Last December, during the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Vox Cinemas announced plans to produce 25 Arabic movies with budgets under $10 million over the next five years.
Variety spoke to Ignace Lahoud, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment and Cinemas, which owns Vox, about how this aligns with the company’s wider commitment to boost the region’s burgeoning film industry while also making Vox less dependent on Hollywood. The following has been edited for length.
What is a big takeaway from the Saudi market so far?
Interestingly, what we are seeing is that some of the big Hollywood blockbusters in recent months maybe did not perform up to expectation for a country like Saudi. One hypothesis we have is that maybe it’s a question of the younger generations not being familiar with the mythology of the IP. So, for example, James Bond has done great [more than $8 million]. But if the expectation was to do more, maybe it’s because people did not grow up with the James Bond mythology. Same thing with some of the superhero movies or the sci-fi sagas, like “Dune” or “Star Wars.”
Of course Arab films have topped the box office in Saudi Arabia for the past two years.
Yes. What we have seen is Saudi audiences love comedy; they love comedy and they love action films. In Hollywood terms, what does very well are action films like “Fast and Furious” [which scored $7.8 million]. But they also love good laughs, and the comedy they like is simple. Two titles that have been very prominent, “Waafet Reggala” [“A Stand Worthy of Men,” which grossed $15.6 million] and “Men Agl Ziko” [“For Ziko,” which has grossed $10.9 million so far] were actually just nice basic comedies.
Why have you decided to make a long-term investment in Arabic productions now?
If we look at Vox’s place today in MENA and the region, we are the regional leader in exhibition overall. We have over 600 screens. Saudi is a very competitive market; we have tough competition there, it’s very dynamic. But we are still up there with the top three. In the UAE and Egypt and other places, we are the leader. So we have a lot at stake in terms of continuing to drive audiences into cinemas, in terms of keeping the magic of cinema present in people’s minds. And in looking at our audiences, what we have seen is that people come for the big [Hollywood] blockbusters, and then then don’t come for the smaller [U.S.] films. But they are coming for Arabic films. A lot of people come for Egyptian films. A little less for Saudi ones, though they are emerging. And other Arabic films from the region’s other territories are also emerging. Today demand for Arab cinema exceeds [what’s on] offer in the marketplace.
Also the level of investment does not seem to pose a huge risk.
Exactly. We are talking about small movies. These comedies that are working well are basically under $10 million in terms of production budgets. This makes them good bets.
Do you see Vox’s move as part of a wider Arabic production push?
We believe that if a few other players do what we are planning to do there is going to be a supply in the market that can continually energize audiences that have not discovered cinema for many, many years. We think this can be a virtuous cycle.