By Lisa Richwine and Stephen Kalin
LOS ANGELES/RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in more than 35 years will open on April 18 in Riyadh, the capital, the authorities said on Wednesday after agreeing with AMC Entertainment Holdings to open up to 40 theaters over the next five years.
Movie theaters 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 theater will have 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 theater in the world,” Aron said. “It’s a dramatic building.”
To serve a population of more than 32 million, most 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 ticket 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 theater operators are ready to build in Saudi Arabia if they win clearance, John Fithian, president of the U.S.-based National Association of Theater Owners, told reporters.
Fithian said he met government officials in Riyadh 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 the same versions of films shown in 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.”
Separately, Six Flags Entertainment said it planned to develop a theme park in Riyadh with PIF. Cirque du Soleil will stage its first performance in the country on Sept. 23, according to a statement from the General Entertainment Authority.
The GEA also said it reached a deal for other live shows such as “Disney on Ice.”
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; Editing by Diane Craft and Leslie Adler)