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6 months ago
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If they’re not being banned in the Middle East’s biggest market (where there are rumors even ‘Barbie’ potentially isn’t safe from censors), studio tentpoles are being muscled out of the box office, sparking a trend that looks set to continue as local moviegoers sour on “Americanized” releases.

There was a shock at the top of the Saudi Arabian box office the first weekend of 2023.

Avatar: The Way of Water, in its third week of release and still a dominant force across the planet on its way to an overall haul in excess of $2.3 billion, was knocked off its perch by an unexpected assailant (and one wearing a multicolored luchador mask).

The new titleholder: Sattar, a Saudi Arabian family comedy about a depressed man who follows his dreams of becoming a freestyle wrestling champion. The film — which had bowed at the Red Sea Film Festival just a month earlier (and where, ironically, the subject of Saudi films not performing had been a talking point) — smashed box office records, earning $2.2 million over its first 12 days, instantly making it the highest-grossing Saudi movie of all time. Granted, the local film industry literally didn’t exist just a few years ago and cinemas only opened in early 2018, but still — history was made.

From Kuwaiti director Abdullah Al Arak and led by popular Saudi actor and stand-up comedian Ibrahim Al Hajjaj, Sattar packed out cinemas, outpacing James Cameron’s Avatar sequel by more than 40 percent in terms of admissions and — fuelled by word of mouth — slipped just 11 percent in its second week.

Seven months on and Sattar is currently sitting pretty at the top of Saudi’s overall 2023 box office with an impressive haul of $10.7 million.

Sattar also potentially represents a worry for Hollywood studio execs who perhaps assumed they’d be claiming the lion’s share of what — in the space of just a few years — has become the biggest box office in the Middle East by some margin (total revenue of $242 million in 2022), the fastest-rising box office on the planet (it leaped to 15th in 2021 and held the position last year despite the post-pandemic recovery of others), and a box office that has been touted as potentially being worth some $1 billion by 2030.

Even before Sattar’s release just before the new year, lower-budget regional productions had increasingly been muscling out major studio tentpoles — many (many) times more expensive and backed by global marketing firepower — in a manner very few would have expected back in April 2018, when Black Panther became the first commercial film to be given a public screening in Saudi Arabia in 35 years. Blockbusters that have earned fortunes elsewhere simply haven’t landed at all in the country — not just edged out but entirely dominated by Arabic fare.

Sure, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny may have underperformed internationally, but in Saudi Arabia the film couldn’t even break the top three, lagging behind a trio of Egyptian comedies: Tag, House of Ruby (in its second week, having knocked out The Flash in its first) and The Boogeyman (not to be confused with 20th Century Studios’ recent Stephen King adaptation of the same name). The following weekend, the Indy finale slipped to seventh and to 13th by week three for a truly disappointing overall box office of around $1 million. But even many films that have exceeded expectations in most markets hit a sour note among Saudi cinemagoers: In 12 weeks, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (global haul in excess of $845 million) hasn’t managed to scrape $2 million together.

“Fifty percent of the population in Saudi does not speak English,” explains Gianluca Chakra, head of regional distributor Front Row, which, via its Front Row Arabia joint venture with exhibition giant Muvi, was behind the releases of Sattar, House of Ruby and The Boogeyman. “They just relate to local stuff.”

Sattar was the perfect example — a very localized story, starring well-known local figures, featuring Saudi folk music and set in the world of wrestling, which is phenomenally popular in the country (there’s good reason WWE has been taking shows there for half a decade and recently signed a deal worth tens of millions a year).

Sattar was also made by people who knew exactly what Saudis want to watch, coming from Al Shimaisi Films, the new production arm of local content kings Telfaz11, who became hugely popular for their groundbreaking comedic YouTube videos dating back to 2010 (the film was the brainchild of Telfaz11’s creative director Ibraheem El Khairallah, who also starred in it), and Muvi Studios, the new production arm of cinema chain Muvi, led by industry pioneer Faisal Baltyuour. Baltyuour, a prolific producer who previously led the Saudi Film Commission and was only tapped to launch Muvi Studios in mid 2022, described the results as a “groundbreaking start.”

As Chakra claims, Sattar was the first locally made film that “didn’t try to Americanize itself,” noting that it was so Saudi — “uber local,” down to the jokes, characters and expressions — that even other Arabs probably wouldn’t understand much of the humor.

“And people just resonated with it and kept going and watching it,” he says. “They saw themselves onscreen versus the other Saudi titles that have tried to perfect their stories by Americanizing the story and the way the films are shot, and people just say, this isn’t a Saudi film.”

There’s been a similar trend in neighboring Kuwait, a much smaller market with a population of 4.5 million compared to Saudi’s 37 million, but where the vast majority are Kuwaiti-born Arabic speakers (around the corner in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates’ population of 10 million presents another sizable box office — and was the largest regional market pre-Saudi’s opening up — but there foreign-speaking expats vastly outnumber local Emiratis). Kuwait now represents the second-biggest market for Arabic features after Saudi.

