Confirming indications that emerged at CinemaCon, Saudi Arabia says it will invest $35 billion by 2020 in building multiplexes and aims to have more than 2,500 movie screens up and running over the next five years.
The figures were trumpeted in an announcement Thursday by Saudi Arabia’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media, which said that more than 200 construction and exhibition execs from 20 countries are expected to attend the Cinema Build KSA Forum on April 14 and 15 in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Listed companies at the forum include U.S. exhibition giant AMC Entertainment, which has confirmed that it is moving ahead with plans to build screens in Saudi Arabia after a brief pause in those plans following the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by Saudi operatives, in Turkey last October. AMC opened the country’s first movie theater in Riyadh in April 2018, after the country ended its 35-year ban on moviegoing.
At CinemaCon in Las Vegas on Tuesday, National Association of Theater Owners President John Fithian said that two other U.S. theater chains were moving forward in Saudi Arabia, despite Khashoggi’s murder.
“I don’t think it’s our business to make foreign policy as a trade association,” Fithian told reporters, adding that “the idea of having the freedom to see movies in a country…can only help to open up thinking in that country. Movies have always been a sword for freedom for a very long time.”
By contrast, London-based Vue International, which is one of the world’s largest exhibition chains, has decided to pull out of Saudi Arabia, at least for now.
Vue founder and chief exec Tim Richards told Deadline on Wednesday that, following the Khashoggi killing, he resigned from a position on the global board of Saudi Arabia’s Qiddiya entertainment and sports venture, and that Vue is not moving forward in the kingdom this year. However, Richards did not rule out that Vue might do so in the future.
Weeks ago, Hollywood entertainment conglomerate Endeavor returned a $400 million investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in protest. The government fund remains an investor in Variety’s parent company, Penske Media Corp.
Other exhibition companies attending the Cinema Build conference in Riyadh include Dubai-based exhibitor Vox Cinemas, currently the top cinema player in Saudi Arabia, which is on track to open 110 screens there this year, and Lebanese exhibitor-distributor Empire Cinemas, India’s Carnival Cinemas, and Mexico’s Cinepolis.