While growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Ali Al Kalthami watched a VHS tape of Goodfellas and felt a sense of familiarity. “Wow, this is like my uncles in suits, you know?” Al Kalthami said, of the Italian-American characters played by Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta. “Not the violence, but the sarcasm and the sense of humor. We have that. And just so masculine. So Im like, Well, who is this guy, Martin Scorsese? How can he tell a story like this? I was having that sense, like, I want to do something like this? How to do? Im in Saudi Arabia. Theres no cinema.”
In the early 1980s, before 34-year-old Al Kalthami was born, Saudi Arabia banned movie theaters amid a wave of religious ultra-conservatism; last month, as part of a series of economically motivated reforms in the country initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or M.B.S., as hes known, the kingdom lifted the ban, and, in mid-May, Al Kalthami was speaking from the sun-bleached roof deck of the first ever Saudi Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival, where his short comedy, Wasati, is screening. In the tented area below, a man in a flowing white thawb was serving spicy Saudi coffee in tiny china cups, while some of the eight other Saudi filmmakers with short films at Cannes mingled among signs promoting “A Kingdom of Opportunity.”
Saudi Arabia has just announced one of the worlds most generous film-production tax incentives—a 35% location rebate on films that shoot in the country and a 50% rebate for any local talent employed—as well as partnerships with the University of Southern California and Film Independent. At a press conference here in Cannes, the Saudi Film Council delivered a carefully planned pitch for its nascent film industry, handing out lushly photographed guides to Saudi film locations, a book with data on the young, digitally savvy Saudi audience, Saudi Film Council–branded totes and Moleskine notebooks, and a small gold box of dates. During the press conference, reporters peppered Ahmad Al Maziad, the C.E.O. of Saudi Arabias General Culture Authority, with such cultural questions as whether women would be allowed to wear Western dress on film sets. “The content guidelines will be shared with everyone,” Al Maziad answered. “Western dresses? Its already there.”
“Were using Cannes as a platform to say, Here we are. You know? Welcome to Saudi,” Al Maziad said, in an interview at the Saudi Pavilion later that day. “Were coming to build an industry. Were not coming for a marketing campaign or a one-off hub of activity.”
Changes in Saudi culture as part of M.B.S.s “Vision 2030,” a plan to reduce Saudi Arabias dependence on oil and diversify its economy, have been swift and powerful—next month, women in the kingdom will finally be allowed to drive. But M.B.S. is a leader with a mixed legacy in Saudi Arabia, for detaining political rivals within the kingdom and intervening in a civil war in Yemen against regional rival Iran. However complicated his politics, M.B.S. has found many interested high-profile partners in the U.S. in his effort to open up the country to the film industry; during a visit to Los Angeles in April, he met with Rupert Murdoch, Bob Iger, and William Morris Endeavor boss Ari Emanuel.
According to Al Maziad, the reforms in Saudi Arabia, including the ones that will affect issues like film censorship, are being carefully calibrated to work within conservative Saudi culture. Al Maziad said his agency, the General Cultural Authority, and another group, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media, are conducting public surveys and reviewing social-media sentiment to determine how much change the Saudi public can handle. “When the changes came, first of all, it wasnt sudden,” Al Maziad said. “People have been using the Internet, [they] have been outside. Theyve seen a lot of the things in their international visits. . . . Theres a lot of access to digital. So I think its been there, and it needed a leader to bring it up. As in any other society, you will have people who are happy with it, and you have people who have issues with it, and as society matures and adapts, well see.”
The role of women in society is an area that is changing dramatically. Just three years ago, Saudi women voted in local elections for the first time. At Cannes, Al Maziad said 50% of the G.C.A.s scholarships for Saudis to study film at U.S.C. will go to women. And, according to him, 54% of his new agencys staff is female. “Especially in the art sector, especially in movie-making, a lot of females . . . they had gotten to it even before we announced our programs,” Al Maziad said. Hes talking about women like the countrys most famous director, Haifaa Al Mansour, who marched the Cannes red carpet with 81 other women this year in a statement about gender equality. And he is referring to those at an earlier stage in their careers, like Maram Taibah, a 31-year-old who grew up in Riyadh, and was at Cannes with her short film, Dont Go Too Far, about a young, mentally challenged Arab man who is separated from his sister on the New York subway. While studying graphic design in Jeddah, at what she calls the “Wellesley of Saudi Arabia,” Taibah took an online screenwriting course and became hooked on that method of storytelling. “I never wanted to conform to the traditional life, you know?” Taibah said. “People have so many stories to tell and I, personally, have stories to tell.”
Many young Saudis have come to filmmaking through the Internet and mobile devices, including Al Kalthami. To get started, he borrowed a friends camera, directed a short film, uploaded it to YouTube, and quickly got 30,000 views. “My mentorship was the Internet, visually,” Al Kalthami said. “I was studying Martin Scorsese and all of his great films trying to find virtual mentorship.” Using money he made shooting commercials, Al Kalthami created a series, with sketches and a talk show, and eventually a network called Telfaz 11, which now has 22 million subscribers, many of them outside of Saudi Arabia. “We know that we can talk freely about a lot of stuff,” Al Kalthami said, of his network. “Some stuff I think its not even smart to talk about. You know what I mean? Which is religion, criticizing religion, or criticizing maybe the king or the politics.”
Western filmmakers who opt to shoot in Saudi Arabia will have to conform to the content guidelines that Al Maziad and his colleagues are currently developing. The first film exhibited at the new theaters there, Black Panther, had a short kissing scene excised. Audience turnout revealed a heavy pent-up demand—showings sold out within 15 minutes. “Were probably one of the only countries in the world where people will fly to another country to watch a movie and fly back,” Al Maziad said. “We used to fly to Dubai, watch a movie, and fly back. We were spending five-, six-hundred dollars, from flight, to hotel, to staying there and then flying back.”
Al Kalthami recently attended a screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron with his co-workers. “It was kind of a celebration, like, wow, it is happening, oh my God,” he said. “Its all hugging. It was like a party. Cinema is here.” Sure, the first films to screen in Saudi Arabia have been Marvel blockbusters, but Al Kalthami is holding out hope for something more like a Scorsese movie instead. “Is it the quality I want? Is it films that I want? We can discuss that. Im a filmmaker, I'm a critic.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.