By Matt Smith
DUBAI Feb 20 Hollywood has missed out since
Saudi Arabia banned cinemas in the 1970s, but residents may soon
get to see movies at home on the same day as their release
elsewhere in the Gulf in a new service promised by Saudi Telecom
At present Saudis must wait six to nine months after films
are released in cinemas in the rest of Gulf to watch them on
local pay-television, while for free-to-air viewers the delay is
12 to 18 months.
But STC subsidiary Intigral now aims to provide a permanent
roster of first-day release films for television customers.
Intigral has already signed agreements with a clutch of
smaller distributors - Gulf Films, Front Row, Italia, Phoenicia,
Falcon and the Arabic language M.A. Films - and expects to
conclude a similar deal with a certain major Hollywood studio
within the next few weeks.
"When one of the majors comes in, then they will all start
to flow in," said Ben Kinealy, chief executive of Intigral and
prime mover behind the initiative.
The lag on films appearing on television has led Saudi
Arabia, whose young tech-savvy population is the world's top
user of YouTube per capita, to become a hotbed of piracy.
"If it's a big title it will be stolen. If it's a smaller
title it might not even be seen but that's still lost revenue,"
said Kinealy, who estimates Saudi's lost box office earnings for
film companies total about $1 billion annually.
Intigral aims to charge around $18 per film.
"Studios look at this as a ticket and a half because people
will see it with their families," said Kinealy.
Some broadcasters in other regions have experimented with
one-off simultaneous cinema and television launches for certain
films, but faced fierce hostility from cinemas.
That will not be a concern in Saudi, which outlawed public
film screenings in the 1970s when the powerful religious
establishment took a position against cinema.
Religious scholars, who believe Islam forbids any depiction
of the human form, have opposed sporadic attempts over the past
decade to weaken the ban.
Intigral was created in 2009 to provide the content and user
interface, or programme engine, for STC's internet-based TV
Kinealy hopes a redesigned interface will be launched within
six months and help boost consumer demand for STC products,
especially fibre-based broadband.
Domestically STC competes with Mobily, a unit of
the United Arab Emirates' Etisalat, and Zain Saudi
, part-owned by Kuwait's Zain.
"The way we will be measured is through the reduction of
customer churn, ARPU (average revenue per user), pull-through of
new customers and most importantly the improved consideration of
STC's brand and core products," said Kinealy.
"When someone picks up a phone in Saudi, we want them to be
looking at STC. How many people who bought an iPhone have now
bought an iPad and other Apple services? It starts with
one really good product."
Kinealy sees Saudis' prolific Internet actitivities - as of
March 2013 Riyadh was the sixth most active city worldwide on
Twitter, according to analysts Semiocast - as
complementary to the new film service.
"It could be seen as potentially meaning these people aren't
interested in paying for a premium experience, they're
interested in getting it for free by other means," said Kinealy.
"But that argument would have stopped iTunes against Napster and
who won there ?".
STC has affiliates in Kuwait and Bahrain, plus investments
in operators in Turkey, South Africa and Asia, and plans to roll
out its revamped television services to these firms, he said.
"We would like to go beyond that - we're in conversation
with other telcos who are not in the family," added Kinealy.