As Other Arab States Falter, Saudi Arabia Seeks to Become a Cultural Hub

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A pregnant Saudi woman, far from home, finds herself stalked by inner and outer demons. A wannabe Saudi vlogger and his friends, menaced by the internet’s insatiable appetite for content and more mysterious dangers, try to escape a dark forest. At a wedding, the mother of the bride panics when her daughter disappears with all of their guests waiting downstairs.

These were just a few of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah, part of the conservative kingdom’s huge effort to transform itself from a cultural backwater into a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East.

The Saudi push reflects profound shifts in the creative industries across the Arab world. Over the past century, while the name Saudi Arabia conjured little more than oil, desert and Islam, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad stood out as the Arab cultural beacons where blockbuster movies were made, chart-topping songs were recorded and books that got intellectuals talking hit the shelves.

to promote pro-government themes.

In many ways, the region’s cultural mantle is up for grabs, and Saudi Arabia is spending lavishly to seize it.

At the Red Sea International Film Festival, held on a former execution ground, Jeddah residents rubbernecked as stars like Hilary Swank and Naomi Campbell strutted down a red carpet in revealing gowns, and Saudi influencers D.J.-ed at dance parties.

All this in a country where, until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive, cinemas were banned and aspiring filmmakers often had to dodge the religious police to shoot in public.

CineWaves.

Although Saudi Arabia’s population is about a fifth of Egypt’s, the Saudis are more affluent and wired, making them more likely to pay for streaming services and movie tickets. At about $18, a ticket in Saudi theaters is among the most expensive in the world.

But the kingdom only allowed cinemas to reopen only in 2018 after a 35-year ban. Before that, Saudis escaped to nearby Bahrain or Dubai to go to theaters.

Now, the country has 430 screens and counting, making it the fastest-growing market in the world, with a target of 2,600 screens by 2030, Mr. Abdulmajeed said.

Film Clinic, a Cairo-based production company.

Several Saudi-Egyptian collaborations are in the works, and an Egyptian “Hangover”-style comedy, “Wa’afet Reggala” (“A Stand Worthy of Men”), was the highest-grossing release in Saudi Arabia this year, beating the Hollywood blockbusters.

Saudi productions may also continue to draw acting, writing and directing talent from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt — and will most likely need to do so to reach non-Saudi audiences, said Rebecca Joubin, an Arab studies professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

“With Saudi opening up, they say in Egypt that it’s saving Egypt’s movie industry,” said Marwan Mokbel, an Egyptian who co-wrote “Junoon,” the Saudi horror film about the vlogger that premiered at the Jeddah festival.

Shahid, its Dubai-based Arabic counterpart.

That has created a big market for Arabic-language content.

Netflix has produced Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian-Lebanese shows, with varying degrees of success, and just announced the release of its first Arabic-language feature film, “Perfect Strangers.”

Syrian and Lebanese studios that used to depend on gulf financiers — who, they complained, often forced them to water down their artistic ambitions by nixing political themes — are also turning to web series and Netflix for new funding and wider audiences.

a hip alternative to the somnolent broadcast television. Mohammad Makki recalled dodging the police, guerrilla style, to film the first season of his show “Takki,” about a group of Saudi friends navigating Saudi social constraints, a decade ago. Then, it was a low-budget YouTube series. Now, it is a Netflix hit.

“We grew up dying to go to the cinema,” he said, “and now it’s two blocks from my house.”

Saudi women in the industry faced even greater challenges.

When “Wadjda” (2012), the first Saudi feature directed by a woman, was filmed, Haifaa al-Mansour, the director, was barred from mixing in public with male crew members. She worked instead from the back of a van, communicating with the actors via walkie-talkie.

“I’m still in shock,” said Ahd Kamel, who played a conservative teacher in “Wadjda,” which portrays a rebellious young Saudi girl who desperately wants a bicycle, as she walked through the festival. “It’s surreal.”

