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WME Independent Co-Head Talks “Harder Journey to Theatrical,” “Truffle Hunting” at Saudi Fest

The state of the theatrical film business amid the rise of streaming was among the topics of discussion at the third Red Sea International Film Festival’s market on Saturday.

Alex Walton, co-head and partner at WME Independent, which focuses on film packaging and sales across multiple platforms, told a panel entitled “Redefining the Theatrical Experience in the Post-Streaming Era,” that his work was akin to “truffle hunting.” He explained: “We are constantly truffle hunting for material. Because everything, pretty much, that we are able to help build is original.”

But given the competition between theatrical, TV and streaming platforms and various industry challenges, “the journey to theatrical is certainly harder for original programming” these days, he argued. “It’s certainly more challenging than ever.” Also, “the competition is greater than ever,” he said, pointing out that ABBA now plays live every day in London thanks to a virtual concert experience. But getting into cinemas tends to give films a “pop,” Walton explained.

He also addressed how independents think about star power in the social media age. “Looking at the social impact of a star is increasingly important, whether that’s TikTok, YouTube, throughout their social platform engagement,” he said. “That is certainly a critical component.”

Joining Walton in discussing opportunities and challenges of movie studios and exhibitors were Giovanni Dolci, global chief sales officer at Imax, Eugene Kim, content director at South Korea’s Plus M Entertainment, and Luke Vetere, managing director – studio distribution at Majid Al Futtaim Entertainment, which focuses on the Middle East.

The general consensus among panelists was that the rise of streaming isn’t an existential threat to theatrical films, but is affecting windowing.

Dolci, among other things, talked about how Imax was once reliant on Hollywood titles but has since diversified amid evolving consumer interests and tastes. “We are now releasing more local-language movies than Hollywood movies,” even if that isn’t yet reflected in terms of box office revenue, he shared. And he said that Imax will make available Arabic films down the line, even though he didn’t provide a timeline for that.

Meanwhile, Vetere touted the growth of the Saudi Arabian cinema industry and box office since the reopening of movie theaters a few years ago. “Saudi Arabia has gone from naught to over a quarter of a billion dollars in just four years,” he said, mentioning the country has reached 65 cinemas with 615 screens. 

Vetere also touted “very encouraging” signs of the post-COVID box office bounceback for the Middle East. “If you believe the forecasts for our region, we are looking at getting back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2025,” followed by “continued and sustained growth,” he said. 

Amid the rise of streaming, movie theaters have continued to see the box office trend below pre-COVID pandemic levels. This year, the Hollywood writers and actors strikes has led to studios delaying some key releases, affecting the film slate and box office. Exhibition stocks analyst Eric Wold of B. Riley recently took a stab at estimating the impact from the strikes. He reduced his 2024 and 2025 industry box office projections, with his 2025 forecast calling for about 87 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

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