Saudi Arabia lures international productions with state-of-the-art facilities

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as a desirable location for international productions thanks to its high incentive and state-of-the-art filming centres.

By Gabriella Geisinger 28 May 2024

Saudi Arabia lures international productions with state-of-the-art facilities
On the set of Kandahar; Cr: Film AlUla

International producers have been heading to Saudi Arabia recently, thanks to the country’s efforts to develop its entertainment industry as part of the Vision 2030 initiative. Saudi Arabia has set a target to have produced and shot 100 international and local films by the end of the decade.

This year will see several international productions including director Simon West’s upcoming historical drama Antara, filmed at Saudi Arabia’s purpose-built production city Neom. Based on a true story, Antara revolves around the titular Antara ibn Shaddad, an imprisoned warrior who won his freedom to become a knight. Production is scheduled for 12 weeks in the first half of 2024, based at Bajdah Studios. It makes use of Neom’s cash rebate, and Neom facilitates the production with soundstages, support facilities, talent and crews.

Eying an early 2025 start is Terry George’s thriller Riverman. Neom will facilitate the production with its in-house support facilities, talent and crews. “As producers, [Mark Foligno and I] feel confident shooting in Saudi Arabia,” says Riverman producer Camilla Storey. “They now have all the infrastructure in place, and they have put so much effort into making sure all the facilities are the best of the best.”

In addition, Neom will play host to an as-yet undisclosed Bollywood feature, as well as several local productions including a 200-episode series entitled Piano. According to Wayne Borg, Neom’s managing director of media industries, Neom has “delivered over 38 productions across all formats, genres and scales” in the past two years since it opened.

AlUla, which doubled for Afghanistan in Gerard Butler’s Kandahar, has been home to five feature films, 35 TV series, 33 documentaries and 55 commercials since 2020.

Features Fourth Wall and Chasing Red are scheduled for production in the second quarter of 2024 as part of a three-year, 10-project deal between Film AlUla and US-based Stampede Ventures. Another Stampede vehicle, Anderson Paak’s K-POPS!, will begin additional filming in AlUla in mid-2024.

The Lamb_BTS_MBC Studios-Winterstone Pictures

Other recent productions to shoot in AlUla include season three of Paper Empire starring Denise Richards, feature Siwar from Saudi director and producer Osama Alkhurayji, and Netflix reality series Dubai Bling and I Am Georgina.

“The first phase of our studio complex opened in 2023 to exceptionally high demand and is already fully booked for 2024,” says Charlene Deleon-Jones, executive director at Film AlUla.

It is important to note that scripts, treatments, storyboards and series synopses are approved by the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM) prior to production.

Ian Dray, producer on Los Angeles-based Winterstone Pictures’ The Lamb — filmed on location in Saudi in summer 2022 — advises incoming producers to “ensure you have a solid partner with one of the regional authorities. You then need a deal with a local production service company.

“Once those are in place and you run everything with them, you will find shooting in Saudi an experience with great financial benefits and tax incentives,” he continues. “It is a positive experience on so many levels. The light, weather and scenery are amazing. I cannot recommend Saudi enough as a location.”

Saudi Arabia may be known for its deserts, but it also offers more diverse landscape. The northwest region of AlUla spans deserts, mountains, oases and ancient cities such as Unesco world heritage site Hegra. Neom combines desert, craggy mountains, 500 kilometres of untouched Red Sea coastline, rugged local towns and unique red sand formations. The country also has green mountain retreats with date palms, wild grasses and hyacinths that grow in the oases.

Unique Arabian architecture and palatial villas juxtapose the cosmopolitan urban architecture in the bigger cities. Taif is Saudi Arabia’s unofficial summer capital at 1,700 metres above sea level, boasting a more temperate climate with wide, tree-lined streets. Al-Hasa is one of the greenest places in Saudi Arabia and will meet any filmmaker’s vision of a typical oasis landscape. Madain Saleh is home to 131 tombs carved into the rock face.

The climate varies between regions. Temperatures can reach more than 40°c in the desert in the summer, while winter temperatures in the north and central regions of the country can drop below freezing. Saudi Arabia gets very little rain, averaging about four inches per year.

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