Hisham Alghanim, vice chairman of the Kuwait National Cinema Co, the country’s biggest exhibitor, says that his company had dedicated a significant number of screens to Dial of Destiny in its first week — “We don’t joke with Indiana Jones!” — but such were the results they quickly had to reshuffle the schedule to prioritize the dominating Egyptian films. While he admits he’d already begun to shift focus away from Hollywood titles toward Arabic features in his cinemas, following Indy’s poor showing, Alghanim says he now won’t “take for granted” the major studio tentpoles, especially if there are “good quality” local features coming out the same time.

Like Sattar in Saudi, Kuwait had its own huge homegrown hit in 2021 with zany family comedy Ash Man, about a Kuwaiti superhero whose powers come from a popular local soup made of red beans, lentils and chickpeas. Alghanim says the producer was recently in touch about his follow-up film.

The success of Egyptian movies, particularly family comedies, isn’t a major surprise — the output of the Middle East’s most-established film industry has long been a regional box office regular and it has often relied on revenues coming from the Gulf. But the emergence of Saudi Arabia — which, thanks to its population and high ticket pricing, presents a massive financial boom should a film break through — has made the region more important than ever before to Egyptian producers, especially given Egypt’s economic woes at home (the local currency has plummeted in value).

The situation has, as Chakra notes, sparked more productions with higher budgets aimed at capturing the market (budgets now generally sit in the $1 million-$3.5 million range, still a tiny fraction of the films they’re competing against). This, plus the emergence of better-quality non-Egyptian Arabic films, and Saudi Arabia’s growing appetite for local-language fare, has helped spark the box office shift.

But there’s another important factor to take into account — the growing number of major Hollywood titles getting banned in Saudi Arabia (and also Kuwait, which is considered stricter).

The last couple of years have seen the likes of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Thor: Love and Thunder, Lightyear, Doctor Who in the Multiverse of Madness, Eternals and West Side Story among those blocked from cinemas. Although it’s rarely confirmed, all of these films are understood to have been prevented from getting a release due to LGBTQ scenes or references, often with the censors suggesting cuts that were then refused by the studios.

There are now concerns over whether Warner Bros.’ all-conquering cultural phenomenon Barbie — which looks set to be the biggest film of the year globally — will get a pass, having already shifted to the later release date of August. 31.

But while such revenue losses may be felt in Hollywood, they don’t appear to have dampened Saudi Arabia’s box office growth. The overall total of $242.5 million in 2022 was up on 2021’s $233.5 million, while the $123.2 million earned in the first half of 2023 suggests this year should climb further. Any holes from the loss of blocked Hollywood fare are being very easily filled by the earnings of local productions.

In 2022, four Arabic films made the year’s top 10. Beneath Sattar in the current top 10 for 2023 are five other Arabic titles, all Egyptian: Sugar Daddy, Baad Al Shar, House of Ruby, Etneen Lel Ajar and Nabil El Jamik. Chakra notes that, due to the much longer theatrical shelf life of Arabic features compared to their Western counterparts, which often make a splash and then quickly fizzle out, House of Ruby — which entered the top 10 in only its fourth week and is still in general release — will likely climb higher, while The Boogeyman, also still going strong four weeks on, should enter the top 10. Meanwhile, there’s no space for the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy 3, The Little Mermaid or indeed, Avatar: The Way of Water.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Hollywood. Universal’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie did prove a major hit, earning $6.1 million (currently third), while the region’s penchant for action has given top 10 spots to Fast X, Plane and John Wick 4 (fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively, at the time of writing).

Last month, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opened at the top of the box office and should have far sturdier legs than most other Hollywood blockbusters. “Most don’t last at all … unless it’s Tom Cruise,” suggests one producer (for all the success of Arabic films in 2022, the year’s best performer by some margin was Top Gun Maverick with $22 million, making Saudi the fourth-largest territory for Paramount’s smash hit across the Europe, the Middle East and Africa after the U.K., France and Germany).

Like Cruise, Christopher Nolan rarely misses in the Gulf (even an Interstellar re-release last year did solid figures). In the absence of Barbie, his latest blockbuster Oppenheimer had an outstanding opening last week, earning roughly $4.1 million, and will likely be among the year’s biggest. But even that doesn’t appear to have the staying power to match local entries. The Hollywood Reporter understands that the Egyptian comedy Mr. Ex — which released on the same date (and is rated 18 compared to Oppenheimer‘s 15) — has been outpacing the film since and will likely claim the top box office spot this week.

Trends suggest that, of this year’s upcoming Hollywood titles, video game adaptation Gran Turismo: The Movie, could do decent numbers, as might Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (although its release has just been postponed, sparking fears that, like Barbie, it could be in jeopardy).

But with the release of Mattel’s plastic powerhouse now in doubt, and no new Cruise or Super Mario titles on the immediate horizon, the near future could well be dominated by Arabic productions. Chakra says there are several more Egyptian films set to come out later this year (although he acknowledges it’s often a somewhat last-minute, “OK, we’re done with the sound; when are we releasing?” approach to scheduling), while a number of Saudi features are lining up for release in coming months.

And while Sattar may be the only Saudi film to have broken out on home soil so far, following its phenomenal success producers have no doubt been looking to copy its special recipe. For anyone taking note, the key ingredients seem to be: less Hollywood, more Saudi.

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