Will Smith Earns $1 Million; Gwyneth Paltrow Receives Even Higher Pay to Strengthen Saudi-Hollywood Relations at Red Sea Festival

Will Smith Earns $1 Million; Gwyneth Paltrow Receives Even Higher Pay to Strengthen Saudi-Hollywood Relations at Red Sea Festival

Is the Saudi-Hollywood love affair back on?

Based on the third edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival, which ended on December 9, the answer is yes. A parade of stars, including Will Smith, Michelle Williams, Chris Hemsworth, Johnny Depp, and Halle Berry, made the pilgrimage to Jeddah while the Israel-Hamas conflict raged just 700 miles north.

This year’s guest list marks a dramatic reversal from relations five years ago, when Hollywood’s outrage campaign was in full swing following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government agents. In the aftermath, Ari Emanuel of WME pulled back its $400 million investment with the state just six months after courting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a trip to Los Angeles.

Attracting big-name talent this year generated positive publicity, but the real Saudi mandate is to diversify the country’s economy beyond oil, with the film industry one of its top priorities. And the country’s vast wealth is a unique attraction for a business that is constantly looking for a deep-pocketed partner.

Saudi-Hollywood deals had slowed somewhat, but it appears the path is open again. Greg Silverman, the former production president of Warner Bros., struck a deal with Film AlUla for 10 projects over three years, the most significant Saudi collaboration since the state’s status fell from Hollywood VIP to persona non grata.

“I saw the great power that the state has in long-term thinking,” Silverman, CEO of Stampede Ventures, tells Variety. “Here they have the ability to think about plans for five, 10, or 20 years. That’s not really possible in the States because studio leadership changes.”

But is an even bigger deal looming? In recent weeks, there has been intense speculation that the country’s $800 billion public investment fund is looking to buy a major studio, rumored to be Paramount. Sources say Saudi Arabia is also eyeing a Comcast-owned golf channel to complement its LIV Golf, which recently lured current Masters champion John Rahm from the PGA Tour. (Disclosure: Saudi-based media firm SRMC is a minority investor in Variety’s parent company, PMC.)

“I would be surprised if there wasn’t some kind of (major Hollywood) collaboration or acquisition in the next few years,” says Film AlUla CEO Charlene Daleyon-Jones.

For his part, Emanuel hinted in a May interview on Free Economics Radio that he is open to reconnecting with Saudi Arabia, and he characterized the Khashoggi affair as “governments do bad things.”

Even Hollywood’s most vocal Saudi critics no longer hold any grudges. Sources say Sean Penn, who co-hosted a private screening of the anti-MBS documentary “The Dissident” and punished Netflix for not taking steps to acquire the film directed by Brian Fogel, was prepared to screen his Volodymyr Zelensky documentary “Superpower” at the Red Sea. Although Penn’s attendance was never announced, many people on the ground knew he was coming and were uncertain as to why he didn’t show up. A source for Penn cites scheduling conflicts.

For the stars, a Red Sea RSVP came with a hefty check. Sources say Smith was paid $1 million to participate and was put up at Jeddah’s luxury Assila Hotel, while Gwyneth Paltrow took even more money. Some say it’s par for the course. “In that part of the world, you get paid,” says a top agent. It’s a small change compared to Rahm’s earnings—about $300 million in three years. Depp was rumored to have stayed at a royal palace, but a source familiar with his travel itinerary says he actually stayed at the Shangri-La resort on the Red Sea.

From a Saudi perspective, the biggest coup was securing Smith’s “Suicide Squad” co-star Joel Kinnaman, as the actor is from Sweden, a country that has been particularly critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Still, others want their Saudi associations to fly under the radar. A high-profile actress, who will star in a film shot in the country next year, chose not to use her name at the festival.

Meanwhile, sources say half a dozen A-list directors will travel to Saudi Arabia in March to tour the state-of-the-art soundstages at AlUla and Neom. “Elvis” director Baz Luhrmann, who served as jury president at the festival, told Variety that he took a “discovery” trip to the country before signing on and was “frankly surprised.” He added, “I’m attracted to the idea of making something here.”

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