The growing number of productions underway at NEOM, a futuristic megacity being built in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, were discussed during an exclusive Screen and KFTV event in Cannes on Sunday (May 22).
Invited producers, sales agents and film financiers assembled at the Barrière Hotel Le Gray d’Albion at the event – hosted by Screen International and KFTV in association with NEOM – to hear more about the expanding media hub from Wayne Borg, managing director of media, entertainment, culture and fashion.
“We hosted 21 productions last year, ranging from TV commercials through to Desert Warrior, a $150m production directed by Rupert Wyatt, starring Anthony Mackie,” said Borg.
“It was a big production that demonstrated our capacity and capability, involving four months of pre- and five months of production, with 450 to 500 people on set every day. Talent came in from UAE, Jordan, Egypt and Morrocco. There’s a great talent pool out there and we want to consolidate that.”
The veteran media executive also said that new reality series Million Dollar Island, from Big Brother creator John de Mol, began shooting at NEOM last week and work on a TV show set to produce 200 episodes a year was about to begin.
“We’re doing a lot of regional production but also working with major studios such as Apple, Discovery and the BBC, so we’ve got a broad range of clients that we’ll continue to expand as our facility grows,” he said.
He confirmed there are two soundstages of 2,000sqm and another at 2,500sqm already constructed with another five coming on, including a volumetric video capture stage. The “end state” will comprise 15 to 20 soundstages with facilities ranging from pre- to post-production over a 1 million square metre footprint.
Borg explained to the assembled executives that NEOM will be a new jurisdiction within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and would cover 26,500km – about the size of Belgium – with its own laws and regulations. It is located along the coast of the Red Sea coast in Tabuk, in the northwest of KSA.
“What’s going to set NEOM apart in the world is how we redefine people’s relationship to how they live and how they work,” he said, detailing how the region will be “a linear city”, built along a 178km line without any roads or cars, powered solely by renewable energy and connected by a high-speed “hyperloop” train. “NEOM is going to be zero carbon from day one, powered by wind and sun.”
This environmentally conscious approach was of interest to fellow panellist Melanie Dicks, the UK-based co-founder of environmental and sustainability firm Greenshoot, which handled the first sustainable production – 2011 feature Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.
“NEOM has an extraordinary opportunity to make this new vision a reality,” she said. “One of the challenges ahead will be transparency, which is absolutely key; not greenwashing; and embedding the right education programme for the next generation of filmmakers [something Greenshoot has been doing for the last decade.”
Also on the panel was Bedlam Film Productions’ Gareth Ellis-Unwin, an Oscar-winning producer of The King’s Speech, who was excited about the prospects for raising fresh filmmaking talent at NEOM.
“In so many places around the world, you might want to apply best practises [with the next generation] but you’re trying to unpick 120 years of history and legacy,” he said. “The opportunity that exists within NEOM is that it’s a genuinely blank piece of paper. It’s a new start and a fresh style where we can do things in a better way. I think the management team at NEOM have a clear handle on what we want as the producing community to see in that jurisdiction.”
In terms of locations, Borg shared what is already available and what has to come.
“We’ve got incredibly diverse landscapes with a great coastline, coral reefs, mountain ranges where we get snow in the winter, through to your classic deserts and more futuristic looking terrains,” he said.
“And in the future, we’re going to have some pretty dramatic urban landscapes as well as they start to come online from late 2025.”
Delineating the ambition for NEOM, Borg added: “We’re creating the first truly regional content hub for the MENA region focused on screen, gaming, and digital publishing. We’ve got a huge talent pool across the region – a marketplace of 500 million people – and have this huge advantage where 50% of the population are under 30. But we’re also attracting talent from around the world.”
Productions will further be attracted by incentives, which are currently tailored on a case-by-cade basis; direct flights from Dubai to NEOM by the end of the month and from London to NEOM in the coming months; and seamless logistical support as well as a lack of bureaucracy.
“It’s about how we make it less about red tape and more about red carpet,” added Borg.