Blue Sky Studio's Ferdinand, the animated tale of a peace-loving bull, who escapes his life in the bullring looks set to be the next film to screen in Saudi cinemas, Vox CEO Cameron Mitchell has confirmed to The National.
Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Culture and Information confirmed in a statement on Tuesday that Vox is the second exhibitor to be granted a licence to show films in the kingdom, following US chain AMC which opened up with a gala screening of Black Panther last week, and that Vox's first cinema will open "in the next few days."
We caught up with Mitchell ahead of last night's Avengers: Infinity War UAE premiere in Dubai to get the very latest on developments in the kingdom.
The MOCI release mentioned that your first cinema will be opening “in the next few days.” What is the timescale currently?
We’ve been planning this for some time as the announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected, and the cinema is basically now ready to open. We’ve got a great location in a family entertainment centre and there’ll be four screens at the new cinema, including Saudi’s only IMAX. We don’t have an exact opening date yet as we’re still working with the authorities to make sure everything is correct, but we expect it to be probably in around a week’s time.
What are the plans for initial programming? Will you be showing different films on each screen or just whatever is currently permitted?
We’re of course working closely with the relevant authorities regarding exactly what films we’ll be showing, but yes, we plan to show as many films as possible – maybe even more than one film per screen because there is so much demand and so little supply currently.
We already know that the Marvel films Black Panther and Infinity Wars have been approved for screening, so they'll be on the initial list, and we're currently working on approval for Ferdinand. That's a family film that's done really well elsewhere in the Middle East, and we don't envisage any problems with that.
Moving forwards, what kind of films would you expect to be showing? What specific films from the current release schedules are likely to get an airing?
We expect to be focusing largely on new films. We will feature some older classics, but we think new films is really the way forward. You have to remember that a lot of Saudis regularly come to the UAE or elsewhere to go to the cinema, so we'd anticipate a limited demand for older films, although we still expect some demand, but mainly we'll be looking at the forthcoming lists to see what's appropriate. I can't name any further specific films just yet as this is still very early days, but we really don't expect too many difficulties in terms of what we can show – the biggest films regionally tend to family films and big ticket action movies, and there are really very few issues with those in terms of respecting the local culture.
What is your understanding of how censorship will work in Saudi?
This is very early stages and we’re working very closely with the Saudi authorities to deliver a successful result for everyone. We know that films will have to be submitted to the relevant government body for approval, much like in the UAE, and there is already a great team in place there working on this. We expect things to develop quickly as cinema becomes a more integral part of Saudi life.
How about within the cinemas themselves? Will there be segregation?
Again, we’re in the very early stages, but we’ve made sure our cinemas are built from the design stage to accommodate any eventuality. We’ll be able to offer bachelor screenings, family screenings, or a combination of whatever eventual rules may be in place. Everything has been designed to ensure we’re ready for any eventuality when it comes to accommodating audiences appropriately and comfortably.
Saudi will be the first market in the Gulf where you’re competing with the big US/European chains. Do you see this presenting any new challenges?
Quite the opposite – I think the incoming chains may be the ones who have to up their game. We know what audiences in this region want, we've served millions of them over many years, and if you look at the offering we have, from our luxury seating options to offerings like Theatre by Rhodes, I think they're really unparalleled in this region, or any other region in the world. Cinema-going is much more of an experience in this market than elsewhere in the world, and it's also an experience that people take part in far more regularly than they do in other markets if you look at the figures. That's all going to be new to the incoming operators.
How important could the Saudi market prove to Vox? Is this a moment you’ve been waiting/semi-prepared for years?
It's massive for Vox [see the chain's financial expectations here], but more than that it's massive for cinema in the region. The entry of Saudi into the market, with that huge audience of around 30M, makes the Middle East a much bigger player globally. If you look at Australia, with a population of only about 24M, that's the world's ninth biggest market for cinema. Saudi Arabia is 30M on top of the existing market in the region, 30M totally new audience members. Just look at the Avengers event we're running tonight across six countries in the region – add Saudi into that too and we're suddenly a much bigger proposition in terms of our importance as a market to the studios too.