As a young actress in New York, Ms. Kamel hid her career from her family, knowing they, and Saudi society, would not approve of a woman acting. Now, she said, her family pesters her for festival tickets, and she is preparing to direct a new film to be shot in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi political, religious and cultural sensitivities are still factors, of course.

Marvel’s big-budget “Eternals” was not released in Saudi Arabia — or in Qatar, Kuwait or Egypt — because of gay romantic scenes. Several of the non-Saudi films screened at the Jeddah festival, however, included gay scenes, nudity and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi comedian and actor, said officials had told him future films should avoid touching directly on God or politics.

Sumaya Rida, an actress in the festival movies “Junoon” and “Rupture,” said the films aimed to portray Saudi couples realistically while avoiding onscreen physical affection.

But the filmmakers said they were just happy to have support, accepting that it would come at the price of creative constraints.

“I don’t intend to provoke to provoke. The purpose of cinema is to tease. Cinema doesn’t have to be didactic,” said Fatima al-Banawi, a Saudi actress and director whose first feature film the festival is funding. “It comes naturally. We’ve been so good at working around things for so long.”

Vivian Yee reported from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Nada Rashwan from Cairo.

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Scrounging for Hits, Hollywood Goes Back to the Video Game Well

LOS ANGELES — For 28 years, ever since “Super Mario Bros.” arrived in cinemas with the tagline “This Ain’t No Game,” Hollywood has been trying and mostly failing — epically, famously — to turn hit video games into hit movies. For every “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001), which turned Angelina Jolie into an A-list action star, there has been a nonsensical “Max Payne” (2008), an abominable “Prince of Persia” (2010) and a wince-inducing “Warcraft” (2016).

If video games are the comic books of our time, why can’t Hollywood figure out how to mine them accordingly?

It may finally be happening, powered in part by the proliferation of streaming services and their need for intellectual property to exploit. “The need for established, globally appealing I.P. has naturally led to gaming,” Matthew Ball, a venture investor and the former head of strategy for Amazon Studios, wrote last year in an essay titled “7 Reasons Why Gaming I.P. Is Finally Taking Off in Film/TV.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment and its PlayStation-powered sibling, Sony Interactive, are finally working together to turn PlayStation games into mass-appeal movies and television shows. There are 10 game adaptations in the Sony Pictures pipeline, a big leap from practically none in 2018. They include “Uncharted,” a $120 million adventure based on a 14-year-old PlayStation property (more than 40 million copies sold). “Uncharted” stars Tom Holland, the reigning Spider-Man, as Nathan Drake, the treasure hunter at the center of the game franchise. It is scheduled for release in theaters on Feb. 18.

post-apocalyptic game of the same title. Pedro Pascal, “The Mandalorian” himself, is the star, and Craig Mazin, who created the Emmy-winning mini-series “Chernobyl,” is the showrunner. Executive producers include Carolyn Strauss, one of the forces behind “Game of Thrones,” and Neil Druckmann, who led the creation of the Last of Us game.

Sony games like Twisted Metal and Ghost of Tsushima are also getting the TV and film treatment. (Contrary to speculation, one that is not, at least not anytime soon, according to a Sony spokesman: God of War.)

In the past, Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive operated as fiefs, with creative control — it’s mine; no, it’s mine — impeding adaptation efforts. When he took over as Sony’s chief executive in 2018, Kenichiro Yoshida demanded cooperation. The ultimate goal is to make better use of Sony’s online PlayStation Network to bring Sony movies, shows and music directly to consumers. PlayStation Network, introduced in 2006, has more than 114 million monthly active users.

“I have witnessed a radical shift in the nature of cooperation between different parts of the company,” said Sanford Panitch, Sony’s movie president.

