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The UK’s British Council has published its first-ever study on Saudi Arabia’s fledgling film industry, commissioned as part of a UK drive to work more closely with the country as it opens up its economy to the outside world. 

The study comes two years after Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year cinema ban following the launch of the Saudi Vision 2030 strategy, aimed at diversifying the country’s economy away from a reliance on oil.

Conducted by London-based research agency Nordicity, it involved desk research as well as a survey of 422 people working in the Saudi film sector or doing related studies.

It reveals a burgeoning cinema scene with potential for a strong local market fuelled by local talent but which requires training and investment to develop further. 

In a reflection of Saudi Arabia’s young demographic, 75% of those questioned were under the age of 30-years-old, while 34% of respondents involved in the film sector were women.

In terms of professional experience, most of those questioned had worked in film for less than five years. Around one-third of the workforce was employed on a casual basis with just 22% holding full-time jobs.

On the basis of the locations of the respondents, the study concluded that the fledgling film industry is  concentrated in three major urban centres: the capital of Riyadh (35%), the Western cities of Jeddah and Makkah (29%), and the eastern city of Dammam (11%), which is close to Dharan, where national oil company Saudi Aramco is headquartered.

The study identified 47 film producers and companies currently operating in Saudi, with 61% of them running as one-person “micro-enterprises”. One-quarter of them employed two to four people while one fifth had more than five employees.

These producers and companies had been operating in the sector for on average six years, producing around 12 productions since their creation. Over half these productions were short films, another 30% were web productions and just 4% were feature films.

Online streaming was the most important distribution medium, with 77% of respondents having used YouTube or Vimeo to screen their productions. This was followed by film festivals (46%), private screenings (25%), broadcast television (14%) and peer-to-peer sharing (11%). Just 7% of respondents had shown their productions theatrically on the big screen.

Looking to the future, online streaming platforms and over-the-top services were perceived as offering the greatest opportunity for Saudi film; with Netflix (50%) presenting the greatest opportunity, followed by YouTube (39%) and MBC’s Middle East and North Africa platform Shahid (4%).

In further findings, 35% of those surveyed said they felt Saudi’s on-screen talent was one of the territory’s biggest advantages. Drawbacks included skills shortages and sourcing finance.

“The report makes a number of recommendations which we hope will help support opportunities for further training and development to deliver a vibrant and commercially successful film sector,” said Eilidh Kennedy McLean‎, director of the British Council in Saudi Arabia.

She suggested the report would help foster collaboration and partnerships between the UK and Saudi Arabia, especially in the areas of training and development of the whole film sector.

Saudi Arabia is regarded as a “priority country” by the UK government and the British Council, which runs cultural and educational programmes in some 100 territories worldwide.

The report suggested that UK companies would have an advantage when it came to working with Saudi Arabia, thanks to “historic relationships” between the two countries.

“The UK is currently KSA’s second-largest cumulative investor with 200 joint ventures worth over £11 billion,” it stated, adding that the UK is also a popular destination for Saudi students.  

The study said there was ”considerable interest” out of Saudi in working with the UK film sector, with nearly a third (31%) of film producers and companies indicating interest and 72% saying they were ’very interested’ in partnering with the UK. 

Of those who expressed interest in collaborating with the UK, almost half (47%) cited the UK’s film industry experience as a key draw, followed by its international standards of working (21%), while “cultural differences” were seen as the main challenge, followed by travel costs.