Former Universal Pictures executive Paul Chesney has been out and about this past week at the third edition of Saudi Arabia's Red Sea International Film Festival, running November 30 to December 9 in the port city of Jeddah.
The film and TV industry veteran, whose last position was at Universal Pictures as EVP Global Operations out of L.A., is attending in his new role as CEO of Riyadh-based production company Red Palm Pictures and sister acquisition and distribution outfit TwentyOne Entertainment.
Both entities were unveiled on the eve of the festival, with Red Palm Pictures announcing that it was kicking off its production slate with a four-picture deal with Saudi director Tawfik Alzaidi, whose first feature Norah world premieres in Jeddah this evening.
Red Palm Pictures and TwentyOne Entertainment are among a raft of companies being launched in Saudi Arabia as the country's ambitions to become a major film and TV hub for the MENA region continue to ramp up in the wake of the lifting at the end of 2017 of the 35-year cinema ban.
Deadline sat down with Chesney and Alzaidi in the festival's buzzing market space to put some flesh on the company announcements and the four-picture deal.
DEADLINE: Moving to Saudi Arabia is quite a leap. What brought you here?
CHESNEY: I always like to build things. We can really build something here over the next few years. It's exciting and to find filmmakers like Tawfik, it's a dream to build something around him and other filmmakers.
DEADLINE: Part of the strategy involves the launch of acquisition and distribution company TwentyOne Entertainment. What was the thinking behind the creation of this arm and how will it operate?
PAUL CHESNEY: There's a lot of great content starting to come out of this region and a lot of great talent. Knowing that Red Palm Picture is going to make TV and film content down the road, the question was what do we do with it once we've got it? Rather than trying to find a home for it later, we decided to set up to a distribution entity from the start.
We will self-distribute in the region directly into exhibition or streamers, content that we've either made or acquired. We'll also partner in certain parts of the world, with the content being the main priority.
For example, for Norah. We want to do the best job for the film so that won't necessarily mean us handling it exclusively through every cinema through every region, or even in MENA. We will look at what's the best thing for film.
DEADLINE: So you're not going to be running a classic international theatrical sales outfit?
DEADLINE: But will you be giving mandates to traditional sales companies?
CHESNEY: Yes, that's a possibility but the world is changing and there are multiple platforms emerging and it could be something we handle ourselves.
DEADLINE: In the case of a big cinematic work like Norah, is the aim for it to play theatrically first?
CHESNEY: Absolutely. The film was made for cinema. That has been Tawfik's vision for the last three, four years. It will get a theatrical release.
DEADLINE: How are you planning to roll it out internationally?
CHESNEY: We're thinking about giving it a festival strategy outside of MENA. We're not going to rush release it. We also want to give it some screenings in L.A. and New York, and the U.K.
As I said, we won't rush release. We'll do the best job we can in this region because we don't think there has been another film made by Saudi director for the big screen with this cinematic level. We think it's the first one.
DEADLINE: Tawfik, what made you decide to tie your immediate filmmaking destiny to Red Palm Pictures with a four-picture deal?
AlZAIDI: I believe in them. I hope working with a team of professionals with expert experience in the cinema industry will help me get my films made. Cinema is not new in Saudi Arabia, but the industry is. It took me four, five years to make Norah. It was really hard. I hope that by working with a bigger company, I will be able to make one project every one to two years.
DEADLINE: What is the first project you plan to work on under the deal?
ALZAIDI: Thuraya. It's about women living in the desert one hundred years ago, strong women who are fighting for revenge.
DEADLINE: Paul, you haven't announced any other filmmaker signings as yet. Are there are other announcements to come in the near future?
CHESNEY: It's very early days but I've met some really good talent.
DEADLINE: What's your long-term goal for the company?
CHESNEY: This will sound like a cliché, but we want to create the premium content company in KSA so that when people think about filmmakers and they want to make quality content, they come to us first. We're not going to rush things. I'm not going to run before I can walk. Tawfik is the first part of the jigsaw.
DEADLINE: Will you be tapping into your Universal network?
CHESNEY: Yes. The main goal is to develop talent here, but another goal will be to co-produce and bring talent in with other partners as the market opens up.
DEADLINE: In the press release, the companies are described as privately owned. Can you say who is behind them?
CHESNEY: It's a group of private investors. That's all I can say but I love that because they're going to let us build what we need to build.