DUBAI: Look back at any of the key moments in the development of the now flourishing Saudi film industry, and it is likely you will encounter Faisal Baltyuor. The Saudi producer, executive, and conscious pioneer of the rising scene has been integrally involved every step of the way since the country lifted its ban on movie theaters in 2018 and built its first cinema in Ithra, with Baltyuor running it. He then served as the first CEO of the Saudi Film Council (now the Saudi Film Commission), through which he gave a new generation of talent the tools they needed to begin their creative journeys.
Two years into that role, however, Baltyuor noticed an issue: There were certain areas of the landscape that were underserved, areas that the public sector couldn’t yet address. Who were the producers who could help new voices realize their vision? Where were the distributors dedicated to putting Saudi films in cinemas? And where was the dedicated arthouse cinema that could help nurture an audience for niche projects? With that in mind, Baltyuor set off on a new path — hoping to help his country achieve the dream he, too, had held since he was a child.
“This is so important to me, because I look back and I regret the absence of our stories on the big screen — all the creative voices we never heard from. That’s why we are working three times as hard now. I know that we’re not going to bring back what was lost in those 40 years without cinemas, but we are writing the Saudi story now, so let’s write it in the best way possible. Let’s write the Saudi story for the world to hear it,” Baltyuor says.
“Saudi is full of creatives, with a huge population under 30 and has a diverse culture. But in order to make those voices heard, every part of this business needs to be flourishing — locally and internationally. It’s not enough to win a one-off Oscar. To make this last, to do justice to this project, we need to build an industry that is as rich as Saudi itself.”
Baltyuor, who also worked as a producer in his years prior to joining government, has, since 2019, dedicated himself wholeheartedly towards those concerns. He currently serves as the CEO of Muvi Studios — the production arm of the country’s first homegrown exhibitor Muvi Cinemas; the founder and CEO of CineWaves Films, a homegrown distributor dedicated to putting Saudi films in cinemas; founder of CineHouse, the first dedicated arthouse cinema in Riyadh; and board member of Manga Productions, a subsection of the Mohammed Bin Salman Foundation dedicated to producing animation, video games and comics.
“I knew it was a risk to jump into the private sector,” Baltyuor tells Arab News. “There are reasons these gaps existed — they’re not the easiest aspects of the business to develop. But I decided to take that risk because there was no entity in the market saying ‘I believe in Saudi.’ That’s something we needed: to prove to the world that believing in Saudi is profitable, sustainable, and will reap huge benefits for all involved.”
The idea that getting Saudi stories onto the big screen can change someone’s life is not just a dream that Baltyuor has, it’s his lived reality. When he was still a boy, he traveled to Aramco to attend an oil exhibit, at which they were showing a special 3D film, which led him on a path to Australia, where he developed his skills before returning to Saudi Arabia nearly 10 years ago.
“The first time they put those 3D glasses over my eyes, something changed in me. At that moment, this documentary made me feel immersed in a way I never had before. At the time I was focused on graphic design, but sitting there I said to myself, ‘I need to make these things.’ It took me months to find the software and install it — all the resources were in English, and so I had to learn English just to understand the books. My world at the time was small enough to think I would never travel, but when I learned to harness those tools, I started this journey of mine,” he says.
It didn’t take long for Baltyuor’s risky proposition to find its first major success. It was at the peak of the global pandemic in 2020, and while the rest of the world was pulling all their major releases from the release schedule, Baltyuor had a Saudi film that he believed could still find an audience regardless of the circumstances: “The Book of Sun,” a groundbreaking Jeddah-based comedy directed by Faris Godus and distributed by CineWaves.
“That was really the toughest decision, but ironically it was when everyone else decided that a movie couldn’t successfully be released during a pandemic that the space finally opened up for us. Before that moment, there had been no room for local content on the schedule. Saudi film was not yet a brand. But we partnered with everyone in the market, and got 110,000 admissions, making it the biggest Saudi film in history — a record that wouldn’t be broken until ‘Sattar’ came along three years later,” says Baltyuor.
Since then, Baltyuor has expanded his mission. Having helped prove that a Saudi film could find a major audience, he has been thinking not only about what Saudi can do for its own people, but for the underserved voices in the region. With that in mind, he produced the acclaimed Sudanese film “Goodbye Julia,” the feature debut of director Mohamed Kordofani, which made history at this year’s Cannes Festival Festival and has since been named the country’s official submission for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards, only the second film in history to receive that honor.
“I’m so proud to see so many films supported by the Red Sea Fund in the Cannes and Venice festivals this year, because it shows that the growing Saudi industry is impacting regional films as well. That’s why I wanted to personally be involved with ‘Goodbye Julia.’ One of the main pillars we are working on here is to create a market that will benefit the entire region, and lift up Arab film as a whole,” says Baltyuor.
“People ask me, ‘Why film?’ And as hard as that can be to answer, at the end of the day I feel it’s important deep in my bones, because it’s preserving our culture; it’s recording our lives and creativity for the generations after us. It’s our stories, captured with joy. I don’t justify this academically, it’s personal,” he continues. “I find myself in love with this world, and I have the passion to grow more and more, and support anyone who’s working on this goal as well. There’s a bright future ahead of us all, and we have to band together to reach it.”