Red Sea Film Festival Chiefs Talk Taking Saudi Arabia’s International Film Festival to the Next Level

Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival, now launching its second edition, is aiming to become the top fest and market in the region and a key driver in the kingdom’s ongoing effort to build a film and TV industry practically from scratch after lifting its 35-year-old religion-related ban on cinema in 2017.

The Dec. 1-10 event, held in Jeddah, on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, features a rich lineup of more than 100 titles comprising a mix of film premieres from the Arab world, Africa and Asia, alongside standout international festival circuit titles, all of which will be screening uncensored.

The fest’s top management now comprises Jomana R. Alrashid (pictured, left), CEO of the Saudi Research and Media Group (SRMG), who became chairman of the Red Sea Film Festival’s foundation in September, alongside managing director Shivani Pandya Malhotra, (pictured, middle), who after 15 years running the now defunct Dubai International Film Festival, has been busy building the Red Sea fest since 2019, and pioneering Saudi producer and philanthropist Mohammed Al Turki (pictured, right), who is the event’s CEO.

Variety spoke to them about their ambitions for Red Sea and how it is evolving. Edited excerpts.

Jomana, how significant is the Red Sea fest for Saudi, both culturally and from an industrial standpoint?

There are significant changes that have been taking place in Saudi Arabia over the past five to 10 years. We’ve seen important progress being made, specifically within the cultural and creative industries. As chairman of the Red Sea Festival, but also as CEO of SRMG, I see the creative industry and the creator economy definitely booming. It’s time to empower and enable this talent by establishing the infrastructure and also through training, enabling, empowering and passing on the knowledge and know-how.

This is where we come in as Red Sea Film Festival. Because a lot of people might look at it as a 10-day festival that takes place annually – and then we also participate in international events. But it’s not just that: This is a much larger project. This is the Red Sea Film Foundation. One arm of it is the festival, another arm of it is the fund. What we are trying to do is showcase talent from the region. We are so proud to be showing different films from Saudi Arabia and around the Middle East as a whole, and not just the Middle East. We are looking at East Asia; we are looking at Africa. We are looking to tell stories that have been untold and showcase talent that has been hidden for so long. This is the whole objective of the festival and the fund specifically.

How do you see the festival playing a role as an industry driver?

Production is booming specifically in Saudi Arabia and the film industry is developing. We’ve seen the government announce a 40% film production rebate. This is an opportunity for talent and also for production companies in the private sector. We know that this [the film industry] was non-existent or very limited in the region outside of Egypt and the Levant where production, especially TV production, has been dominant. Our role is to support facilitating the growth of this industry by connecting the projects with the investors. Connecting the talent with the people behind the production studios. That is where I think we come in.

Shivani, how has the festival evolved since its first edition last year?

We obviously built our foundation last year, and the structure for the festival is very, very similar to last year. That said, with respect to the films we’ve added new section called New Visions to provide a space for films that didn’t fit into the existing program. We’ve also continued with VR and with the curated section for family films. The programming is well-rounded, so we didn’t have to make that many changes in that respect. Like last year, the Red Sea Souk will have our project market and other industry activities and conferences. In general, there will be more panels, on-stage conversations and masterclasses because, based on our experience last year that’s what local filmmakers really latched on to. And in terms of industry accreditations they have more than doubled, with growth coming both from the region and beyond. 

What’s happening with the festival infrastructure? Last year Jeddah’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, old-town Al Balad, was the main hub, this year it’s the Ritz Carlton.

Al Balad is going to continue to be our home. We’ve just moved to the Ritz this year as a stop-gap interim solution. We are actually looking at our permanent headquarters being based in Al Balad, but they will take a few years to construct and we wanted to focus on the festival. Last year we did a pop-up; it was our first year. We didn’t want to spend more time creating another pop-up. Being a UNESCO Heritage site you don’t want to keep damaging space there. But we are going to be back. That’s our base. So this year we are based in the Ritz Carlton, where we have auditoriums, the gala venues, and the entire Red Sea Souk [the fest’s industry side] and the press office. Then all of our screenings will be at Vox Cinemas Red Sea mall, which is about a 20 minute distance. And right across from the Ritz is the Corniche where we will have community events. Lots of outdoor screenings and other events, including concerts with talents from around the world.

Mohammed, what are the geographic areas with which you are forging the closest ties?

We are quite lucky that we are the only film festival in the GCC. And since our inauguration last year we have become the biggest festival in the region. We have incredible films: our focus is Arab, Saudi and Africa. But we also have films from all over the world. Since movie theaters reopened in Saudi in 2017 we realized that audiences here don’t just watch Hollywood films. South Korea is huge market. CJ Entertainment just partnered up with Saudi last month for a Korea-Con celebrating Korean pop culture and entertainment. Korean content is huge in the region, as is Bollywood. Last year we had the world premiere of Kabir Khan‘s Bollywood cricket-themed film “’83.” The turnout from Saudi fans to see Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh was bigger than any rock concert! This tells you where the Saudi appetite is: They are open to different cultures in film.

Are you standing firm on the fact, like last year, none of the films being screened at Red Sea are censored?

Yes. At Red Sea we want artists to have creative freedom to showcase their projects in depth. We want to raise the barrier for them to feel safe to be able to communicate and network and have Saudi audiences enjoy their art as it is, exactly as they intend it.

Editor’s Note: SRMG, a Saudi Arabian publishing and media company, which is publicly traded, is a minority investor in PMC, Variety’s parent company.

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