Long before it was officially announced, in late 2017, that Saudi Arabia’s 30-year ban on cinemas would be lifted, there’d been widespread gossip across the kingdom that the news was incoming.
“There was this rumor going around that there were theaters in malls already, and they’d just pull the curtain back and be like ‘tada, cinemas!,” says Alaa Fadan. As Ibraheem Al Khairallah recalls: “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘Is that the corner of a cinema?’”
But Fadan and Al Khairallah weren’t simply Saudi movie fans eagerly waiting in anticipation. As co-founders of pioneering Riyadh-based content studio Telfaz11 alongside fellow multi-hyphenate Ali Kalthami, they’d spent years carefully preparing themselves and their company, which began life making online videos, in order to take full advantage whenever the historic news would land. As Fadan notes: “We were ready for it — everything that we’d done was about getting ready to do feature films.”
Not even six years since the announcement and Saudi Arabia is the fastest growing box office on the planet. And Telfaz11 is leading the country’s blistering cinematic charge, filling theaters, smashing records and beating Hollywood studios in the process. At the start of 2023, its first feature to hit Saudi cinemas, Sattar — an action-comedy in which a depressed man becomes a freestyle wrestler and the brainchild of Al Khairallah —knocked Avatar: The Way of Water from the top spot, becoming the most successful local film of all time within two weeks. For all the Barbenheimer hype, Sattar landed more admissions (903,000) than both Barbie (343,000) and Oppenheimer (679,000), although, thanks to Imax, Oppenheimer has now overtaken it in terms of box office ($11.6 million to Sattar’s $10.8 million).
Telfaz11 is now preparing for its first major festival splash, with two features bowing in Toronto. Naga, following in the same comedic footsteps as Sattar with a story about a Saudi girl stranded in the sand dunes alongside, among other things, a vengeance-seeking camel, is part of an 8-feature deal with Netflix signed in 2020. Meanwhile, Mandoob (Night Courier) is something different — set in the rarely-seen world of Saudi nightlife and following a down-on-his-luck courier who descends into the world of alcohol bootlegging. Mandoob also marks the feature directorial debut of Kalthami (whose 2016 short Wasati won numerous international awards) and takes Telfaz11 into more dramatic territories.
It’s all part of an ongoing and carefully orchestrated strategy that has been the hallmark of the company practically from its beginnings, when Fadan and Kalthami first met in the late 2000s, geeked out over DSLR cameras, and (eventually) quit their jobs.
Saudi Arabia was still several years from opening up, with most forms of entertainment kept underground, but the two sensed the incredible amount of pent-up creative energy — buoyed by a young and highly digitalized population — ready to be unleashed. They wanted, says Fadan, to be a “catalyst for this amazing environment.”
Their focus sharpened when Al Khairallah — already part of Saudi’s emerging stand-up scene — joined their ranks. Al Khairallah — who would become better known by his comic persona the Fat Khairo — had broken new ground as the first Saudi comedian to shift his act from English, which had been the de facto language, to Arabic. Kalthami was in the audience when it happened. “He said, we all speak Arabic here, don’t we, do you mind if I tell this joke in Arabic? And he absolutely killed it.”
And so the three teamed up, having concluded that what was needed was this authentic voice, one that embraced the local culture, in the native tongue, and spoke to their generation in a way that nobody had before. “We knew we were onto something,” says Fadan. He was right.
One of their early creations, the sketch show La Yekthar — which started in 2010 and poked quiet fun at Saudi society and socio-politics — soon amassed many millions of views. Initially it was hosted on their own website, which would ultimately crash under the weight of traffic each time they put out a new episode, forcing them to stump up money for greater bandwidth. So they put it on YouTube, becoming YouTube stars before the term had even become commonplace.
La Yekthar would spawn various equally successful spin-offs (one solely based around a hand puppet alligator), flexing both their own creative muscles (Faden initially produced, with Al Khairallah and Kalthami writing, directing and acting) alongside a pool of Saudi talent, many of whom are now helping shape the country’s emerging film and TV industries.
Very early on, a deliberate decision was made to organize professionally as a business, one of the first in a creative economy that literally didn’t exist at the time. “We’ve seen a lot of content creators come and go, but they just didn’t have the right plan,” says Fadan. “As soon as we started to see some revenue come our way we were like, ok, this needs to be strategic.” The company was first registered as C3 – standing for Creative Culture Catalyst —with Telfaz11 as the commercial brand (and the name of the YouTube channel), but as time went on everything fell under that umbrella.
While their highly viral content — including 2013’s global breakout No Woman No Drive video, made by comedian and former Telfaz11 member Hisham Fageeh — would see them labelled as YouTubers, their relationship with the internet was “merely out of necessity,” stresses Kalthami. “We didn’t have cinema, we didn’t have the means to make TV… choosing to produce digitally was out of pure necessity,” he notes. “But we always thought of ourselves as filmmakers.”
Fast forward a decade, and with a growing slate of features there’s absolutely no question over Telfaz11’s filmmaking credentials. The company — which secured multimillion dollar funding in 2021 from a consortium of local financiers (including cinema chain Muvi)— now has offices in Riyadh and Dubai, with a staff of about 50, plus another 60-70 from Shift, the regional creative agency it acquired earlier this year (Fadan says their online popularity quickly saw brands getting in touch wanting to take advantage of their creativity).
Telfaz11’s entry into full-fledged filmmaking could have come sooner, of course. But again, everything was about being strategic.
The idea for their record-smashing Sattar actually came about long before theaters opened, but — realising it was a story best told on the big screen — Al Khairallah parked it until the time was right. And even when the first cinemas did begin to open their doors in 2018, there wasn’t a race — they wanted to wait until the number of screens across the country had reached critical mass and, as Al Khairallah notes, “the right amount of trust in films had formed.”
They also wanted to study this nascent box office, to see what was hitting. Launching Sattar on Avatar 2’s third week wasn’t something they were afraid of, having seen that sci-fi and animation didn’t generally perform and major studio tentpoles tended to drop off considerably after their first weekend. They also knew that Egyptian films — which had done very well — and other Hollywood titles would stay well away from James Cameron’s epic sequel. “So it was all about waiting, seeing the market, seeing how it goes.”
The trio are now waiting and watching the market for their upcoming releases, with the TIFF-bowing Mandoob part of a plan to move away from their comedy origins into other genres, hopefully to attract an even bigger audience.
Al Khairallah points out that Top Gun Maverick is currently the highest grossing film of all time in Saudi Arabia, with 1.2 million admissions (and a box office of around $22.3 million). “But what’s the population of Saudi? It’s more than 30 million,” he says. “So where are these other 29 million? Maybe they’re waiting for a horror, maybe they’re waiting for a drama. I don’t know, but we need to open these boxes.”
Whichever box they do open, it’ll no doubt be done in a carefully considered and timely manner, a tactic that has served Telfaz11 exceptionally well so far.
As Fadan notes: “We cant claim that to have had the first Saudi film in cinemas, but we can claim to have had the most successful.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.