Riyadh, April 19 (DDNews): Saudi Arabia opened its first commercial film theater on Wednesday after a gap of 36 years. A red carpet invitation-only gala event attracted senior government officials, foreign dignitaries and select industry figures to watch Marvel’s superhero movie “Black Panther” on a 45-foot screen at a converted symphony concert hall in Riyadh.
Tickets went on sale on Thursday for the first public viewings on Friday, according to Adam Aron, chief executive of operator AMC Entertainment Holdings.
The smell of buttery popcorn filled the air as confetti rained down through the multi-stories atrium where Aron and Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad al-Awwad announced the launch and proceeded into the 450-seat hall.
“For those that would like to come and enjoy watching the movie at the movie theater, they are more than welcome. For those whom would like to watch movies at home, it’s their personal choice, and for those who don’t want to watch movies at all, it’s also their personal choice,” he said.
The opening marks another milestone for reforms spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to open the country culturally and diversify the economy of the world’s top oil exporter.
The prince, 32, has already eased restrictions in the last two years, including on public concerts, women driving and gender mixing. The kingdom held its first-ever fashion show last week with a women-only audience.
Many Saudis have rejoiced at the end of the cinema ban, sharing praise and pictures of Prince Mohammed on social media. Others expressed confusion at what they consider a government flip-flop, with one tweeting on Wednesday: “Remember you will stand in front of God … and you will bear the sins of all those who watched the movies.” Some religious conservatives view cinema and acting as inconsistent with Islam.
Among Wednesday’s movie-goers was Princess Reema bint Bandar, a second cousin of Prince Mohammed, who brought her 16-year-old son to experience what she called “an historical moment”. “Well to some it may be a change, for us it’s an evolution. To be able to enjoy a theatrical experience with one’s family is honestly one of the epitomes in family bonding. I came today with my son – he is 16 and he is watching this movie – the ‘Black Panther’, a Hollywood blockbuster in Riyadh,” she shared her feeling.
The kingdom shuttered cinemas in the early 1980s under pressure from Islamists. In 2017, the government said it would lift the ban in part to retain money that Saudis currently spend on entertainment during trips to Dubai, Bahrain and elsewhere. To serve a population of more than 32 million, most of whom are under the age of 30, the authorities plan to set up around 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens by 2030, which they hope will attract nearly $1 billion in annual ticket sales. Initial screenings are likely to be for families, with occasional ones for bachelors.
The extent of censorship was not clear but a Saudi official said the same versions of films shown in Dubai or Kuwait will be suitable for Saudi Arabia.
(The featured image at the top shows Saudi women at a non-commercial short films show earlier in 2017)