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Middle Eastern Exhibitor Cinemacity to Enter Saudi Arabia Theater-Building Derby (EXCLUSIVE)

Saudi movie theaters likely to be segregated, at least initially

Middle Eastern exhibition chain Cinemacity, which operates in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, has become the latest entrant in Saudi Arabia’s movie-theater building derby, with plans underway for several sites, including a 20-screen multiplex in Riyadh it hopes to open for business this summer.

Known for luxurious, state-of-the art cinemas, Cinemacity now has two multiplexes in advanced stages in the kingdom, which will operate a total of 31 screens.

Cinemacity has offices in Beirut and Dubai. On Wednesday, it inaugurated a multiplex in the United Arab Emirates’ third-largest city, Sharjah, featuring what is being touted as the UAE’s largest IMAX screen. It bowed with Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” now making its Middle Eastern launch.

Ever since Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year ban on local cinemas last December, there has been a rush to build multiplexes there by global cinema chains such as AMC Entertainment, VUE International, and Dubai-based Vox Cinemas, which is the largest regional exhibitor. But it’s not going to happen overnight.

“Many operators are roaming the kingdom trying to make deals, but malls aren’t ready,” said Hammed Atassi, CEO of Cinemacity holding company World Media Holding.

Since no space was originally allocated in Saudi malls for cinemas, which come with certain height and other technical specifications, this means that “projects ready for immediate opening aren’t many,” Atassi said.

The licensing process started March 1 when general guidelines were published. However, “there are many layers of licensing,” said Atassi. Cinemacity is now ready to submit its first batch of documents, which he is confident will be processed swiftly.

Regarding censorship, which is a major concern since movies were banned in Saudi Arabia for religious reasons, Atassi said some titles will of course be chopped “but not as heavy as people may think.” He pointed out that societal changes prompted by 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been driving a program of reforms that in September finally gave women the right to drive, are “coming on so fast” that “you may soon see films with minimum censorship.”

In February, following a 20-year ban on concerts, the kingdom had its first jazz festival in Riyadh, where the  New Orleans Marsalis Sextet performed (pictured). The Saudi Entertainment General Authority has announced plans to plow some $64 billion into the entertainment sector over the next decade, an investment Hollywood hopes to benefit from.

Atassi said he was not sure when the first Saudi multiplex would open, but said he thought Cinemacity’s 20-screen venue in an unspecified Riyadh mall would be up and running this summer and become the second venue to get ticket buyers past turnstiles.

As for whether the theaters will be gender-segregated, Atassi said they have been “advised to select times of screening” for families and single men, adding that he thinks “this is a first approach that may change later.”

“We don’t see a big problem [setting up] opening times for both groups to start with,” he said. “It will be simple enough.”

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