Vox Cinemas Moves Into Arabic Production; CEO Talks ‘West Side Story’ Ban – Deadline

Vox Cinemas, the Middle East’s largest exhibition chain, has unveiled an ambitious plan to produce 25 Arabic movies in the next five years. The announcement was made at the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, where Vox Cinemas is the exclusive cinema partner.

Vox Cinemas, which is owned by Emirati businessman and retail mogul Majid Al Futtaim, says the move is part of the company’s wider commitment to boost homegrown film production and aligns with Saudi Arabia’s Film Commission’s recently launched strategy to develop the country’s burgeoning cinema sector.

As part of the initiative, Vox Cinemas will continue to support the next generation of homegrown content developers and provide resources for emerging filmmakers to bring their scripts to screen. Vox previously provided mentorship to Saudi production company Myrkott, which saw local and regional success with its recent animated release Masameer.

Ignace Lahoud, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment and Cinemas told Deadline that budgets for the projects will likely be in the $1M to $10M range, with a possibility to go higher if the project called for it.

“We want to do it in a small way, in a financially responsible way,” Lahoud said, saying that statistical analysis at the company revealed this was the budget “sweet spot”in generating a success in the region.

“We want to leverage local talent ranging from actors to writers to producers to directors,” he said. “The region is also actively now pursuing attractive packages from an incentives perspective. We know the Saudi authorities are looking at tax incentives and rebates for production. Other countries in the region offer those already so we’re also really encouraged by that perspective.”

He added: “The Middle East has a long history steeped in storytelling and a wealth of emerging talent that has been gaining international promise in recent years. Given its theme of ‘metamorphosis,’ the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival is the ideal platform to announce our ambitious plan to illuminate the untold and compelling stories from our region on the big screen.”

Lahoud also touched on the recent news of a ban on Steven Spielberg’s upcoming title West Side Story in various Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He said, while exhibitors naturally want to attract as many audience members as possible, they have to be respectful of each’s country’s regulations.

“Censorship is a reality in this place,” Lahoud told Deadline. “When the commission decides to do something, we have to abide by that. There are different countries that have censorships for different regions, whether it’s political sensitivities or other issues, that’s the reality of the marketplace.”

He added, however, that he wanted to focus on positives as well in the region, highlighting the fact that Vox Cinemas didn’t even exist in Saudi Arabia a few years ago.

“How fast has the [Saudi Arabian] film industry evolved in a few years?,” he opined. “And look at where it is today. I think it’s an evolution process. Yes, some things are not as you’d expect but it’s moving and if you think of the history of cinema, that’s how the world evolves.”

Vox operates more than 600 screens in the Middle East, with 15 cinemas in Saudi Arabia. In addition to its new foray into production, it operates a large regional distribution division. Most recently, it distributed Al Kameen (The Ambush), the largest-ever Arabic feature film production in the GCC and which became the highest-grossing Arabic language movie to date in the UAE.

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