Kuwaiti Company Is Latest Entrant in Saudi Arabia Theater-Building Derby

Saudi Arabia’s removal of its 35-year-old ban on cinemas is prompting another exhibitor to move in to the last untapped movie market in the Middle East, this time from neighboring Kuwait.

Days after London-based Vue International said they were planning to build up to 30 multiplexes in Saudi Arabia, the Kuwait National Cinema Company (KNCC) and Dubai-based partner Front Row Entertainment announced a three-year plan Thursday for 12 multiplexes of their own in the oil-rich kingdom. The first 27 screens are intended to be up and running by the end of this year.

Leading Kuwaiti developer Tamdeem, which owns KNCC, said in a statement that it is in advanced negotiations with an unnamed Saudi partner on a joint venture whose first three multiplexes would be located in the cities of Jeddah, Dammam, and Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Jeddah was where, last month, “The Emoji Movie” and “Captain Underpants” became the first titles screened in Saudi Arabia – albeit in a makeshift movie theater – since the ban on films was lifted in December.

KNCC is the top exhibitor in Kuwait, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Saudis have been driving across the border in order to catch new movies on a big screen. Movie theaters were banned in the country in the early 1980s under pressure from Islamists as Saudi society turned more conservative.

After dropping the ban, the Saudi government announced in December 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 move is part of a drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to transform Saudi society, which has already paved the way for concerts and the country’s first local Comic Con (pictured).

KNCC chief Hisham Al Ghanim noted in the statement that due to the large number of Saudi’s who have flocked to Kuwait “we have a keen understanding and appreciation of their tastes and habits.”

Although Saudi Arabia’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media is still deciding rules and regulations for reopening cinemas, it’s expected that there will be heavy censorship, with restrictions likely to be along similar lines as 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 are chopped out.

KNCC and Front Row, which is a prominent Middle East distributor, have a partnership under which they jointly acquire an average of about 100 titles a year, many of which are English-language indie pics such as Mel Gibson-starrer “Blood Father,” Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,”  Natalie Portman-starrer “Jane Got a Gun,” and George Clooney-directed “The Ides of March.” They are also Middle East market leaders for Arabic titles. Front Row chief Gianluca Chakra and KNCC’s Al Ghanim are both at EFM as buyers.

Besides Vue, U.S. exhibitor AMC is also entering Saudi Arabia via an agreement with the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund. Other exhibitors understood to be partnering up with local companies to build multiplexes include Dubai-based VOX Cinemas and Middle East chain Cinemacity.

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