Saudi Arabia was the last place Israel-born American producer Uri Singer thought he would visit in his lifetime.
That was until a chance meeting on the White Noise red carpet in Venice with Mohammed Al Turki, CEO of the country’s Red Sea International Film Festival.
The pair met for lunch in Toronto and again by chance on another red carpet at the BFI London Film Festival, where Al Turki introduced Singer to festival managing director Shivani Pandya.
“She was amazing. There are a few things that have impressed me about Mohammed, his hiring and championing of women, and also the way he does the PR. It’s not just about money. He’s very funny and charming and there is a vision and a plan behind what he is doing,” said Singer.
This third meeting would result in Singer being invited to Red Sea’s second edition, running December 1-10.
He flew in for the opening night gala screening of What’s Love Got To Do With It?, mingling on the red carpet with the likes of jury president Oliver Stone as well as guests Guy Ritchie, Sharon Stone, Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan and iconic Egyptian actress Yousra.
“I came here with no clue about Saudi Arabia. I’d never been to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t think I could come although I have an American passport so there was no issue there,” he said.
“I’ve felt extremely welcome from the moment I landed. There were two female soldiers in passport control. For me, growing up where I did, it was a bit awkward, but after the formalities, one of them asked me, ‘Should I call you ‘Ouri’ or ‘Uri’? So, they knew. My birthplace is written in my passport,” he continued. “But I have felt nothing but warmth here since I arrived.”
Sharing his first impressions, Singer highlights the pace of change in the country and the way in which women appeared to be at the heart of this change.
“Before you arrive, you have images in your mind just from the way the country is depicted. Here you see that from the execs of the festival to filmmakers to government officials, there are women at all levels handling the business. It’s their time now. The changes here are happening very fast, which is incredible to see,” he said. “I’m sure it’s still a macho society, run by men in the culture, but it’s changing.”
Assessing the festival and its market, Singer likens the industry meeting rooms to “Cannes on steroids”.
“It’s only the second year, but it looks like it’s been running for ten years. The talent here, like Spike Lee, Luca Guadagnino, Guy Richie, and Oliver Stone, and great world-class movie selections, give a new platform to Saudi as a country and production hub,” he said.
It is an open secret within industry circles that many of the celebrity guests are picking up hefty fees to attend, but Singer suggests there is nothing wrong with this approach.
“It’s the beginning. You have to pay people to come here to see it because people have a wrong or a different perception of Saudi Arabia and Jeddah and even the festival. Nobody gives it credibility until they see it,” he says.
“I don’t see a problem with it. This way of initiating bringing talent is smart because otherwise, they wouldn’t have come. But I think once they come and see this amazing festival, the people and the transformation and transmit what they saw, it will work. It’s a smart investment.”
Singer also suggested that the invites for industry players and fees for celebrities were not simply about trying to buy their presence for the sake of it.
“They want to learn. They want to bring in people in production to teach the locals how to be better and more professional. It’s very, very smart.”
Aside from catching up with old friend Andy Garcia, lunching with Oliver Stone and watching the US-Netherlands Qatar World Cup soccer match with Spike Lee, Singer used his time at the festival to learn about what the country has to offer to international producers wishing to shoot in the country.
“Before I came here, I did not have any intention of that. I didn’t know the potential here. I’ve found fantastic tax rebates and funds, as well as other direct financing ways,” said Singer.
He warns, however, that producers who come to Saudi Arabia thinking it is some sort of magic money tree will be disappointed.
“Everybody comes here, thinking they’re going to write a cheque or give us 50% and it’s not that. It is still in its infancy. There are problems with production. Jordan and Egypt are still cheaper. You need to bring the crew here and there are not enough cameras. You have to pay extra to get them expedited,” he said.
“But coming here has opened my eyes to Saudi Arabia. There’s a willingness, warmth and openness to learning.”
On the basis of his experiences, Singer is now planning to shoot his upcoming sci-fi drama Low Orbit, directed by Nguyen-Anh Nguyen and starring Titane star Agathe Rouselle, in Saudi Arabia.
“I am going to shoot it here because it’s a perfect location for it. The sands and the crazy buildings, the mountains and even snow. It’s contained so it’s not a big crew,” he said.
“Agathe knows I am here. We could also maybe have an Arab, even a Saudi, actress because it’s three people in the cast. We had thought about Zoê Kravitz if we did in the States.”
Singer also found unexpected interest in his content curation platform Taleflick, under which rights holders can load-up books, screenplays, short stories, articles and graphic novels to showcase them to entities looking for original IP.
“There is a great thirst for good content,” he said. “I found tremendous interest from several large entities that want to become the regional leader in IP and content.”
Singer is now on the verge of signing a deal under which Taleflick will be licensed for the region and made available in Arabic.
“The Saudis are interested in being the leader in this, and that looks promising to have elevated and original content that can be local and suitable for Hollywood,” he said.
“That was an opportunity I did not expect, but after coming here, it is like a glove finding its hand.”