Saudi Arabia Prepares To Open First Public Cinema, Relaxes Segregation

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The Marvel blockbuster, Black Panther, has already become a historic film in the US. Thursday, it will make history in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as it becomes the first filmed screened in a public cinema in 35 years. The government hopes the introduction of a public film industry will present new entertainment options as well as fresh employment opportunities.

Lifting the Ban

Public movie theatres have been banned in Saudi Arabia for the past 35 years. Last December, Awwad Alawwad, Minister of Culture and Information, announced that the ban would finally be lifted. The news was seen as indication that Saudi Arabia is moving into a new era, led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), largely viewed as a reformer.

The film will be screened for 600 people at 9 pm local time in the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh. A conference hall has been modernized and redesigned to accommodate the film screening. The screening will be attended by Alawwad and Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Entertainment. AMC won the first license to open movie theaters in KSA and operates the new cinema in Riyadh. 350 movie theaters are expected to open across Saudi Arabia by 2030.

The lifting of the cinema ban has been widely embraced by the Saudi people. Of the 32 million who live in Saudi Arabia, 70% are under the age of 30. The young populous has largely enthusiastically welcome the liberalization brought on by MbS. However, Wednesday’s film screening will be attended mostly by film industry experts, diplomats, and Saudi Arabia’s elite, not leaving much room from regular citizens to take part in the historic event. The Saudi government has assured public screenings will open by May 1.

Will the Screening be Segregated?

The event will begin with a networking and socializing events followed by a prayer and ribbon cutting ceremony. However, it is yet unclear how much the staunchly conservative government has relaxed its rules for the screening. For weeks, sources speculated on whether the government will enforce seating segregated by gender. AMC recently announced there would not be enforced segregated seating at the premier. A Saudi official confirmed, saying moviegoers will be able to choose between mixed or segregated seating options.

Black Panther has some steamy scenes. Will these scenes fall victim to the same censorship that has been the norm in KSA in the past? Sources say that 40 seconds of the film have been cut, but were not sure for what reason.

The Saudi Film Industry

Saudis have also complained that the cinema opening event should have spotlighted a Saudi film, not an American one. Mahmoud Sabbagh, director of Barakah Meets Barakah, said, “There are five ready feature and animation films (of Saudi origin). I wonder why the officials neglected them when orchestrating this gesture.” He hopes the government will impose a tax on foreign films or set a quota for local films to protect and promote the local film industry.

Despite the complaints, there have been indications that the Saudi film industry will finally be taking off in the local and international arenas. The Saudi Film Council, formed only recently, will be attending the Cannes Film Festival where they will present several Saudi made short films and host their own pavilion for the first time ever.

It is expected that the Film Council will soon announce funding and initiatives to support the local film industry in Saudi Arabia. In other good news for local film makers, Haifaa Al-Mansour, controversial and female Saudi film director, has recently been appointed to a role with the General Culture Authority. Saudi film makers hope to also see a film festival launched to challenge that of Dubai.

A $1 Billion Dollar Industry

Earlier this month, MbS visited Hollywood as part of his US tour, forging a relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US film industry. It was then announced that the Crown Prince inked a deal with Cirque du Soleil to bring the performers to Saudi Arabia. American made films, especially major blockbuster like Black Panther, are expected to dominate the Saudi cinemas, which is projected to reach $1 billion in ticket sales. With 4.1 million expats from India living in KSA, Bollywood films could also become prevalent.

AMC CEO Adam Aron has said he hopes AMC will hold at least a 50% share in the new market. He said, “Where else are you going to find a movie market that literally doesn’t exist today that could be $1 billion in size in five years or so? I think we’re going to sell a lot of tickets.”

Despite Aron’s enthusiasm, AMC will not enter the film scene without competition. A regional chain, Vox, plans to open its first cinema in Saudi Arabia at the end of April. London-based Vue International, also plans to open at least 30 cinema multiplexes.

Vision 2030

The introduction of public cinemas and the gradual relaxation of gender based segregation comes as a part of MbS’ Vision 2030 plan for Saudi Arabia. Vision 2030 aims to reduce the Saudi economic dependence on oil, which currently accounts for 30-40% of the country’s GDP.

Saudi Arabia hopes to become a regional hub of culture and entertainment. To do so, they will expand the entertainment sector, build a mammoth luxury resort on the Red Sea, and relax restrictions for women. The Red Sea resort even plans to allow women to wear bikinis.

$2 billion has already been invested into the entertainment sector, which will include a Six Flags theme park and a major investment to bring sports entertainment to the country, involving a deal with WWE. Last year, Saudi Arabia also announced women will be allowed to attend sporting events alongside men. Women will finally be allowed to drive in KSA come June 2018.

Additionally, the Vision 2030 plan aims to reduce domestic oil consumption, freeing up more for export. This year, the Saudi government will invest up to $7 billion in renewable energy projects. KSA has also announced a $500 billion investment into a 10,230 square mile economic and industrial zone to be fully powered by renewable energy.

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