Why Johnny Depp And Saudi Arabia Are New BFFs

The Red Sea Film Foundation, led by Prince Badr, previously chair of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival, is providing postproduction financing and producing Johnny Depp’s latest feature, ‘Jeanne du Barry’.

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.

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3 Responses

  1. I’m a Depp fan who never understood knee-jerk media support for Heard. As for some version of the film being shown in Saudia Arabia, the local exec may be surprised. Saudi Arabia has changed more in the last 20 years than it did between FDR and George W.

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