but there is an extensive network of airports, including nine with international flights. There is also a modern train network but with only three routes. The easiest way to travel within regions is by road.
First people to contact
Royal Commission for AlUla: email@example.com