Head of New Saudi Distribution and Production Companies on Wanting to “Be A Part” of the Country’s Cinematic Evolution

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By Joshephira Honey

Just a few weeks ahead of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, it was unveiled that a new regional distributor and sales operation was launching. 

Riyadh-based TwentyOne Entertainment, led by British former Universal and Disney executive Paul Chesney, would be coming to the festival with its first acquisition, Red Sea competition entry Norah, the debut feature from Saudi writer-director Tawfik Alzaidi. The film, set in 1990s Saudi Arabia, also marks the first feature to be shot entirely in the country’s AlUla region. 

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Hot on the heels of this announcement, Chesney unveiled his new Saudi production operation, Red Palm Pictures, which would work under the same umbrella as TwentyOne. Doubling down on its commitment to Alzaidi, Red Palm launched with a multi-picture deal with the filmmaker and a new project in Thuraya, an action and adventure drama that he’s set to write and direct. 

The new entities join a film industry in Saudi Arabia that has practically emerged from nothing in the space of just a few years and that has been buoyed by the fastest-growing box office on the planet. Plus, local titles are finally managing to break into the mainstream.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Chesney discussed TwentyOne Entertainment and Red Palm Pictures, how he hopes to be a magnet for regional talent, and competing — or not — with some of the already established operators. 

What was the thought process behind launching TwentyOne? 

When it comes to distribution in the region, there are a handful of people who do it really well. From what I understand and the learning curve that I’m going through, a lot of Saudi-based content has been YouTube quality, TV quality. But there’s a lot of talent here. I’m learning from Tawfik AlZaidi whenever I meet him. But Norah is such a good film. And it’s one we wanted to represent at TwentyOne Entertainment. So it just made sense to launch the distribution side with Norah as our first title and really produce something that will really say something on the screen here that’s really unique and different and hasn’t been seen before. Also, over the last five years, there’s really been a diet of tentpoles, but content from Turkey, Egypt and India, but not really anything that’s been cinematic on a Saudi scale. So through the distribution business, we want to change that narrative a bit as the audience becomes more savvy. We want to be a part of it. 

Over the last year, we have had Saudi hits here, most notably Sattar. So we are seeing a growing appetite amongst Saudi audiences for local films aimed at them rather than big imported Hollywood titles. Is that something you’re hoping to tap into?

Yeah, definitely. Sattar was unique and did amazingly well. We’re positioning ourselves a little bit away from that kind of content. We want to make content for an audience, but we also want to make content that shows the history of this country. There are so many stories that just haven’t been told. From a production side, that’s definitely where we’re going to be moving into, and on the distribution we want to represent those kinds of movies. 

You’re a Middle East and North Africa distributor, but is Saudi Arabia the primary focus?

It is, because of the growing cinema industry. There are 600 screens here now but that’s going to be 2,500 in a matter of years. So it’s a huge growth territory. But we’re not ignoring the rest of MENA (Middle East, and North Africa), which is why we’re called TwentyOne Entertainment, because of the 21 territories. There’s rich talent in the entire region. So it’s not about chasing dollars here. It’s about being involved in an exciting place with huge growth and being part of that change.

Are theatrical releases the main aim for your titles?

Not necessarily. Distribution could be theatrical or for streaming platforms. On the production, we’ll make content for streamers, we’ll make films for theatrical and we want to make documentaries as well. We won’t have a narrow focus. We want to be the magnet for talent in the region. We want scriptwriters, up-and-coming directors, people who’ve got stories… we want them to come to us. We want to represent and give them a voice. That’ll be one of the key goals of the production entity. 

There are several distribution and production companies that are well-established in the MENA region, such as Mad Solutions and Front Row. Do you feel you’re in the same space or is there something that differentiates you?

I guess our key difference is that, on the production side, we won’t just be focusing on film. But these are companies we’re potentially looking to partner with. They’ve both been doing a great job, and I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to compete with them in the short term. It makes no sense to do that. We see ourselves collaborating with the best in the business as well as doing stuff ourselves. 

Did you have much involvement with the region previously?

I was with Universal Pictures with the home entertainment group — I had a worldwide role based in London and then Los Angeles. And with part of that role, I looked after our licensing markets, about 50 territories for some time, and the Middle East was one of those. But it’s changed a lot since I used to travel here back then. But that wasn’t what attracted me to this part of the world — it’s all of the changes that are happening. 

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