Saudi Arabia’s removal of its 35-year-old ban on cinemas is prompting theater chains including AMC, Vue International, and Dubai-based VOX Cinemas to announce moves to enter the last untapped movie market in the Middle East. With a population of more than 30 million – the majority under 25 – and huge oil-driven wealth, the Saudi Arabian market seems a mouth-watering one, but questions about permissible content and other issues remain.
The Saudi government said Monday that it expected to open more than 300 sites with more than 2,000 screens by 2030, building an industry that would contribute more than 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create 30,000 jobs over that period. The first theaters could start showing films as early as March. The move is part of a drive led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to transform Saudi society, which has already paved the way for concerts, the country’s first local Comic Con (pictured) and the right of women to attend soccer games – and also to drive.
Here are five key questions about Saudi Arabia’s cinematic gambit.
1) Is there a risk Saudi powers could backpedal on opening up to movie theaters?
Not really. In the past there have been many unfulfilled rumors that an opening was imminent, but this is different. It’s the government itself making an announcement. Given Crown Prince Mohammed’s growing power, even though the move faces opposition by the kingdom’s conservative clerics, it now looks to be concrete. Even before the announcement was made, “some cinemas have already been built,” says Saudi-born U.S. producer Todd Nims, who is working with the Saudi government.
2) What about restrictions on content?
There is certainly going to be strong censorship, which may gradually ease slightly. The restrictions will probably be similar to those in place in Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE, meaning that family-friendly films are fine but movies concerning or containing sex, homosexuality and religious issues are not. In many cases taboo scenes can be chopped out. Due to censorship, “most movies that play in Kuwait last for about an hour,” notes Mario Haddad, Jr., of distributor/exhibitor Empire International, which handles Sony and Fox product in the Middle East.
3) Saudis already see movies en masse in multiplexes in Bahrain – where Saudi audiences account for roughly 90% of ticket sales – and in the UAE. Will the Saudi opening really mean substantial overall box office increases in the Middle East?
The fact that so many Saudis are willing to drive for hours to see a film in Bahrain and/or fly for that purpose to Dubai for the weekend indicates they have a great interest in moviegoing. “It’s a huge population that basically has nothing to do” in terms of entertainment, says Karim Atassi, who handles business development for Middle East exhibition chain Cinemacity, which is currently in talks to develop sites in several Saudi malls. In terms of growth potential, “currently for a major U.S. release roughly 60% of Middle East intake comes from the UAE,” says Haddad, who thinks Saudi could become a bigger market that the UAE. That in turn would make the Middle East “as big as a major European territory” in terms of overall grosses.
4) Will they have segregated cinemas?
“They won’t necessarily be segregated. They haven’t decided that yet,” says Nims.
5) Will movie theaters prompt a big push for a movie industry in Saudi Arabia, and will Hollywood be involved?
The Saudis will have studios, film commissions, and tax incentives for production, says Nims. The government has just opened a business development unit dedicated to movie theaters, gaming and film production. Nims will be helping them develop this unit.
“I will be going to L.A. to see what is possible in that area. I want to help create that bridge,” Nims says, noting that “Saudi is the only country in the Middle East that has a legitimate and historical relationship with America.” Because of that, “there will be some partnerships struck up between Hollywood and Saudi that I hope will be meaningful,” he adds.