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    Red Carpet, Not Red Tape – The Music news

    Neom is a burgeoning production and creative hub in northwestern Saudi Arabia featuring the largest soundstages in the country.

    It is also the biggest purpose-built production facility in the region, with four stages currently being operational and six more scheduled to go online by mid-2024, including a volumetric stage that captures three-dimensional space and video that can be viewed on flat screens, as well as using 3D displays and VR goggles. Plus, the Neom hub plans to grow its currently 350 units of accommodation to 500 by mid-year 2024.

    With 26,500 square kilometers, the semi-autonomous Neom region is nearly the size of Belgium or Massachusetts and is designed to showcase an alternative way of living and working. For example, it is set to become the home of a futuristic car-less city called The Line, envisioned to accommodate nine million people, to be zero-carbon and powered by renewable energy, namely solar and wind energy. There won’t be roads or cars, but rail will serve as the main form of transport.

    With an estimated investment of $500 billion to build the community in the desert, Neom is designed to not only focus on production, but 14 sectors overall, from entertainment and culture, media, sport and tourism to technology and digital, education, research, innovation, food and energy.

    In line with its futuristic goals, the name Neom is made up of the word “neo,” for “new,” and M, the first letter in “mustaqbal,” an Arabic word for “future.” (M coincidentally is also the starting letter of the name of the de facto Saudi ruler and Neom Company chairman Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose brainchild Neom is.)

    At the third Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, THR talked to former Walt Disney, Universal, Warner Bros. and Fox executive Wayne Borg, the Australian who serves as Neom’s managing director, media industries, entertainment and culture. He discussed what has been built so far, what is to come soon, what productions have chosen Neom so far, and what his team is setting its sights on next.

    In the hallways of the Red Sea film festival, people were whispering that such big names as Johnny Depp and Will Smith visited Neom as part of their visit to the festival. What reaction do you get from such stars?

    I think their reaction is one of astonishment when they see the untouched natural beauty on the scale that’s up there, and the diversity of it. You have got incredible coastlines, these incredible canyons and mountain ranges, desert landscapes — big epic landscapes — and the sea, the coral reefs. And we have mountains that elevate 2,500 meters. So we get snow up there and have been awarded the 2029 Asian Winter Games. It’s hard to describe until you see it, and it is unique. I’ve traveled and lived all over the world, and it is such a special place.

    When you marry that with everything we’ve got in terms of top facilities, it starts to tick a lot of boxes for people. It’s competitive, and we’ve got a real sort of make-it-happen attitude. When we’re talking to talent, when we’re talking to producers, that excites them.

    What exactly do you mean by that can-do attitude?

    We want to make things happen. That’s the ethos of the team. In a world where things always are getting harder, not easier, it’s resonating with people. All too often now, things get harder. It’s increasingly a lot of red tape, a lot of bureaucracy. And what we want to offer is red carpet, not red tape. We want to make it happen. We want to make it happen on time and on budget, because that’s what’s most important. And to top it all off, give people an amazing experience in a really unique environment, that hopefully stays with them, so they want to come back and experience it further. They’ll see it change and evolve as the whole Neom proposition evolves over time.

    Neom production studio desert shoot.

    Neom production studio desert shoot.

    Courtesy of Neom/Qaisaran

    The Neom production incentives amount to 40 percent or even more in some cases. Run me through the basics of the financials please and does the no red-tape promise always apply to that in any way?

    Having a competitive incentive scheme was vital to really operate on the world stage in terms of the industry and what the expectations are. And it was also really about how do we start to streamline processes? How do we start to remove that friction that so often is the Achilles heel of jurisdictions. We want to have an impact and bring a reduction both in cost and time.

    The incentive is funded directly by Neom. We talk about how do we minimize friction and how do we minimize the bureaucracy? So, we’ve tried to make it as smooth and as clean a process as possible and pay out very quickly as well. After the audit is complete, and your entitlement is determined, we look to pay up between 45 and 90 days. At a time when the cost of money is accelerating, this is a huge benefit for the industry.

    For the incentive itself, we have a 40 percent cash rebate. Then there are another two components that can build on top of that: One is a component of in-kind, the other is an extra cash incentive rebate. That’s really coming down to the scale of project, if we’re entering into a longer-term production deal and what number of training opportunities you’re creating and what leave-behind infrastructure there is and so forth. So, every project will differ in its scale and its scope, and therefore, we calibrate accordingly. But I can assure you, it’s one of the most competitive globally.

    Neom production studio

    Neom production studio

    Courtesy of Neom/Qaisaran

    How many and what type of productions have come to Neom since you opened the first stage in 2021?

    We’ve attracted 35 productions in just over two years, and that’s been across a broad range of genres and formats. We’ve done documentaries for the BBC, we’ve done TV for Apple and Discovery, scripted limited series for a range of broadcasters, feature films. We have had local, regional and international productions, including from Bollywood.

    And then reality television where we are becoming a format hub for a number of shows. We’ve done Million Dollar Island, which is a Talpa show. We’ve done not only the Arabic version, but we’re now doing a number of other international versions. We’ve just completed Unbreakable, which just started airing this week and is an international format. We’re getting prepped for hopefully season two of that.

    In terms of feature films, we had Within Sands, which won the jury prize at the second Red Sea International Film Festival. Hajjan, which is playing here and getting tremendous critical acclaim as it carries over momentum from Toronto. In terms of Bollywood, Dunki with Shah Rukh Khan is going to be coming out at Christmas. This is the big Indian Christmas release.

    And it goes right through to Desert Warrior, an $150 million production with a big cast with Anthony Mackie, Ben Kingsley and Aiysha Hart and directed by Rupert Wyatt. That’ll be coming out next year.

    And I mentioned limited edition scripted, such as Rise of the Witches [an adventure-fantasy series produced by MBC Studios that is the biggest Saudi series to date].

    So we have had a lot of stuff and a lot of repeat business too, so producers are coming back.

    Neom desert landscape

    Neom desert landscape

    Courtesy of Neom/Qaisaran

    What do people not fully realize about Neom’s ambitions yet?

    We’re not a location-based enterprise. We want to be an integrated media hub. This is about creating a regional hub for content creation and the full ecosystem — production facilities, support facilities, industry tenancy, industry learning, incubation and startup, gaming, digital publishing, music.

    Our end-state media hub will be about a million square meters footprint and will start with 50 soundstages and offer the full-range value chain in each of those verticals. Because we want to become — what we believe this region rightly deserves — a true industry base that doesn’t exist today. At the film festival you’ve seen this incredible groundswell of talent starting to emerge. And we want to be in a position to enable and facilitate their success and allow whatever is in creatives’ heads to be realized and support that talent pool in Saudia Arabia [over 60 percent of whose population is under 30], as well as allow mentoring from industry leaders.

    An integrated media hub is such a unique proposition, both physically and technologically, that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world today, particularly in the screen industries where things are evolving. You’re seeing decision makers getting closer to the creative processes, seeing technology starting to impact the whole process, game engine technology in particular, and that’s changing workflows, work processes and production processes. So to bring all of that together will redefine a lot of how content is produced, how young people are being trained in the sector and how the creative process actually happens.

    Neom has been established to really focus on what is the biggest challenge the planet faces today: sustainability. And the biggest impact on sustainability is urbanism. So at the core of what Neom is looking to address is how do you redefine urbanism, how do you start to minimize our impact on the planet, both individually and corporately, in every sense of society. So it is about redefining how we’re living, how we’re working, how we’re interacting with each other.

    Neom sea landscape

    Neom sea

    Courtesy of Neom/Qaisaran

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