Worth watching: The growing regional focus on film and TV production

Regional governments must introduce regulatory reforms that embrace the many nuances and emerging trends within the film industry

  
First in-depth report on Saudi film industry launched

First in-depth report on Saudi film industry launched

British Council / Handout via Zawya

One of the few joys during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns has been the ability to stream a seemingly endless list of wonderful films and TV shows. There is something to cater for every taste, from period dramas to cookery shows and documentaries.

The Middle East has long enjoyed a reputation for its rich and mesmerizing storytelling history. Now, the region is in great need of contemporary narratives that reflect the dreams, struggles and other stories of its communities.

The demand for entertainment in the region is booming. A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers forecast regional revenues to increase by 3 percent between 2019 and 2024, well above the 2 percent global estimate. The experts said that pandemic lockdowns accelerated the growing demand for digital entertainment by encouraging users to access an ever-expanding selection of streaming services and content. The report estimates that, by 2024, digital revenues will account for 46 percent of total entertainment revenues.

The current big digital-entertainment players in the region — MBC’s Shahid, the Dubai-based Starzplay Arabia, and Netflix — have all increased the amount of local content they offer after experiencing influxes of new subscribers and increases in viewing hours.

Indeed, the wider entertainment industry is creating exciting opportunities for the region. A number of cities are vying to be crowned entertainment destinations that can offer an expansive and imaginative range of activities for tourists and locals alike.

Saudi authorities recently announced their commitment to transforming the country into a world-class entertainment destination by investing a whopping $64 billion in the sector. Already, the Kingdom has lined up deals for a number of films to be produced entirely or partly in the country, including historical epic “Desert Warrior,” starring Anthony Mackie and Ben Kingsley, and action thriller “Kandahar,” starring Gerard Butler.

Film lovers are also in for a treat during the Red Sea International Film Festival, the first event of its kind in the Kingdom, which will showcase 138 films from 67 countries between Dec. 6 and 15.

In light of these exciting trends and events, regional governments can leverage the growing demand for film and TV productions. Enhancing funding for the production of original, creative and outstanding local content is key to positioning the region as a contender among global entertainment players. Identifying and supporting imaginative storytellers, actors, producers and technical talent is another pivotal ingredient for success.

There are many ways to cultivate emerging talent, such as arts education programs in schools, special content-creation workshops for teenagers, online training courses focusing on the origination of creative content, specialized academic programs at universities, story labs focusing on the development of marketable scripts, and project-based apprenticeships at established entertainment enterprises.

Equally important is investment in entertainment infrastructure, including world-class film studios and production facilities, film technology, cinemas and distribution networks. Upgrading digital infrastructure in the region is also critical, especially in rural areas, to ensure consumers can access digital entertainment content and scale geographical expansion to broader markets.

Offering funding, grants and subsidies to emerging film and TV enterprises and promising productions is another key to building repositories of authentic, creative content. It is also imperative to boost the marketing capacity for Arab film productions by funding delegations to attend global trade shows, film events and international festivals.

Furthermore, regional governments must introduce regulatory reforms that embrace the many nuances and emerging trends within the film industry, such as intellectual property rights, data privacy, the boundaries of artistic expression, piracy and labor policy.

Highlighting the diverse and magical filming locations in the region can be a unique selling point to attract global film production companies seeking memorable and exceptional settings for their scripts. Many of the locations around the world featured in popular productions inspire hordes of fans to flock to the places where they were filmed, out of a longing to see these backdrops for themselves and recreate the emotions and sense of wonder they experienced watching their favorite films or TV shows.

For example, the Harry Potter movie studio tour in London and the landscape of the Hobbiton set used in the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies, in the Mighty Waikato region of New Zealand, are now world-famous tourist attractions.

An integrated and holistic ecosystem must therefore be established for the film industry to thrive. There is much to learn from the state of New York on this matter, considering it has become a thriving hub for film and TV production.

To attract productions, it offers tax credits, sales tax exemptions and grants to finance training and workforce diversity programs. An online location library boasts more than 32,000 images of key places that might be of interest to filmmakers searching for filming locations, including cityscapes, subways, historic properties, natural landscapes, industrial areas, castles and farms.

Talent cultivation is another factor integral to the state’s success in the sector, so it hosts a wide range of schools and other training facilities for filmmakers and actors. The renowned New York Film Academy, for example, offers a range of educational programs devoted to filmmaking, producing, cinematography, screenwriting and acting. It also organizes dedicated filmmaking and acting summer camps for children and teenagers.

Similarly, the Korean Film Council is a government agency tasked with bolstering the quality of Korean films and promoting them worldwide. The nation’s film industry is now a global player, so much so that Netflix announced this year a commitment to invest $500 million in just one year in films and TV shows produced in South Korea.

The council has implemented a number of important projects, including investment in original films and TV shows, support for local talents, the enhancement of distribution networks, the promotion of film festivals, investment in state-of-the-art audiovisual technologies and techniques, and the enactment of effective film policies that promote fair competition.

The council also established the Korean Academy of Film Arts, the country’s top educational film institution. It was founded in 1984 and its graduates now include more than 700 prominent film industry talents.

As authorities in the Middle East increasingly target the potential of the sector, the region’s foray into the global entertainment market will certainly be worth watching in the coming years.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.
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