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Saudi Filmmaker Aymen Khoja On How To Build A Film Industry From Scratch
Streamlined is a bit late this week as I’m in Mumbai and spent most of last week bouncing off the back seat of taxis and rickshaws. I’m learning a lot here, but Mumbai traffic didn’t get any better during the pandemic (in fact seems to be much worse due to Metro and coastal road construction). I’m now very behind on deadlines, so alas, Streamlined will be taking a break for a few weeks while I catch up. For this week’s edition, I’m sharing an interview with Saudi filmmaker Aymen Khoja, who I first met in Cannes and caught up with again on Zoom a few weeks ago. I’ll share thoughts on India in Streamlined after the break. Everything has changed here, not necessarily for the better, and I need time to digest.
Q&A With Saudi Filmmaker Aymen Khoja
Saudi Arabia has gone from having zero cinemas to becoming the biggest box office territory in the Middle East in just five years. When the country lifted its 35-year ban on cinemas in 2017, exhibitors including AMC, Vox and Muvi piled into the market, which now has around 60 cinemas with more than 500 screens. Box office in 2021 reached $238m, an increase of 95% compared to 2020, and the market is expected to grow to $1bn within a few years.
But Saudi audiences are mostly consuming Hollywood blockbusters, Bollywood and Egyptian films, and are not yet watching local productions. A few Saudi filmmakers, such as Haifaa Al-Mansour and Mahmoud Sabbagh, have found success on the festival circuit, and a few local films have drawn audiences (most notably Faris Godus’ comedy The Book Of Sun and animated feature Masameer: The Movie). But on the whole, the local industry is in the very early stages of development. Just 13 Saudi films were produced in 2020, a number that the Saudi Film Commission aims to increase to 50-80 films annually by 2030.
Saudi filmmaker Aymen Khoja hopes to contribute to that growth. After cutting his teeth directing series for Saudi broadcaster MBC and regional streamer Viu, he made his feature directorial debut in 2017 with US-set sports drama Shoot, starring Amir El-Masry (Limbo, The Crown) as a young Saudi expat who just wants to play soccer. He has since produced London-set thriller Rupture, directed by Hamzah Jamjoom and starring Billy Zane and Saudi actors Sumaya Rida and Fayez Bin Jurays, which won best Saudi film at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival last year.
SL: What are the gaps in the Saudi film industry that need to be filled?
AK: There are so many gaps between Saudi and the world when it comes to film production. From my experience working in the region for ten years, we have challenges in many different sectors – quality of scripts, quality of filmmakers, whether they’re directors, producers, writers or actors, and challenges on the ground trying to find below-the-line crew. We also need parents to support their kids and understand that film is actually a career they can pursue.
There’s also the challenge of branding Saudi films and figuring out what we’re good at making. We all grew up watching Egyptian films – we know they make comedies, they make dramas and films about heroic figures – but nobody knows what to expect from a Saudi film. The audience hesitates to spend $16 on a ticket when we still haven’t built up their trust.
SL: Saudi still doesn’t have a star system, but the audience is familiar with Egyptian actors. Is the answer to cast some big Egyptian names in Saudi films?
AK: That’s a great idea, and some producers are trying to do this, but what I’ve been trying to do is cross over even further by bringing in Hollywood actors. We had Billy Zane in Rupture, and for Shoot we had British-Egyptian actor Amir El-Masry and Patrick Fabian, who is a recognisable face. We’re releasing Rupture later this year and I can’t wait to see how Saudi audiences react to seeing Billy Zane from Titanic playing a psycho character against a Saudi couple. We released Shoot theatrically in the region, but that was before cinemas opened in Saudi.
SL: What’s the situation with film schools and training writers and directors in Saudi?
AK: There are two universities that are teaching film at the university level and lots of private organisations offering workshops. I’ve launched a production services company where we offer some coaching. I do feel that we need some local insight in the training process, because somebody coming in from Hollywood may not understand our culture and the subtexts in our scripts.
Also some people like myself have been lucky enough to study film in North America or other places overseas. But the issue back then was what happens when you graduate, and come back home, and there’s no cinema and no series production. Some of those graduates just quit the industry, some of them opened a coffee shop or worked in commercials. So I was lucky to be able to work for Viu for a few years, then get picked up by MBC.
Now I’m trying to produce on my own, because we need more creative producers, or at least people who know how to transfer a good idea into a very good script. We see a lot of people who want to be directors, but not many producers are showing up in the [Saudi] industry, so if a company from outside wants to make content in Saudi, who are they going to work with?
SL: What kind of content production has been happening in Saudi over the past few decades? Was MBC producing TV shows inside the country?
AK: MBC made [long-running comedy series] Tash Ma Tash in Saudi, but they were shooting most of their content in Abu Dhabi, because it has a rebate, although they’ll be moving some of that as Saudi now has a 40% production rebate. We also have a very solid commercials industry in Saudi, but the transition from making ads to making film is quite big. When I was working at Viu, we made a series in Jeddah that had a lot of problems during production. We had to stop shooting for a few days to just, like, train the crew, because they were all commercials guys and had no idea about continuity and working with scripts. Even wardrobe was a mess. It was a very stressful, challenging shoot. But the series turned out good in the end, and was well received by everyone, which was nice.
SL: Where will Saudi’s film industry be based? Jeddah or Riyadh or multiple hubs?
AK: Saudi is huge, we have different regions and each region has different things to offer. Jeddah on the western side is more liberal and cosmopolitan, because we’ve had people coming in for hundreds of years to visit the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from India, Africa, and other places, so there’s a huge diversity in culture and food. But there are also lots of stories and different experiences on offer in Riyadh and Alula up in the north.
SL: So now that the local industry is moving to long-form, what kind of content is being produced?
AK: On the film side, we’re trying diverse genres, like comedies, drama, adventure and psychological thriller. Comedies are a great way to get started, as you can make a decent comedy for around $1-2m, which is the kind of budget you can recoup in the region.
And of course the streamers are all here as well – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Shahid [MBC’s streaming platform], Starzplay and Disney. BeIN is also looking at producing original series. I’m a big fan of the streamers as they’re the ones who are really going to build this industry. They want to produce a huge amount of content in the region because they know the purchasing power of Saudis is huge. But we’re a young industry so the problem we have now is just with quality.
What we’re seeing now is a lot of Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi producers are coming to Saudi to produce content. So that’s what I’m competing with, not other Saudis. When I go for a meeting with Netflix or another streamer, they’re telling me I’m the only Saudi they’ve seen in six years. But will a producer from outside Saudi completely understand our culture?
SL: How much does censorship impact you as a filmmaker in Saudi?
AK: Personally speaking, I’ve never wanted to make any content that is going to be rejected by censorship or the audience. We recently had a series in Saudi that was cleared for broadcast but the audience complained about it. Every country or culture is different, and I grew up here, so I know what people feel comfortable with and what they want to watch.
SL: What’s keeping you busy now and what is next up for you?
AK: I’m developing two films, both with comedy elements, that we hope will start pre-production in a few months and shoot before Ramadan next year. I have another project about the clash between two cultures that I’ve been told would work better as a series. I’ve also launched a YouTube channel to educate young filmmakers and audiences in Saudi. It looks at the process of pitching, how studios here look at scripts, how to raise funding. There are loads of videos on YouTube about how Hollywood does it, but when you try to apply that advice here, it doesn’t always work.
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