Exponential box-office revenue growth establishes Saudi Arabia as West Asia’s foremost cinema market

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The first edition of the Red Sea Film Festival marked a major turning point in Saudi cinema, drawing local talent and film stars from around the world. (Red Sea Film Festival)
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A picture taken on March 27, 2017 shows a general view of the opening ceremony of the 4th Saudi Film Festival held in Dammam. (AFP)
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Saudis gather at a theatre in Riyadh Park mall after its opening for the general public on April 30, 2018 in the Saudi capital. (AFP file photo)
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Saudi youth are driving cinema ticket sales, with admissions in 2030 expected to total 60-70 million. (Getty Images)
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Updated 24 April 2022

Exponential box-office revenue growth establishes Saudi Arabia as West Asia’s foremost cinema market

  • Ticket sales recorded 95 percent increase in 2021 over 2020 to cross $238 million mark
  • Kingdom could have 2,600 movie screens by 2030 in an industry worth around $1.2 billion 

JEDDAH: In the four years since the resumption of movie screening across Saudi Arabia, the country has experienced an explosion of investment, filmgoing and box-office takings, establishing it as West Asia’s foremost cinema market.

Box office revenues in the MENA region as a whole are expected to grow by 4 percent compound annual rate to $1 billion between 2019 and 2024, compared with a 2.4 percent decline worldwide, according to data from market tracker Ventures ONSITE.

This regional growth is mainly due to the creation of a sizable new market following the resumption of movie screening in April 2018 after a decades-long ban. The Kingdom far outstrips its neighbors in market size, revenue per user, and growth rate.

Revenues in the Kingdom are expected to show an annual growth rate of 27.68 percent resulting in a projected market volume of $100 million by 2024, while the average revenue per user is expected to amount to $50.04.

This compares favorably with the UAE, which already has a very well-established cinema industry, where revenues are expected to show a smaller annual growth rate of 7.68 percent resulting in a projected market volume of $37 million by 2024 and an average revenue per user of $34.56.

Outside the Gulf region, market growth is forecast to be far smaller. In Egypt, revenues are expected to show an annual growth rate of 13.56 percent resulting in a projected market volume of $12 million by 2024 and an average revenue per user of $6.89.

 

 

For crisis-hit Lebanon, meanwhile, revenues are expected to show an annual growth rate of 7.58 percent resulting in a projected market volume of $4 million by 2024 and an average revenue per user of $12.21.

The lifting of the prohibition on cinema was first announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 as part of the Vision 2030 reform agenda, with a view to improving overall quality of life and diversifying the economy away from oil.

If the revenues alone are anything to go by, the policy shift has been a resounding success. Since cinemas officially reopened, box office sales have exceeded 30.8 million tickets, the Saudi Press Agency reported on April 18.

INNUMBERS

56 Theaters licensed in 20 cities since resumption of movie screening.

4,439 Jobs created for young Saudi men and women in the sector.

2,600 Screens expected to come up in the Kingdom by 2030.

$950m Projected box office revenue in the Kingdom in 2030.

In 2021 alone, the industry saw box office-market grow to $238 million — a 95 percent increase over the previous year’s takings of $122 million — far outstripping the UAE’s 2021 total of $130 million, according to ​​a recent report in Variety magazine.

Several analysts believe Saudi Arabia is on pace to become a billion-dollar movie market in the next few years. The professional services network PwC estimates the Kingdom’s industry could be worth $950 million in 2030.

Taking into account non-admission revenues, including advertising and concessions like food and beverages that typically comprise 35 percent of overall takings, the sector could generate $1.5 billion in 2030.

Meanwhile, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media, one of the governing authorities established to regulate and operate cinemas in the Kingdom, estimates there will be 2,600 movie screens in Saudi Arabia by 2030 in an industry worth around $1.2 billion.




Saudi men arrive at a cinema theater in Riyadh Park mall after its opening for the general public on April 30, 2018 in the Saudi capital. (AFP file photo)

According to the Film Commission, a Saudi government body affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, established in February 2020, the sector has already created jobs for 4,439 young Saudis, fulfilling a core goal of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform agenda.

Variety magazine confirmed in a November 2020 report, citing figures released during the META Cinema Forum exhibitors’ conference, that Saudi Arabia had overtaken the UAE to become the region’s top-grossing territory, with more than $73 million in theatrical movie ticket sales over the past 40 weeks — a roughly $2 million increase in box office returns compared with the same period in 2019.

