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That’s Entertainment: Will a New Era of Cinema and Concerts Stimulate Saudi’s Creative Flair?

London, UK
Black Panther and the Avengers are swinging into Saudi Arabia as cinemas open – but what does it mean for the Kingdom’s ad industry?
Traditionally Saudis have had to find their kicks outside of the kingdom – Omar Alabdali, CEO of TBWA\Fullstop describes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a country of ‘avid travellers’. But all those flights and hotels and trips to the theatre and gigs and cinema screenings and theme park adventures in the UAE or Europe represent money that’s being spent outside the Kingdom and not stimulating the local economy.

That’s why entertainment and tourism are the two key industries in the government’s line of sight as part of their Vision 2030 programme to restructure the economy. On April 18th, T’challa and co swung into Riyadh as the city hosted a screening of Marvel’s Black Panther – the first such event following a 35-year ban on cinemas. AMC Theatres has a deal to roll out 40 cinemas across 15 cities in the next five years.

“I think there’s going to be a movie theatre on every city block with the amount of licenses that were granted!” jokes Moutaz Jad, Strategic Planning Director at Horizon FCB.

From an ad industry perspective, the opportunity is massive – and as Dana Alkutoubi, Head of Strategic Planning at J. Walter Thompson KSA, explains, these opportunities go beyond onscreen cinema ads. “Cinema provides further exposure to brands in Saudi on a mass scale, and it is only natural that clients will be looking for opportunities for exposure on the new channel,” says Dana, “but cinema also provides brands a chance to create new experiences, within the cinema environment and the journey and content around the experience itself, opening up avenues beyond just the screen itself.”

For now, the reach isn’t huge and the population is on tenterhooks to find out when and where the next cinemas will be built. For brands, though, the novelty of the silver screen is enough to get them excited. Omar Alabdali, CEO of TBWA\Fullstop describes 2018 as ‘a year of development’ as far as cinema advertising goes.

“Of course, every brand wants to be the first brand [to advertise in cinemas], so we are seeing a lot of briefs coming from every direction saying, ‘I want to do that’,” he says, revealing that they’ve already shot a couple of campaigns with a cinema element. “I don’t think the reach is going to be very far at the beginning. It’s about PR and saying ‘we are the first brand to do this’.”

More broadly the existence of cinema in the Kingdom could also catalyse the formation of a local movie industry. The country already produces and consumes an almighty volume of video content online – and watches more TV and video online than any other country. But the big screen experience could kick local production to the next level and inspire young creatives to go into movies. Alas for Moutaz, it’s all come a little late! “My background was in film. I went to film school in the States and my family was like, ‘what the hell are you doing studying film? There’s no movie theatres or film industry in Saudi, what are you going to do?” he laughs. Plan B, it turns out, was advertising. 

In terms of leisure, there’s also been a sharp rise in events like public concerts, with 5,000 concerts slated for 2018 (though there are still pretty strict rules around things like bopping along with the music). There’s also been a move to allow women to attend sports stadia and the introduction of mixed gender audiences at concerts. All in all, the General Entertainment Authority has said there will be $64bn of investment in leisure infrastructure, including a new opera house to be completed by 2022

However, the journey has not been without tension, as the relaxation has been met with criticism from conservatives. In turn, some high-profile conservative critics have been arrested, dampening the backlash and showing that while the government is becoming relaxed around entertainment, it has little interest in loosening its grip on the reins of power. Freedom of speech is still a hot potato in the Kingdom and, on the other end of the spectrum from religious conservatives there are reports that some artists are wary about the new being left vulnerable by the Saudi Arabian cultural rennaissance

Nonetheless, this nascent entertainment and leisure industry is a sector Omar is keen to get stuck into. “I’ve been doing everything in my power to secure meetings with leading entertainment companies because I know that it is going to be one of the most interesting industries in the next couple of years.”

And the opportunity goes far beyond new business too. While Saudi has a rich heritage of creativity, in recent years the arts have not been able to flourish. However Moutaz notes a resurgence and says that there are more artists and writers and aspiring directors and actors – all of which allows the ad industry to create more authentic local content. “Now you can see a little more Saudi flair,” he says. “Hopefully in the coming decades you’re going to see a very rich pop culture coming from Saudi Arabia that’s rooted in Saudi insights, not just something that’s taken from abroad.”
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