Halo,” a series based on the Xbox franchise about a war between humans and an alliance of aliens (more than 80 million copies sold), will arrive on the Paramount+ streaming service early next year; Steven Spielberg is an executive producer. Lionsgate is adapting the Borderlands games (roughly 60 million sold) into a science fiction film starring Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Buoyed by its success with “The Witcher,” a fantasy series adapted from games and novels, Netflix has shows based on the “Assassin’s Creed,” “Resident Evil,” “Splinter Cell” and “Cuphead” games on the way. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the duo behind HBO’s “Westworld,” are developing a science-fiction show for Amazon that is based on the Fallout video game franchise.

And Nintendo and Illumination Entertainment, the Universal Pictures studio responsible for the “Despicable Me” franchise, have an animated Mario movie headed to theaters next year — another new collaboration between a game publisher and a film company.

Still, Hollywood’s game adaptation track record is terrible. Why should the coming projects be any different?

For a start, the games themselves have evolved, becoming more intricate and cinematic. “Games have stories that are so much more developed and advanced than they used to be,” Mr. Panitch said.

first major game adaptation in three decades to receive a “fresh” designation on Rotten Tomatoes, the review-aggregation site. Since then, two more adaptations, “Sonic the Hedgehog” (Paramount) and “The Angry Birds Movie 2” (Sony) have been critical and commercial successes.

“Quality has definitely been improving,” said Geoff Keighley, creator of the Game Awards, an Oscars-like ceremony for the industry.

The most recent game-to-film entry, “Mortal Kombat” (Warner Bros.), received mixed reviews but has taken in $41.2 million in the United States since its release last month, a surprisingly large total considering it was released simultaneously on HBO Max and theaters were still operating with strict coronavirus safety protocols.

Mr. Panitch acknowledged that “video game movies have a checkered history.” But he added, “Failure is the mother of invention.”

Game adaptations, for instance, have often faltered by trying to rigidly replicate the action and story lines that fans know and love. That approach invites comparison, and movies (even with sophisticated visual effects) almost always fail to measure up. At the same time, such “fan service” turns off nongamers, resulting in films that don’t connect with any particular audience.

“It’s not just about adapting the story,” said Michael Jonathan Smith, who is leading Sony’s effort to turn Twisted Metal, a 1995 vehicular combat game, into a television series. “It’s about adapting how you feel when you play the game. It has to be about characters you care about. And then you can slide in the Easter eggs and story points that get fans absolutely pumped.”

“Uncharted” is a prequel that, for the first time, creates origin stories for the characters in the game. With any luck, such storytelling will satisfy fans by giving them something new — while also inviting nongamers, who may otherwise worry about not knowing what is going on, to buy tickets. (The producers of “Uncharted” include Charles Roven, who is known for the “Dark Knight” trilogy.)

“It’s a question of balance,” said Asad Qizilbash, a senior Sony Interactive executive who also runs PlayStation Productions, an entity started in 2019 and based on Sony’s movie lot in Culver City, Calif.

Unlike in the past, when Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive pledged to work together and ultimately did not, the current collaboration “has weight because there is a win for everyone,” Mr. Qizilbash added. “We have three objectives. Grow audience size for games. Bring product to Sony Pictures. Showcase collaboration.”

The stakes are high. A cinematic flop could hurt the game franchise.

“It’s risky,” Mr. Qizilbash allowed. “But I think we can do it.”

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Comcast Earnings Beat Expectations Amid Shift to Streaming

If you want a clear picture of the state of the media industry in upheaval, Comcast offers a good snapshot.

The company, which includes NBC, Universal Pictures, several theme parks, and the Peacock streaming service, beat Wall Street’s expectations in its first-quarter earnings report on Thursday as it continued to shift its emphasis from cable to digital.

To start, take these figures from its results:

Despite the regular pace of cord cutting, Comcast’s cable television business pulled in over $5.62 billion in revenue for the first quarter. That was flat compared with last year, but it’s still the company’s biggest business, accounting for a fifth of all revenue.

