Earlier this year, Johnny Depp was given a VIP tour of AlUla (pronounced AL-yoo-lah), the historic region of Saudi Arabia being heavily touted as both a tourism and filming destination. His guide: Saudi culture minister Prince Badr (or, in full, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saudi), a well-connected royal and governor of AlUla’s Royal Commission. “Good times,” Badr posted on Instagram alongside a photo of himself with his arm around Depp (and the actor’s many necklaces).
There was good reason for Depp to accept an invitation to AlUla, joining a flood of A-listers who have been lured to the area recently as part of a multimillion-dollar marketing push. Just three days before his Jan. 16 visit, it was announced that the Red Sea Film Foundation — the organization that runs Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival and was founded by Prince Badr (who was its chair until last October) — was providing postproduction financing (and coming aboard as producer) for Depp’s latest feature, Jeanne du Barry, a regal period drama directed by French multihyphenate Maïwenn.
A few months later, this unlikely union would bear some seriously prestigious fruit when Jeanne du Barry was unveiled as Cannes’ opening night film. It would appear to be a win for all involved. Not only does Depp get a Cannes-endorsed career boost after his reputation-battering legal tussle with Amber Heard, but Saudi Arabia, a country where cinemas were literally banned until 2018, lands major bragging rights at the biggest film festival on the planet.
For all the history-making by the high-spending new kid on the backlot, Jeanne du Barry — about King Louis XV’s favorite mistress — is a curious title for Saudi Arabia to have backed. Given a plot that one source says is “full of sex,” the movie likely will not make it past censors and be screened in the country itself. It also doesn’t appear to serve the Red Sea Film Foundation’s self-described purpose — to “support the film industry of Saudi Arabia in the production and distribution of films.” As a local exec notes: “It’s such a weird choice … I don’t know who strategizes for them.” The Red Sea Film Foundation didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Jeanne du Barry isn’t the only Saudi-backed film in Cannes. In a genuinely impressive official selection outing for the Red Sea Film Festival and its various funding initiatives, it has supported competition entries Four Daughters, by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, and Banel & Adama, the debut feature of Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy, plus Un Certain Regard titles — all feature debuts — Goodbye Julia by Bahrain-based Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani, The Mother of All Lies from Morocco’s Asmae El Moudir, and Hounds by fellow countryman Kamal Lazraq. There’s an obvious link: All these features, save for one, come from Arab filmmakers (Senegal’s Sy isn’t Arabic, but she participated in both editions of the Red Sea Film Festival and her film was a work-in-progress project there last year). Jeanne du Barry — from a French director, in French, centered on a French historical period and shot in France with no participation from the region — doesn’t tick any obvious boxes.
But for those who have followed the Gulf’s relationship with the industry over the years, the funding of Jeanne du Barry does appear to follow a well-trodden path of deep-pocketed regional film institutions, that of making a detour from previous pledges that support will focus on local filmmakers whenever the opportunity to jump into bed with Hollywood — in this case Depp — comes along.
In Qatar, the Doha Film Institute came under fire from local filmmakers in 2013 when it announced a $100 million pact with Participant (a deal that was quietly canceled after producing zero films). It should be noted that Doha has since helped finance hundreds of indie titles from the region and beyond (and in Cannes has two competition entries, the Mia Wasikowska-starring Club Zero, from director Jessica Hausner, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses).
But there’s also the notion that Red Sea Film Foundation execs saw the opportunity to come aboard an already shot project that looked likely to land a major Cannes slot. The vast ad money being spent promoting AlUla, the Red Sea Film Festival and the Saudi Film Commission — with posters plastered across billboards at top festivals and the sponsorship of star-studded events such as amfAR’s charity auctions — is aimed at creating awareness that Saudi Arabia is now a legitimate member of the global film community.
One insider in Saudi Arabia suggests that the Cannes news was likely already known when the Saudi funding was arranged (and was undoubtedly the primary reason for it). “When they announced it was opening [the festival], the investment made sense,” they tell THR, adding that if they had a film they knew was opening Cannes or Venice, they would “go straight to the Red Sea” to ask for money. This tallies in with what sources close to the production tell THR: that it was Jeanne du Barry‘s producers at Why Not Productions who brought Red Sea on board (although the company didn’t respond to requests for comment).
There’s also the additional curious element of Depp’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. While the star may have been in AlUla with Prince Badr, there are reports that Depp’s royal connections go all the way up to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS. According to Whale Hunting, the newsletter co-founded by former WSJ reporter Bradley Hope (who wrote the biography Blood & Oil about MBS), the two have become “very close friends and spent scores of days together at palaces across the country.” (THR hears they’re on friendly terms but hasn’t been able to verify the extent of their relationship.) While MBS is a noted movie buff who hung out with stars such as Dwayne Johnson during his famed Hollywood tour in 2018 (before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would sour Saudi relations), there’s no suggestion that he had any involvement in the decision to greenlight the funding of his acquaintance’s latest film.
We may never know the exact reasoning behind Saudi Arabia’s financing of Jeanne du Barry. At the time of the investment, Saudis involved in the deal said it was part of the country’s “ongoing mission to support distinctive filmmaking and champion visionary female talent,” which might not align with anything the Red Sea Film Foundation put in its mission statement about helping Saudi Arabia’s film industry, but does fit with Red Sea’s Celebration of Women in Film, a gala it has held in both Cannes and Jeddah.
And if Depp is using Saudi Arabia to help steady the ship after a rocky couple of years, he may not be the only one: In March, Will Smith was a “special guest” in AlUla.
This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of magazine. Click here to subscribe.