DUBAI: It wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. It has been just five years since Saudi Arabia kickstarted its film journey after a 35-year ban, announcing a plan to not only open cinemas across the Kingdom, but build its own film industry to fill them. While international blockbusters were expected to pack houses initially, the plan was that, slowly but surely, the talent in the Kingdom would develop, and some day, perhaps, a Saudi film could be the one setting box office records, too.
But within five years, a Saudi film has already done that: “Sattar,” the brainchild of comedian, actor, writer and producer Ibraheem Alkhairallah. In the weeks since its release in in the Kingdom on December 29, the film is not only the No. 1 Saudi film in history, but the No. 5 film in the history of the Saudi box office — ahead of blockbusters including “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Avengers: Endgame.”
“Best of all, we’re two months in, and the film is showing no signs of slowing down,” Alkhairallah tells Arab News. “The hope is, when all is said and done, it will be the highest grossing Arabic-language film in Saudi box-office history, too, which would put us at No. 3 on the all-time list.”
Could anyone have predicted this level of success?
“I predicted it,” says Alkhairallah with a smile. “Of course I did. After all, this was not cheap to make, so I had to be confident in what I was producing. I knew from the start that we had to sell 500,000 tickets to break even. I had faith we could do it, even though a lot of people thought I was crazy.”
It’s fitting that Alkhairallah’s film, which he produced, co-wrote, and co-stars in, (Abdullah Al-Arak directed) was released a week after the “Avatar” sequel in his home country because his confidence and ambition is reminiscent of “Avatar” director James Cameron, who has long set goals for himself with no historical precedent, only to achieve them with aplomb.
“Put it this way — the previous highest-grossing Saudi film in history sold around 170,000 tickets in total. In order to just break even, we had to sell three times as many as the top film in the country’s history. I can understand how people would doubt that, but I knew we’d do it. I knew we had what it takes.”
Let’s jump back a few years to when he was primarily a stand-up comedian who had quietly built a YouTube empire with his friends called Telfaz11. When the country decided to build an industry, it was Alkhairallah and his partners who were in the best position to be first movers — the characters they’d created in the many series they’d already turned into viral hits were beloved across the region. They had a three-pronged plan.
“We wanted to cover all the bases: To make projects for streaming, for festivals, and for cinemas — we knew we could do it all,” says Alkhairallah.
Alkhairallah, it was decided, would spearhead the cinema-focused projects, founding a production company within Telfaz11 to do so — AlShimaisi Films.
“Do you want to know why I called it that?” he asks with a smirk. “When I was growing up, it was AlShimaisi Street in Riyadh that was something of a film school for me. That was the street that sold less-than-legal copies of anything you could think of — films, pro-wrestling, TV shows. I would spend hours there, getting my hands on anything I could think of. The name is a thank you, of sorts.”
Alkhairallah was always a film-lover, and the cinema experience was central to that.
“This is part of the reason that I was sure that cinema-going culture in Saudi would explode — because it’s nothing new. Saudis have always loved the cinema, we just couldn’t participate within our borders. Almost every weekend, I would drive to Bahrain overnight just to arrive early in the morning and watch as many movies as I could all day,” he says.
“My strategy was to watch a few interesting ones, then add a boring one that I could nap through to get my energy back up, and then another interesting one before driving home. And I wasn’t alone in this — so many Saudis used to do it. We truly love the movies.”
To make AlShimaisi work, however, he used lessons not just from a life of cinema-going, but also from what he had learned on stage as a stand-up. Knowing that the people of Saudi love to laugh, he delved into examining the key elements of Egyptian comedies, such as their use of music and their mix of other genres, and applied them to the many ideas that he sketched out during COVID-19 lockdowns. He settled on an action-comedy about a man who gets involved in the world of underground wrestling for the first — teaming up with Egyptian writer Ayman Wattar to get it over the finish line.
“Ayman was a huge help,” he says. “With 10 films under his belt, he was able to do so much to help me understand the things that are second nature to him at this point — things like the three-act structure that helped make this movie into something special.”
The film also incorporates elements of what made Telfaz11’s comedy shorts so successful — including a reprisal of Alkhairallah’s own ‘Abdulkhaliq’ character.
Alkhairallah has also obsessively campaigned for the film across Saudi Arabia since its release, with he and the cast members, including star Ibrahim Al-Hajjaj, making as many unannounced appearances at screenings across the country as they could.
“The people of Saudi Arabia will respect you if you show them respect. We have given all we can from the start to show our appreciation for the people coming out to support the film, and that love has come back towards the project in so many ways,” says Alkhairallah.
While he rejects the idea of a ‘Sattar 2’, this is surely just the beginning of the story for AlShimaisi Films, with a formula for success set for years to come.
“We’ve done the action-comedy, and we really do feel that comedy hybrids are the best way forward,” he says. “So next you may see a heist-comedy, a horror-comedy, and many other genre-mashups that will eventually broaden the scope of what audiences are ready for.”
He’s confident, sure, but he also remembers perhaps the most important lesson from his stand-up days.
“I can’t get too ahead of myself. After all, it’s the nights when you get on stage thinking you’ve got it all figured out that you bomb. We still have so much to learn, but we’re so happy with the direction we’re going,” he says. “Another lesson of comedy: Timing is everything. And the time for this is now.”