Saudi Arabia lifts ban on cinemas

Rotana's 'Menahi' set to open on Dec. 9

Auds in Saudi Arabia can finally go to the movies again.

“Menahi,” financed and produced by Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal‘s film shingle Rotana, is set to become the first film to be released for public viewing since cinemas were banned by religious clerics in the 1970s.

Pic will open on two screens in Jeddah and Taef on Dec. 9. A private screening will also take place at the Dammam cinema club.

Prince Waleed’s close connections with the Saudi royal family, led by the modernizing King Abdullah, were key to convincing authorities in Mecca to give the opening their blessing.

The pic’s producers are wary of drawing too much attention, however, in case of a backlash by hardliners.

“We’re worried that some of the conservatives might try to filibuster the opening,” says Rotana general manager Ayman Halawani. “But we’re still moving ahead with it.”

The $2 million pic, helmed by Ayman Makram, is the first bigscreen incarnation of popular Saudi thesp Fayez Al-Maliki‘s TV persona Menahi, a naive, humble farmer who often finds himself involved in comic escapades. It centers on Menahi’s involvement in a get-rich-quick scheme and traveling from his tribal homeland to the booming metropolis of Dubai.

Pic has already opened in neighboring Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.

Saudi film execs have been inching their way toward this day for many months. In May this year, the Dammam Literary Club held the the conservative kingdom’s first official film fest.

In July 2006, the privately financed Jeddah Visual Festival — which avoided the term “film” in any of its publicity — was held in front of a specially invited audience. Jeddah organizers held a soph edition last year.