Prominent Arab world broadcaster MBC is ramping up film and TV production in Saudi Arabia, where a slew of high-end projects in the pipeline is set to join U.S. tentpoles like Anthony Mackie-starrer “Desert Warrior,” which is currently shooting.
Zeinab Abu Alsamh, who is general manager of MBC Studios in Saudi, said she has roughly 20 projects — both TV and film — in various stages and is looking to greenlight at least some of them for production within the next 18 months.
MBC is at the forefront of the current Saudi media industry boom, which is being accelerated by the growth in subscribers to its Shahid VIP streaming platform. The service recently reached the two million customers milestone.
In terms of content, “MBC in general raises the bar around the region,” said Alsamh. And when it comes to Saudi, which is in the early stages of building its industry, “it’s all about being supportive, being proactive and taking risks” she noted.
“The talent is there, and so is the drive for change,” Alsamh pointed out. “You just have to have the support system to foster it and make it flourish.”
Below are three standout, high-end projects in development at MBC KSA that provide an indication of the types of narratives MBC is looking for in Saudi — stories that are rooted in local history that can resonate regionally but also break out in the international market.
“The Ark” — This is a tentpole film in development with a budget of roughly $100 million and plans to shoot in NEOM, Saudi’s futuristic city-in-the-making on the edge of the Red Sea. The story involves what is believed to be the remains of Noah’s ark suddenly surfacing on the shores of NEOM due to climate change, which creates a huge media frenzy and the arrival of swarms of archeologists. “You have this very futuristic city, and then this archaic ark is found there,” said Alsamh. “So these two worlds suddenly come together, as do the stories we learn about them. The contrast is very, very interesting,” she added.
“Aramco — The Rise of the Oil” (working title) — In 1933, after the first Americans came to find oil in the sands of the Saudi desert, a concession agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia and the Standard Oil Company of California. This is the origin story of the first Americans who came to find oil, and their friendship with bedouins. “These are real stories of how the Americans left their families, formed new families within the camps and how this transformation — everything that we see now — is maybe a ripple effect of what happened back then,” said Alsamh. “Aramco” is being developed as an eight-part multi-season series in English and Arabic. Talks are underway for a top English-language writer to come on board.
“Antara” — This is a biopic of pre-Islamic Black warrior/poet Antara who is celebrated in the collective Arab memory as a legendary figure of human empowerment. Born to a Bedouin tribal leader and his Abyssinian slave, Antara was a fierce warrior and a great poet whose verse is still widely beloved today. “What makes this character very relevant is that it’s also the story of a guy who was half African and half Arab and went through a lot of discrimination and a lot of challenges,” said Alsamh.
Here’s a first look image of Saudi/U.K. actor Aiysha Hart in “Desert Warrior.”