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Movie Theater Chains Forging Ahead With Saudi Arabia Expansion

Despite ongoing outcry over the assassination of a journalist and rapidly dissolving ties to Hollywood, at least three theater chains are moving forward with plans to put movie screens in Saudi Arabia.

National Association of Theater Owners President John Fithian said he’s recently spoken with numerous members of his organization about sorting out licensing issues with the Saudi government, and continuing with plans to put cineplexes in the Middle Eastern kingdom.

“I’ve spoken to three members this week about their scheduled openings,”said Fithian, addressing journalists at CinemaCon in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

While Fithian called the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi “a tragic, awful human rights violation,” he sees the entry of global cinematic voices into Saudi culture as a positive.

“I don’t think it’s our business to make foreign policy as a trade association. It’s our business to represent a trade industry,” Fithian said. “The idea of having the freedom to see movies in a country that can only help to open up thinking in that country — movies have always been a sword for freedom for a very long time.”

Only weeks ago, entertainment conglomerate Endeavor returned a $400 million investment from Saudi Arabia’s entertainment investment fund (which is an investor in Variety‘s parent company PMC), which kicked off in late 2017 in hopes of recruiting top content makers and brands to the region.

Despite ongoing press nightmares like a recent report that Saudi intelligence was behind the hacking of private material from Amazon CEO’Jeff Bezos’ mobile phone, the Saudi cultural program continues.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s first culture minister, Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan, unveiled a document called “Our Culture, Our Identity” outlining initiatives to kickstart the local arts sector. Saudi Arabia’s first film fest has been named the Red Sea International Film Festival and will be based in the historic district of Jeddah, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. The festival’s president is young Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh, known for groundbreaking comedies “Barakah Meets Barakah” and “Amra and the Second Marriage.”

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