The UAE during the same period in 2020 had generated about $51 million, roughly a quarter of its 2019 box-office takings , the magazine said.

“We believe that Saudi Arabia is the only cinema market globally to have expanded in 2020,” Cameron Mitchell, CEO of prominent Middle East exhibitor VOX Cinemas, was quoted by Variety as saying. This despite the fact that, due to the pandemic, cinemas were shuttered in the Kingdom between March and the middle of June.




Saudi youth are driving cinema ticket sales, with admissions in 2030 expected to total 60-70 million. (AFP)

Mitchell said that as a theatrical market, the Middle East in 2019 was worth $600 million, of which Saudi accounted for a $110 million share and the UAE roughly $250 million. 

Much of Saudi Arabia’s remarkable box-office success in the space of just four years is attributable to the huge investments the Kingdom has seen in the form of multiplex cinemas.

Under Vision 2030, the Kingdom aims to attract domestic and international investors, increase household spending on entertainment from 2.9 percent to 6 percent, and develop a market worth SR30 billion ($1.9 billion) in recreational services.

In April 2018, coinciding with the resumption of movie screening, the Kingdom’s Development Investment Entertainment Company opened its first cinema in the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh.

Since then, 56 theaters with 518 screens have been licensed in 20 cities, according to the Film Commission. In that time, 1,144 movies in 22 languages ​​from 38 countries have been shown, including 22 Saudi films.

According to a recent Variety magazine report, citing data from US marketing analysis firm Comscore, the number of multi-screen movie theaters in Saudi Arabia grew from 33 locations at the start of 2021 to 53 venues by December 2021 — an increase of 20 new locations.

With Saudi Arabia’s population forecast to be 39.5 million by 2030, analysts believe the Kingdom has the potential to absorb up to 2,600 screens.


Top 10 box office hits in Saudi Arabia, 2021

 

  • 1. “Waafet Reggaala,” Empire, $15.08 million 

  • 2. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Sony, $11.2 million   

  • 3. “Cruella,” Disney, $9.1 million   
  • 4. “Wrath of Man,” Eagle Films, $8.3 million   
  • 5. “Mesh Ana,” N Stars, $8.2 million 
  • 6. “No Time to Die,” Phars, $8 million 
  • 7. “Fast & Furious 9,” Universal, $7.8 million 
  • 8. “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” Sony, $6.7 million 
  • 9. “A Quiet Place 2,” Paramount, $6.1 million 
  • 10. “Mama Hamel,” Empire, $5.9 million 

Depending on how rapidly the Kingdom’s market evolves, it could potentially generate 60 to 70 million admissions in 2030.

Saudi-owned Muvi Cinemas operates the highest number of local cinemas, followed by (Dubai-based) VOX Cinemas, US theater chain AMC, the world’s largest cinema operator, Lebanon’s Empire Cinema, and Mexican-owned Cinepolis.

Prior to the pandemic, VOX set out plans to invest $533 million in the Kingdom to open 600 screens, including at least four multiplexes in partnership with IMAX, creating 3,000 new jobs over a period of five years.

Cinepolis and Al-Tayer Group have partnered with Al-Hokair Group, while iPic Entertainment is exploring opportunities with BAS Global Investments Company to develop 25 to 30 sites over the coming decade.

Meanwhile, India’s PVR Limited is exploring options with the UAE-based Al-Futtaim Group, while CJ 4DPLEX has signed a deal with Cinemacity.

 

 

Kuwait National Cinema Company and Dubai-based distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment expect to develop 12 multiplexes through their subsidiary Cinescape, while Al-Rashed Empire Cinema consortium has received a license to enter the Kingdom’s marketplace.

Infrastructure and investment are not the only reasons for the Saudi success story. Understanding the audience and knowing what films to screen has also been integral.

Around one third of Saudi Arabia’s total population is made up of expatriates, including 3 million Indians, concentrated in the provinces of Riyadh and Makkah.

Market analysts say a strategy that offers filmgoers a mix of Hollywood, regional, Bollywood and local content is a surefire way to pull audiences into cinemas.

To cater for such a broad array of tastes and interests, some 340 new feature films were released into Saudi cinemas in 2021 alone — up from 222 in 2020.

Of course, what Saudi officials would like to see in the coming years is homegrown movies making the top box-office rankings.

