Saudi Arabia ushers in new era of movie entertainment

The opening of the first commercial movie theatre in Saudi Arabia ended a nearly 40-year ban on cinema.
Thursday 19/04/2018
Changing times. Visitors attend an invitation-only screening at the King Abdullah Financial District Theatre in Riyadh on April 18. (AP)
Changing times. Visitors attend an invitation-only screening at the King Abdullah Financial District Theatre in Riyadh on April 18. (AP)

BEIRUT - A mixed audience of men and women, a woman in a long, bright red dress stretching on the ground like a red carpet, a culture minister picking from a box of popcorn.

These “unusual” scenes marked the opening of the first commercial movie theatre in Saudi Arabia, ending a nearly 40-year ban on cinemas in the conservative Muslim kingdom.

The invitation-only gala on April 18 attracted senior government officials, foreign dignitaries and select industry figures to watch Marvel’s superhero movie “Black Panther” on a 13.7-metre screen at a converted symphony concert hall in King Abdullah Financial Centre in Riyadh.

The screening of the blockbuster movie was the first in a series of trial runs before movie theatres open to the wider public.

Accompanied by Adam Aron, chief executive of operator AMC Entertainment Holdings, Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad al-Awwad announced the opening to an enthusiastic audience.

“Welcome to the era when movies can be watched by Saudis not in Bahrain, not in Dubai, not in London but inside the kingdom,” Aron said before the screening of “Black Panther.”

“Saudis now are going to be able to go to a beautiful theatre and watch movies the way they’re supposed to be watched: on a big screen,” he told Reuters.

In a statement released on the same day, the Ministry of Culture and Information described the event as “a historic move.”

The opening marks another milestone for reforms spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to open the country culturally and diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter.

The 32-year-old crown prince has eased restrictions in the last two years, including on public concerts, women driving and gender mixing. The kingdom recently had its first fashion show with a women-only audience.

While many Saudis rejoiced at the end of the cinema ban, some religious conservatives said promoting cinema and theatre contradicted religious values.

“Remember you will stand in front of God and you will bear the sins of all those who watched the movies,” read one Tweet on April 18.

Princess Reema bint Bandar, a second cousin of Crown Prince Mohammed, took her 16-year-old son to experience what she called “a historic moment.”

The kingdom shuttered cinemas in the early 1980s under pressure from conservative Islamists, who pushed Saudi society to embrace a strict form of Islam. However, Saudis remained avid consumers of Western media and culture. Hollywood films and television series are widely watched at home and private film screenings have been tolerated for years.

In 2017, the government announced it would lift the cinema ban, partly to bring in money in the entertainment sector. Saudis spend an estimated $22 billion annually on entertainment abroad, with many travelling to Dubai, Bahrain and elsewhere to see films.

In February, the Saudi General Entertainment Authority said it would put on more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, more than twice the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.

To serve a population of more than 32 million, most of whom are under the age of 30, authorities said they plan to set up about 350 cinemas with more than 2,500 screens by 2030. They hope this will bring in nearly $1 billion in annual ticket sales.

International theatre chains have long eyed the kingdom as the Middle East’s last untapped mass market. AMC Entertainment signed a non-binding agreement in December with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to build and operate cinemas across the kingdom. Saudi state media said the company expected to open 40 cinemas across 15 Saudi cities in the next five years.

Theatres would not be segregated by gender like most other public places in Saudi Arabia. Awwad was quoted by Reuters as saying that Saudi cinemas “would be similar to cinemas around the world.”

The extent of censorship was not clear but a Saudi official said the same versions of films shown in Dubai or Kuwait would be suitable for Saudi Arabia. Two scenes of kissing appeared to have been cut from the “Black Panther” screening.

Downplaying a possible conservative backlash to cinemas, Awwad said the government was focused on creating investment opportunities.

“For those that would like to come and enjoy watching the movie at the movie theatre, they are more than welcome and for those who don’t want to watch movies at all, it’s also their personal choice,” he told Reuters.

(Information from Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Anadolu was used in this report)