Inside the Opening of Saudi Arabia’s First Movie Theater in 35 Years
The government has finally lifted its decades-long ban on women and men hanging out in the name of lighthearted cinematic fun.
Image via Saudi Arabia's Commission for Audiovisual Media
This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," says Mohamed, 28, as he steps into the first movie theater opened in Saudi Arabia in 35 years to see Marvel's hit Black Panther. "My love of films has always been a big part of my life, but this feels different. To be honest, I never thought this day would come."
In the early 1980s, Saudi Arabia banned movie theaters under pressure from religious groups who wanted to restrict all public forms of entertainment where men and women could mix. But it was announced last year that the ban would be lifted as part of the government's Saudi 2030 vision—an initiative that aims to reduce the country's dependence on oil by promoting other sectors, such as the entertainment industry. The program, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also hopes to soften Saudi Arabia's social image across the globe.
"I feel like we're now equal to other film buffs around the world," Mariam, 25, tells me. "We can now watch movies at their release rather than having to wait months to see it on TV or download it online. For so long, so many people have been passionately opposed to this idea that I genuinely never thought it would actually happen." But it did. And on April 28—after ten days of private, VIP screenings—Black Panther opened to the general public.
The theater is located in the King Abdullah district in the capital city, Riyadh, where there was a real buzz in the days leading up to the cinema's opening. "Tickets for the entire opening week sold out in minutes," explains film blogger, Abdel Aziz Zamel. "In spite of the fact that we haven't had a cinema here in 35 years, I'd say that, compared to the rest of the Arab region, we are the most passionate about film. I've seen studies that show more than 90 percent of cinema-goers in Bahrain, for example, are Saudis."
Every year, the government estimates hundreds of thousands of Saudis travel abroad to watch films and indulge in activities that are banned in their own country. This is exactly what Prince bin Salman is trying to reverse, hoping to claw back some of the $22 billion Saudis spend abroad annually on the global entertainment industry. "Like many of my friends, I would spend days in Bahrain alone just watching films, but now, I don't need to waste all that money on traveling to another country," says Abdel.
The country's influential clerics seem to accept the government's view that this can be done while maintaining the country's traditions. "We need to make sure that we still respect the culture of our society and the fact that it is a conservative one, just like what happens in other Gulf countries," Abdel says. "That's why I support censorship and the need to restrict certain inappropriate content."
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The Ministry of Culture and Information awarded the license to run the Riyadh theater to the American movie theater chain, AMC. Over the next five years, AMC plans to open 40 more thaters in 15 cities across Saudi Arabia.
With the majority of Saudi Arabia's 32 million-person population under the age of 30, the government expects that peak demand will eventually lead to around 350 cinemas being built, offering more than 2,000 screens by 2030.
At 75 riyals ($20) a ticket, however, many people are hoping that the eventual expansion will lead to far cheaper tickets prices. "Whenever something is rare, it's expensive," Abdel tells me. "Because there is only one cinema in Saudi Arabia, they think it's OK to charge that much. But I'm sure the prices will drop as more theaters open up."
But, until then, many young people like Sana, a 20-year-old university student, are reluctant to spend that much money, especially considering "the theater is just a converted concert hall, which hasn't even been modified that well [...] As things stand, it's just not good enough in terms of comfort and service, yet AMC is still exploiting the situation by charging us so much."
It's hard to disagree with Sana's view, considering AMC's chief executive, Adam Aaron, confirmed at CinemaCon that ticket prices could even rise to as high as £25 [$35] in the next few months due to the demand. "Honestly, [the price] is too low," he said. "Pent-up demand is so high that at the moment that price is not a barrier."
Yet people remain supportive, not least because this new investment will hopefully create a bigger platform for locally-produced Arabic films. "Saudi movies are unique and wonderful—they deserve to be showcased in theaters, and I'm sure that when they are, people will love them," Abdel tells me. "With the increase in investment, I can't wait to watch our own films on the big screen and see them spread to other countries as a way of introducing Saudi culture to the world."
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