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On coffee, world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia's Khawlani bean

Updated 30 September 2022

On coffee, world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia's Khawlani bean

  • Arab News launched atest deep dive, “A cup of Gahwa: The taste and traditions of Saudi coffee”
  • Interactive feature celebrates Year of Saudi Coffee ahead of International Coffee Day this Saturday

LONDON: Arab News launched its latest deep dive, “A cup of Gahwa: The taste and traditions of Saudi coffee,” celebrating the Year of Saudi Coffee ahead of International Coffee Day this Saturday.

The long-form, interactive feature delves into the culture and heritage of Saudi coffee as it explores the home of Jazan’s green gold — the Khawlani bean.

Arab News partnered with Jabaliyah, the first coffee brand to originate exclusively in the Kingdom, on the deep dive and a limited edition coffee box.

“As Arab News celebrates the Year of Saudi Coffee, it’s our pleasure to partner with Jabaliyah, a speciality Saudi coffee company. Always supporting talented local business, Jabaliyah has produced delightful smooth Saudi coffee, which we are proud to partner with,” Arab News Assistant Editor-in-Chief Noor Nugali said.

Reporters traveled to Jabaliyah’s headquarters in Jazan to speak to the company’s co-founder and learn how the Khawlani bean goes from the tree to the brew.

“Arab News has been a key supporter of local authentic innovation and local startups from the get-go. We have been privileged at Jabaliyah to have had this support from them since the early days of our launch three years ago, and they continue to celebrate our endeavor as a true local content venture,” Ali Al-Sheneamer, co-founder of Jabaliyah, said.

For centuries, coffee has played a central role in the social life of Saudis. It is nothing less than a national symbol of identity, hospitality and generosity, and the focus of gatherings formal and informal, from the tents of the Bedouin of old in the deserts of Najd, to the stylish new cafes in the Kingdom’s cities.

But what some might not appreciate, even as 2022 is celebrated in the Kingdom as the Year of Saudi Coffee, is that when it comes to the planet’s most popular drink, the whole world owes a debt of gratitude to Saudi Arabia — the Khawlani bean.

Today, coffee is most closely associated with countries such as Brazil and Colombia.

But the potential of the coffee tree, which grows wild only in Ethiopia, was first recognized and developed by Arabs, as far back as the 14th century.

As William Ukers, editor of the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal in New York, wrote in “All About Coffee,” his exhaustive 1922 study: “The Arabians must be given the credit for discovering and promoting the use of the beverage, and also for promoting the propagation of the plant, even if they found it in Abyssinia (Ethiopia).”

Hundreds of years ago, discovering that the plant Coffea arabica thrived in the climate of the lush mountains of the land that would become Saudi Arabia, they brought it across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.

There, they successfully cultivated it on terraces cut into the flanks of the Sarawat Mountains, perfecting the art of roasting and brewing the seeds of its fruit to make the drink the world would come to know and love.

Not for nothing is the Khawlani coffee bean known in Saudi Arabia as “the green gold of Jazan.”

The bean, and the knowledge and practices related to cultivating it, occupies such a central role in the heritage and traditional social rituals of Saudi Arabia that it is now being considered for inclusion on UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

According to the document submitted to UNESCO by the Ministry of Culture, the Khawlani bean is named for Khawlan bin Amir, a common ancestor of the coffee-growing tribes that live in the mountains of Jazan province

“During the harvest season,” the document says, “farmers break the monotony of the work by singing poem verses. One person sings and the group repeats after to create a harmonic rhythm as they pick coffee beans.

“Men and women both roast then grind the beans used to prepare coffee.”

Importantly, the skills are handed down from generation to generation: “Families encourage youngsters to work in the lands, starting with minor tasks, until they develop the skills and know-how needed to cultivate coffee trees and the processing of the coffee beans.”

Coffee, adds the UNESCO document, “is a symbol of generosity in Saudi Arabia,” and the tribes of Khawlani personify this “through their dedication and their passion for this practice.”


Riyadh forum to focus on science, philosophy

Updated 30 September 2022

Riyadh forum to focus on science, philosophy

RIYADH: Space diplomacy, climate change and environmental issues will be among far-reaching topics to be discussed at a major philosophy and science conference in the Saudi capital.

The event is being organized by the Kingdom’s Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission and will take place from Dec. 1-3 at King Fahd National Library in Riyadh.

Philosophers, scientists and artists will take part in the forum, which is being held under the theme “Knowledge and Exploration: Space, Time and Humanity.”

The three-day conference will include lectures, panel discussions, seminars and workshops on a range of issues affecting the future of the planet.