Peacock, on the other hand, is the fastest growing, but it loses the most money. Last year, it approached $700 million in pretax losses. This year, the streaming platform is expected to lose $1.3 billion as Comcast spends big to load it up with original shows and sports programming with the aim of attracting more viewers.

report from the tech news site The Information revealed that a little more than 11 million households were watching the service.

Even so, the aim of Peacock is to replace the lost advertising from Comcast’s cable and broadcast channels as people continue to cut the cord. Peacock, which is available nearly everywhere, can also act as a hedge against other cable operators such as Charter or Cox when Comcast’s media division, NBCUniversal, negotiates carriage fees.

Peacock offers some of the most popular streaming shows, including “The Office,” a top hit on Netflix before it lost the rights to the series in 2021 when the license expired and the show reverted back to its owner, Comcast.

In a few years, Peacock will have the rights to stream National Football League games on Sunday alongside NBC as part of a new agreement. That could ruffle feathers with some of NBC’s affiliate stations if viewers drop TV and opt for Peacock to watch football. The streamer will also have some games exclusively. In March, the service added WWE.

Comcast sells something that has proved more durable than sports and entertainment: broadband, the piping that carries all streaming platforms. The company saw a surge in subscribers during the pandemic. In the first quarter, sales increased 12 percent to $5.6 billion. It’s likely to overtake cable television as the company’s biggest business.

At NBCUniversal, sales sharply dropped as movie theaters remained mostly shut and fewer people were visiting theme parks under the pandemic. Revenue fell 9 percent to $7 billion and pretax profit decreased 12 percent to $1.5 billion. Advertising at its television networks, which include NBC, MSNBC and Syfy, fell 3.4 percent to $2.1 billion.

Overall, the company beat expectations, reporting adjusted profit of 76 cents a share on $27.2 billion in revenue, and its stock was climbing on Thursday morning. Investors were looking for 59 cents in per-share profit and $26.6 billion in sales.

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Netflix’s dominance in streaming starts to slow as rivals gain ground.

Netflix still rules the streaming universe. As of the end of March, it had 207.6 million total paying subscribers, with about 67 million in the United States, the company noted in an earnings report on Tuesday.

But its main competitors — Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+ and AppleTV+, as well as the old-guard streamers Amazon Prime Video and Hulu — have cut into Netflix’s share of viewers’ attention.

The global demand for original Netflix programs, like “Bridgerton,” the much buzzed-about romance series from the super-producer Shonda Rhimes, has started to drop relative to similar offerings from newcomers, according to the data firm Parrot Analytics, which has developed a metric to rate not only the number of viewers for given shows, but their likelihood of attracting subscribers to a streaming service.

In its latest rankings, Parrot reported that Netflix’s share of total demand — a measure of the popularity of its shows — was slightly above 50 percent for the first three months of the year, compared with 54 percent a year ago and 65 percent in the first quarter of 2019.

password sharing, long a common practice.

a record 15.7 million subscribers.

As much of the world went into lockdown, people turned to screens to while away the hours. Netflix recorded a jump in new sign-ups, leading to a record year of nearly 37 million additional customers. The company is unlikely to repeat that performance for 2021 as restaurants, stores, theaters and sports stadiums start opening up to full capacity across the country.

But Netflix is an international business. The majority of its revenues now come from overseas, and it has banked its future growth on emerging markets such as India and Latin America. Those regions have had recent surges in coronavirus cases, prompting new lockdowns. Most of the world, including Europe, has not vaccinated its citizens as quickly as the United States.

Netflix is still spending big. It spent $465 million to buy two sequels to the hit whodunit “Knives Out,” a price tag 50 percent higher than the first film’s gross receipts. It’s also 10 times what the film cost to produce. Hollywood lit up with chatter. Did Netflix overpay?

