Saudi cinema public screenings begin

RiyadhCinema lovers in the desert kingdom have long had to travel to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and beyond to enjoy a night at the movies.

That changed Wednesday, when the country’s first new movie theatre in more than 30 years, an AMC Cinema, threw open its doors for a gala screening of the Hollywood blockbuster “Black Panther.”

A VIP audience of government officials, movie industry insiders and at least one princess posed for selfies on a red carpet, collected their popcorn and took their seats in front of a 40-foot screen.

“Welcome to the AMC Cinema Riyadh,” the company’s chief executive, Adam Aron, said to hoots and applause. “This is a historic day for AMC. This is a historic day for your country.”

The return of cinemas is part of a broad modernization drive by the kingdom’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who aims to wean the economy from its dependence on oil production.

By developing the country’s nascent entertainment industry, authorities hope to create job opportunities and make life more enjoyable. Wednesday’s opening was one of the most anticipated events on a calendar that now includes concerts by American rapper Nelly and Greek-born pianist and composer Yanni, food truck and comic-con festivals, dance performances and monster-truck rallies.

Movie theaters have been barred in Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s, when the kingdom began enforcing an austere version of Islam that frowns on most forms of entertainment and believes any mixing between unrelated men and women will corrupt public morals.

The only public cinema in operation was an Imax theater housed at a science center that shows educational films. 

The Saudi authorities lifted the cinema ban in December and aim to have around 2,000 screens built by 2030, which they project will create more than 30,000 jobs.

International cinema owners and studios have been clamoring to get in on a market that industry experts say could generate $1 billion a year in annual box-office receipts.

“The pent-up demand for going to cinemas I think will be beyond our imagination,” Aron said in an interview last week.

The company, which is based in Leawood, Kan., and is the world’s largest cinema operator, was awarded the first license to run movie theaters in the kingdom two weeks ago. It plans to have up to 40 theaters in 15 Saudi cities within five years, and up to 100 theaters in 25 cities by 2030.

Aron said the biggest challenge was how quickly the Saudis wanted the first cinema to open.

Rather than attempt to build a theater from scratch, AMC converted a vacant concert hall in a partially built financial district of the capital that was under the control of its partner, Saudi Arabia’s main sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund. Leather reclining seats were dispatched by air freight from the United States. The first laser projector arrived at the theater last week. Speakers were installed on Monday. 

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