Mohamed Hassan Alwan, CEO of the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, said: “Last year’s ground-breaking conference succeeded in putting Saudi Arabia on the global philosophical map, and established the Kingdom as a regional center for philosophical dialogue.”

The second conference “will bring together leading philosophers, educational institutions and others to debate the important issues of our time, and help stimulate intercultural, international and interdisciplinary dialogue,” he said.

Speakers for the event will be announced nearer the date of the conference.


Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told

Updated 28 September 2022

Arab publishers turn the page with audiobooks, Riyadh forum told

  • Kingdom’s key role in regional publishing outlined on conference final day

RIYADH: The second edition of the International Publishers Conference held in Riyadh ended on Wednesday with sessions focusing on the growing demand for audiobooks, the impact of technology and data services, and the search for ways to innovate and renew education.

The event, which was organized by the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission, introduced a session themed “Stages of the Global Book Publishing Industry.”

Abdul Karim Al-Aqeel, president of the Saudi Publishing Association, told the session that the Kingdom plays an important role in the growth of the regional publishing business.

Saudi Arabia “has 300 publishing houses, 1,000 individual writers, and reading is popular among 31 percent of the population,” he said.

The two-day conference was attended by Secretary-General of the Indonesian Publishers Association, Mohammed Radwan. 

The event held eight interactive sessions and five workshops to discuss key aspects of the book and publishing industry, review future prospects and read current market trends.

Mohammed Zatara, founder of Wajeez for Audiobooks, said that the format helped to expand public knowledge “because an audiobook can be accessed any time and any place, whether one is going to work or working out at the gym.”

Sebastian Bond, head of the Middle East and Northern Africa at Storytel, said improving the audiobook business requires collaboration between traditional publishers and their audio counterparts to ensure enriching and enlightening content.

Ibraheem Al-Sinan, head of editorial at Raff Publishing, told Arab News that the standard of authorship is “extremely high in the domains of creative books, as well as professional and educational books.” 

Ibraheem Al Sinan, head of editorial at Raff Publishing. (Supplied)

However, he believes that “this trend does not exist in the market due to the difficulty of publishing houses to absorb it and because readers are not attracted by the new authors.”

Al-Sinan said that authors have become part of the so-called content industry, particularly in the film-writing, series and marketing content sectors, “because of high financial return” in these fields.

Publishing has expanded recently with the inclusion of audiobooks and electronic books, “because of the society’s interest in new audio media such as podcasts,” he added.

Audiobooks are recognized as the fastest-growing and most acceptable format, but “are still not as popular as paper books,” Al-Sinan said.

Mohammed Alsalem, a member of the Arab Publishers Association, believes that the presence of “podcasts” as a content channel has had an impact on the widespread and acceptance of audiobooks. 

Mohammed Alsalem, a member of the Arab Publishers Association. (Supplied)

Alsalem predicted a bright future for publishing in the region, particularly in translation and better reader access via traditional and digital channels, indicating “A promising future for publication.”

Mohammed Kandil, CEO and founder of Dar Molhimon Publishing and Distribution, said that artificial intelligence is “inevitably coming,” and that it will help publishers to upgrade their profession and professional development. 

Mohammed Kandil, CEO and founder of Dar Molhimon Publishing and Distribution. (Supplied)

He believes that while audiobooks are now expensive to produce, “one day they will be the basic material on which the writer relies.”

Mesfer Alsubaie, general director of the Arabic Literature Center for Publishing and Distribution, said that the publishing future is thriving locally and regionally because of local and international book fairs, which have helped considerably in the evolution of the publishing sector. 

Mesfer Alsubaie, general director of the Arabic Literature Center for Publishing and Distribution. (Supplied)

Salih Al-Hammad, founder of Rashm House for Publishing and Distribution, said that although audiobooks are having a growing impact, “paper books have kept their shine and quality.”

He said: “When we talk about audiobooks today, we talk about a few categories of readers associated with the concept of a detained reader, any reader who is in a hospital, on a train, or on an airplane. Book authorship has gone through phases, and books will remain and won’t disappear, just like radios remained when TVs were invented.”

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British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia

Updated 30 September 2022

British team to retrace steps of epic Philby trek across Saudi Arabia

  • Explorer’s 1,300 km journey a century ago led to lifelong friendship with Ibn Saud, Kingdom’s first ruler
  • The expedition was launched by the UK’s Princess Anne, and the team includes Philby’s granddaughter

LONDON: An Arabian desert expedition aims to retrace the steps of a famous journey by a British explorer who served as an adviser to the first ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The planned 1,300-km Heart of Arabia coast-to-coast trek across the peninsula was launched by Anne, Princess Royal of the UK, on Wednesday. It was her first public engagement since the death this month of her mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

The expedition will honor the undertaking and achievement of adventurer, Arabist and intelligence officer Harry St. John Philby, who traveled from the Gulf coast village of Al-Uqair to Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, on a mission in support of Ibn Saud, the Kingdom’s first ruler.