The film’s director, Rian Johnson, came up with the idea for the film, and he and his producing partner control the rights. The lucrative deal is in keeping with Netflix’s expensive courtship of Hollywood creators. It has nine-figure agreements with prolific television producers including Ms. Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, as well as the actor-producer Adam Sandler. Mr. Johnson could join their ranks by creating additional series and films for the company.

Despite Netflix’s push into owning its own content, it recently entered into a distribution agreement with Sony Pictures Entertainment, the last major Hollywood studio not tied to any streaming business. Netflix will have rights to some Marvel franchises, including the Sony-controlled “Spider-Man,” and several offshoots based on the character.

The company reported profit of $1.7 billion on revenue of $7.16 billion for the first quarter. Investors were looking to $1.3 billion in profit on $7.1 billion in sales.

hit a milestone at the end of last year, when it said it would no longer look to borrow money to fund its content slate. Another way to look at it: Netflix finally became a truly profitable business after topping 200 million subscribers, each paying an average of $11 a month.

In other words: Its competitors are still losing lots of money on streaming.

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Why Oprah’s Meghan and Harry Special Won’t Have a Streaming Home

Oprah Winfrey pulled off what has become a rare television event: the tell-all interview that turns into a cultural moment. On Sunday, an audience of more than 17 million watched bombshell revelations tumble out of the mouths of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry as they described their lives under the palace gaze in a two-hour CBS special that rivaled any of the royal dramas on the Netflix series “The Crown.”

Social-media discussion of the show has continued since the credits rolled, leaving many people who missed it wondering where they could stream it. For the next 30 days, the special will be available on CBS.com and the CBS app. But after that, it will not have a home on any streaming platform.

That’s because, from the start of negotiations, Ms. Winfrey’s company, Harpo Productions, the owner of the program, envisioned the special as something suited to a big broadcast network, three people with knowledge of the deal said. Harpo did not even attempt to sell the streaming rights to Netflix or Paramount+, the streaming platform owned by CBS’s parent company, ViacomCBS, the people said.

Harpo’s old-school strategy of avoiding subscription-video-on-demand services came about partly because of the complications presented by Ms. Winfrey’s deal to make programs for Apple’s streaming platform, AppleTV+, the people said. Ms. Winfrey’s AppleTV+ deal includes an interview series, “The Oprah Conversation,” which has featured Barack Obama, Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey. Another wrinkle was the roughly $100 million production deal that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry struck last year with Netflix, the people said.

do not require a subscription and consistently draw the largest audiences for live viewing. Harpo also liked the idea of appearing in the Sunday night slot after “60 Minutes,” the highly rated CBS News show where Ms. Winfrey was a special correspondent in 2017 and 2018, the people said.

As part of the $7 million deal, ViacomCBS won something valuable: the rights to broker international distribution on behalf of Harpo. The program aired Monday on ITV in Britain and will be available in more than 80 countries.

cut a deal with Ms. Winfrey to produce a documentary series about mental health that is scheduled to stream on AppleTV+.

Some industry observers were surprised by the CBS deal because of another corporate entanglement: Ms. Winfrey’s long relationship with Discovery Communications, the cable giant that invested in her cable network, OWN, over a decade ago. David Zaslav, Discovery’s intensely competitive chief executive, decided to continue the investment even after OWN experienced growing pains early on. The company now controls the network, which has become a ratings success. Discovery also recently launched its own streamer, Discovery+, where Ms. Winfrey hosts an interview series, “Super Soul.” (The company bought advertising time on the CBS special and provided a commercial featuring Ms. Winfrey.)

It turns out that digital television, originally meant as a convenient alternative to clunky cable, can be just as knotty and cumbrous as the business it’s trying to replace.

The morning after her interview with the Sussexes, Ms. Winfrey appeared on “CBS This Morning,” a program anchored by her close friend, Gayle King, where she presented extra material that didn’t make the special. CBS announced on Tuesday that it will show the special again Friday night at 8.

John Koblin contributed reporting.

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