Faisal Baltyour on the Need for Saudi Commercial Films, Cinema Stars – The Hollywood Reporter

Ever since it was announced in late 2017 that the cinema ban in Saudi Arabia was being lifted after nearly four decades, local industry promoter and producer Faisal Baltoor has been right at the heart of the action.

When the country brought its first delegation to Cannes the following year, Baltiur headed the Saudi Film Council, the first government body set up to support the industry, making a series of bold announcements as it looked to promote the kingdom prominently. Shooting location (thanks to big budget Hollywood titles like Kandahar and Desert Warrior). With the launch of the Saudi Ministry of Culture in 2019, the council was incorporated into the Saudi Film Commission, giving Baltiur time to launch Cinewaves, the country’s first arthouse distribution company, and the production of Haifa Al-Mansour. A perfect candidate, which bowed out in competition in Venice. CineWaves has since signed several partnership deals, most notably with Egypt’s arthouse powerhouse Film Clinic, and has supplied 14 films to Netflix so far. Book of SunIt was the most watched film in Saudi for several weeks on stage.

His distributor operations are now up and running and Baltiur has turned his attention back to production, having earlier this year been tapped to head Movie Studios, the newly launched production arm of local exhibition giant Muvi.

Speaking The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Red Sea Film Festival, where Cinewaves ranks roughly two-thirds of Saudi films (closer to the festival Valley Road), Baltyour discusses getting local features off the ground, the struggles of the art house in Saudi Arabia, and the search for the first Saudi cinema star.

What is the current state of the Saudi film industry?

It is difficult to give a specific word, but it is still developing. It is getting a lot of support and not all from the same direction. When we started the Film Council and then the Commission, their main mandate was film, but it is good that other parties are working in synergy with the Commission in collaboration or by themselves to develop the industry. Now we have Alula. Now we have Neom. And they are supporting the film industry more. The film I produced was in official selection of the Red Sea Film Festival and was shot entirely in Neom. So now there are films that get support from two or three organizations. We have a cultural development fund and we have our own fund for the Red Sea Film Festival. So all these give us more power to produce. The film industry support is moving faster than we expected.

We have heard a lot about big budget Hollywood films Desert Warrior And Kandahar Shooting here, usually with the backing of MBC Studios, but how easy is it to get a Saudi indie project off the ground?

It’s not straight. I can’t say that the system is there, but we are building it now. Installing it. And I personally learn from each project. We make mistakes and we learn from them. But the machine is starting to work, though not as perfectly as we would like. We lack the following talents. So the Film Commission, Neom and Alula are training people and shadowing people on big productions and trying to make sure that every international and local production has a training program. We will create capacity, but it will take time. But if you want to make movies in Saudi we can do it.

So how are you filling that capacity in the meantime? Do you have crews for places like Jordan and Egypt?

Yes, we collaborate with Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, France, Germany and the UK. In one of our films, we have about 15 nationalities.

On the distribution side, Cinewaves is the first arthouse distributor to launch in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi box office has grown phenomenally and is now the largest in the region, but how are arthouse films faring?

Broadly I say [CineWaves] is the most trying unit. We have seen some sort of success, but failure, which is what we expected. The problem here is that there is no special artistic cinema. But we have had some success (Tunisian 2021 Oscar nomination). A man who sold his skinWe have released commercially and have fully booked screens.

From what I understand, Saudi cinema has fared poorly so far. Do you have any ideas as to why this is?

Honestly, Saudi film is a completely new thing for Saudi. We know Saudi TV we have been watching since childhood, but we started with cinema. Also most of the public audience go to see films because of the stars and not the story. And the one struggle we have is that we don’t have a Saudi superstar.

The second thing is that there are no expectations about Saudi films, because the audience has never seen them before. And here, the ticket price is quite expensive, so you spend money to watch a movie that costs $150 million or you watch a Saudi movie and try it. However, this does not mean that there are no success stories. We have The Book of Sun, which saw most theaters fully booked for 8 weeks and that was a 50 percent capacity reduction during COVID and everyone was afraid to go to the theaters. We know that 10-15 percent of people bought tickets multiple times. He saw in the movie high school students trying to make a movie. And we have Saudi animation Masamir, a YouTube series that has been running for over 10 years, they made it into a movie and it was a success. But it had a history and an audience.

But for live-action, many of the stars are newcomers — it’s their first time acting in a movie. So there is a potential, but we need the right film and commercial Saudi films are missing. So it’s a struggle because most films are made for festivals and artistic audiences. But what we try to do at Movie Studio is to create commercial films, ideally humorous commercial films that appeal to the audience, but not forgetting the importance of artistic films.

So who do you think were the first Saudi movie stars?

Honestly, it’s hard to say. But there are names, such as comedian Ibrahim Al Hajjaz. He has been in several successful TV series, so could be a great superstar. And so did Yahoub Alfarhan [mini-series] rash. He is a great actor. And there are others, but many are my friends so I would like to mention several.

When the cinema ban was lifted just 5 years ago, the first cinema opened 4 ½ years ago and the Red Sea Film Festival was announced for the first time 3 ½ years ago, how do Saudis personally feel about the developments? In the picture?

I feel very proud. Because what is happening in KSA is not just announcements. It’s actions. And it’s actions from all over with a very strategic plan. I don’t see it only in the cultural sector. I see it in the information technology sector. I see it in sports. The changes are not only in my world of cinema.

Leave a Comment