Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in more than 35 years will open on April 18 in the capital Riyadh, the authorities said on Wednesday after agreeing with AMC Entertainment Holdings to open up to 40 theatres over the next five years.
Movie theatres will not be segregated by gender like most other public places in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom, and the first screening will be Marvel’s superhero movie “Black Panther”, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia had some cinemas in the 1970s but its powerful clerics closed them, reflecting rising Islamist influence throughout the Arab region at the time. In 2017, the government said it would lift the ban as part of ambitious economic and social reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is currently touring the United States seeking investments to help broaden the economy and lessen its dependence on oil.
Saudi Arabians are avid consumers of Western media and culture. Despite the cinema ban, Hollywood films and recent television series are widely watched at home and discussed.
AMC’s first cinema will be located in the King Abdullah Financial District in a building originally intended to be a symphony concert hall, AMC Chief Executive Adam Aron said in an interview. The main theatre will feature about 500 leather seats, orchestra and balcony levels, and marble bathrooms, he said. Three more screens will be added by mid-summer.
“We think it’s going to be the prettiest movie theatre in the world,” Aron said. “It’s a dramatic building.”
To serve a population of more than 32 million, the majority of whom are under the age of 30, Saudi Arabia wants to set up around 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens by 2030, which it hopes will attract nearly $1 billion in annual box office sales.
“The restoration of cinemas will … help boost the local economy by increasing household spending on entertainment while supporting job creation in the Kingdom,” Culture and Information Minister Awwad Alawwad said in a statement.
AMC is partnering with the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s main sovereign wealth fund.
A handful of other theatre operators are ready to build in Saudi Arabia if they win clearance, John Fithian, president of the US-based National Association of Theatre Owners, said on a conference call with reporters.
Fithian said he met with government officials in Riyadh over eight days in December to work out issues such as what type of material would be permitted on movie screens. He said he believes most Hollywood movies will be allowed, though some will require editing.
AMC’s Aron said he expects that the same versions of films show in countries such as Dubai or Kuwait will be suitable for Saudi Arabia. “Hollywood has long ago dealt with the sensitivities of the Middle East and have adjusted film product accordingly,” he said. “Major Hollywood studios are showing films all over the Middle East right now.”
Separately, Six Flags Entertainment said it planned to develop a Six Flags-branded theme park in Riyadh in partnership with PIF. Terms were not disclosed.