Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in more than three decades will open in Riyadh this month after a ban was lifted last year as part of a far-reaching reform measures.
AMC Entertainment has been granted the first licence to operate cinemas, with Saudi state media saying the company is expected to open 40 cinemas across 15 Saudi cities in the next five years.
“AMC plans to open the kingdom’s first cinema theatre in Riyadh on April 18,” the information ministry’s Centre for International Communication said.
The news comes after Chinese-owned AMC Entertainment signed a non-binding agreement in December with Saudi Arabia’s vast Public Investment Fund (PIF) to build and operate cinemas across the kingdom.
“The granting of the first licence marks the opening of very significant opportunities for exhibitors,” Information Minister Awwad Alawwad was quoted as saying in the statement.
“The Saudi market is very large, with the majority of the population ... eager to watch their favourite films here at home.”
AMC Chief Executive Adam Aron said the company's first cinema will be in the King Abdullah Financial District, in a building originally intended to be a symphony concert hall. The main theatre will feature about 500 leather seats, orchestra and balcony levels, and marble bathrooms, he told Reuters. Three more screens will be added by mid-summer.
"We think it's going to be the prettiest movie theatre in the world," Mr Aron said. "It's a dramatic building."
The Kingdom is set to have nearly 350 cinemas, with more than 2,500 screens, by 2030. With a population of more than 32 million, the majority of whom are under the age of 30, Saudi Arabia is set to become the largest market for moviegoers in the Arabian Gulf region.
AMC will still face stiff competition from other heavyweights including Dubai-based Vox Cinemas, the leading operator in the Middle East.
The move to reopen cinemas is part of a modernisation drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to balance unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more entertainment options — despite opposition from religious hardliners.
Long known for its conservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a wide-ranging programme of social reforms that includes boosting sports and entertainment and allowing women to drive from June.
In February, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority announced it would stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts this year, double the number of last year, and pump US$64 billion (Dh235.07bn) into the sector in the coming decade.
The reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment, as the kingdom reels from an oil slump since 2014.
The move to allow movie theatres opens up a domestic market expected to be worth up to $1bn in annual box-office sales.
Mr Aron said he expected that the same versions of films shown in other countries in the region such as Dubai or Kuwait would be suitable for Saudi Arabia. "Hollywood has long ago dealt with the sensitivities of the Middle East and have adjusted film product accordingly," he said. "Major Hollywood studios are showing films all over the Middle East right now."
Separately, Six Flags Entertainment said it planned to develop a theme park in Riyadh in partnership with PIF. Terms were not disclosed.