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Saudi Arabia in 2021 continued its exponential growth as a theatrical box office market with revenue totaling $238 million for the year, a 95% increase compared with 2020 when the total intake had been $122 million, according to figures provided by Comscore.

Just four years after removal of the kingdom’s 35-year-old religion-related ban on movie theaters, Saudi has now consolidated its status — attained in 2020 — as the West Asia region’s top theatrical market in terms of gross box office. Once again it bested the United Arab Emirates where total 2021 grosses amounted to $130 million.

All told, 340 new feature films were released into Saudi Arabian cinemas in 2021, up from 222 in 2020. The top-grossing 2021 title was Egyptian comedy “Waafet Reggaala” (“A Stand Worthy of Men”), which pulled over $15 million, making the Arabic-language “Hangover”-style pic the country’s top grosser ever since moviegoing was re-instated in January 2018.

Just like in many other countries, in Saudi the top-grossing Hollywood title in 2021 was “Spider-Man: No Way Home” which pulled $11.2 million, coming in at No. 2 on the chart. It was followed by “Cruella,” which grossed $9.1 million, and Guy Ritchie’s “Wrath of Man,” which made $8.3 million in Saudi cinemas, at No. 4. 

Egyptian comedy, “Mesh Ana” (“Not Me”), featuring local megastar Tamer Hosny, weighed in at No. 5 on the 2021 Saudi box office chart with an $8.2 million take, while another release from Egypt “Mama Hamel” (“Mom Is Pregnant”), about a 60-something woman who is somehow expecting a child, came in at No. 10, pulling $5.9 million. 

Like some other countries in the region, Saudi audiences missed out on Marvel’s “Eternals,” which was not given a distribution certificate by censors ostensibly because it features a gay superhero. That also happened with Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which features a transgender character. Hollywood films touching on sensitive religious or political issues, sex and homosexuality are routinely either cut or banned in the region.

The surge in Saudi box office grosses is clearly concurrent with the mushrooming of multiplexes. The number of multi-screen movie theaters in Saudi Arabia grew from 33 locations at the start of 2021 to 53 venues by December 2021, an increase of 20 new locations, according to Comscore.

Saudi Arabia now has 430 screens and counting, according to figures revealed in December during the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah by Bahaa Abdulmajeed, an official from the Saudi Investment Ministry, which has an ambitious target of 2,600 screens by 2030. Several analysts, including PwC, see Saudi as becoming a billion-dollar movie market in the next few years.

Currently Saudi-owned Muvi Cinemas operates the highest number of local cinemas, with 21 locations across the kingdom. They are followed by Dubai-based Vox Cinemas with 15; U.S. theater chain AMC with 10; Lebanon’s Empire Cinema with 5, and Mexican-owned Cinépolis which now operates two multiplexes in Saudi, Comscore said. 

Top 10 Box Office Hits in Saudi Arabia, 2021
(Title, distributor in Saudi, grosses)

1 “Waafet Reggaala,” Empire, $15.08 million 
2 “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Sony, $11.2 million
3 “Cruella,” Disney, $9.1 million
4 “Wrath of Man,” Eagle Films, $8.3 million
5 “Mesh Ana,” N Stars, $8.2 million
6 “No Time to Die,” Phars, $8 million
7 “Fast & Furious 9,” Universal, $7.8 million
8 “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” Sony, $6.7 million
9 “A Quiet Place 2,” Paramount, $6.1 million
10 “Mana Hamel,” Empire, $5.9 million