Three years ago, Saudi Arabia had no cinemas. Now it has produced its first homegrown animated feature, which completed a run in the country’s newly opened theaters and beyond, before being picked up for global distribution by Netflix. Quite a turnaround.
That feature is Masameer: The Movie, an irreverent and socially-aware comedy based on the eponymous Youtube series by Riyadh-based studio Myrkott. The series lightly satirizes cultural tensions in the kingdom, taking advantage of the same liberalizing climate that allowed cinemas to open (or rather, to reopen after a 35-year ban). The online shorts have found a wide audience of young Saudis, as well as across the Arab world, racking up more than half a billion views to date.
While the opening of theaters prompted Myrkott to make a movie in the first place, the youth of the exhibition market posed challenges for the project. Below, the film’s director Malik Nejer tells Cartoon Brew what it takes to make an animated feature in a society that is fairly new to both cinemagoing and animation production.
Nejer: Masameer started as a web series in 2011. The previous year I was working for [a Saudi-owned] MBC [Middle East Broadcasting Center] tv channel creating short sketches for a comedy show. I found that those went viral online and people received them well, so I decided to create a show for the internet.
Myrkott on paper started in January 2015, but as a team we’ve been working since 2009. Me and my partner Abdulazeez Almuzaini had a passion for animation: he was a cartoonist for the Al Watan newspaper and I was working mainly as graphic designer in ad agencies. That was the closest work we could find to animation before establishing Myrkott, and going full-time to create not only a show but a market for animation in Saudi Arabia.
Producing a feature film in 8 months
Masameer: The Movie was made to be successful in Saudi theaters. We had no more than 80 screens nationwide on the day of release; naturally, when you work in [such a small market], it will have an effect on everything.
The budget had to be extremely anorexic. The film was produced in eight months. We had to keep the team small but comfortable, but we also recruited artists from Europe and Egypt at different stages. Saudis mainly make up to 50% [of the crew] on our usual productions, but for the movie, due to outsourcing, they remained a minority.
We improved on the quality we had for the web series, but we also maintained the efficient style that made the show sustainable. The show enjoyed a healthy fanbase in Saudi Arabia, so we thought that keeping the simple animation isn’t a detriment when you factor in the unique proposition the film comes with for the local market.
The film found a receptive audience and turned a profit
The film was released theatrically in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. Netflix’s Middle East arm showed interest in the movie from an early stage and acquired the rights for international distribution. It’s part of an ongoing trend Netflix is known for at this point: they want to experiment with unique and smaller studios. I think that’s healthy.
I think there is great potential for these markets to grow, especially in the [Gulf] region. The fact that cinemas were banned until 2017 made the potential for animation studios bleak, but Masameer: The Movie and the success it enjoyed changed a lot. It didn’t just break even but actually turned in a decent profit. The success is humbling and encouraging. The market size is not even 7% of its estimated size, so this will give us plenty of room to learn and be more ambitious in future projects.
I believe the Arab world has a lot of interesting stories to tell through animation, and this obviously makes the entire world a potential market for our creations. Now the world is being scrambled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s definitely going to have a negative effect; we just don’t know how bad the situation is yet. I remain optimistic nonetheless.