The Heart of Arabia journey will set off in November, a century after Philby’s crossing. It is led by veteran British explorer Mark Evans and the team, which will travel by foot and on camels, includes Philby’s Saudi granddaughter, Reem.

After reaching Riyadh they will travel west on the final stage to Jeddah, which is likely to present the greatest challenge because of harsh winds and rough terrain, including sand and loose rock.

Philby was sent to Arabia during the First World War to assist T. E. Lawrence as part of the British efforts to foment an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire, which at the time stretched across the Red Sea side of the Arabian Peninsula all the way to Yemen.

His journey led to groundbreaking cartographic and natural discoveries, and resulted in significant changes to the political landscape of the Middle East.

Philby, who would later reside in Riyadh, developed a close relationship with Ibn Saud, who at the time was a significant tribal leader. Philby adopted local dress and customs, and converted to Islam, which helped him play a key role in the events that led to the Arab Revolt and the creation of Saudi Arabia.

Evans said of Philby: “He is considered by many as one of the greatest early explorers of Arabia. He not only set out across uncharted land but took time to record everything he saw.”

Reem Philby said that she is drawn to “the stillness and constant movement of the desert at the same time.”

She added: “Just observing how nature controls everything in harmony and how we are the ones that have to adapt, makes one very humble.”

Princess Anne said: “How did people live in the environment that he crossed? What was different about it? And actually, what’s perhaps even more important in modern terms, is to understand how much has changed compared to what existed before.”

The Arabian landscape has long attracted interested intrepid Britons, including explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger, who commended the tribes he encountered during his crossing of the Kingdom’s Empty Quarter for their loyalty and generosity.
 

A Cup of Gahwa
The taste and traditions of Saudi coffee
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Hajj, Umrah e-services app undergoes update, name change

Updated 28 September 2022

Hajj, Umrah e-services app undergoes update, name change

MAKKAH: Hajj and Umrah government officials have alerted pilgrims around the world about an important update and name change to a key services and permits app for the Two Holy Mosques.

Launching the newly named Nusuk app, an update on the Eatmarna platform, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said visitors and worshippers would be able to access a range of e-services including applying for a visa and booking hotels and flights.

Hajj and Umrah services adviser, Ahmed Saleh Halabi, told Arab News: “During the past few years, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has been keen to switch to the e-government system to add ease to the experience of pilgrims and visitors. As such, their experience will be forever remembered as an enriched religious journey.”

He pointed out that the portal allowed users to select from a list of service packages.

“The program will provide the pilgrims with a cultural and religious journey, while reflecting the bright and civilized side of the Kingdom in the Two Holy Mosques,” he added.

The platform has been designed to provide services and information to help worshippers perform rituals with ease and is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 objectives to improve service offerings and the quality of religious experience.

Ahmed Bajaiffer, an investor in Umrah companies, said: “Nusuk is the representation of the strong will of the Kingdom’s leaders and their loyalty toward Muslims, citizens, and residents.”

Nusuk has been launched in cooperation with the Saudi Tourism Authority and is linked to the services provided by the Kingdom’s official tourism website, Visit Saudi Arabia.

Head of the World Hajj and Umrah Convention, Mohsin Tutla, told Arab News: “What Nusuk has developed resonates with the World Hajj and Umrah Care Foundation’s vision toward enhancing the pilgrim’s experience.

“When traveling to a foreign country, visitors may often feel anxiety or even fear; for many, Arabic is not their first language, and trying to make sense of the cultural practices of a new country at times can be difficult.”

Via the nusuk.sa platform, Hajj and Umrah performers can receive visit or Umrah visas with the option to buy a service package and pay electronically.

“The launch of this service sends a strong message with it: We are listening, we are caring, and we will provide the solutions to continually enrich your experience, and we do it with passion, as the Kingdom sees serving pilgrims as a privilege and obligation,” Tutla added.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, more than 21.5 million Umrah and Hajj performers had registered with the Eatmarna app since its launch, and it has issued 6.4 million permits to visit and pray at Al-Rawdah Al-Sharifah at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.