EXCLUSIVE: There was rejoicing in December when Saudi Arabia officially declared that public movie theaters will return to the Kingdom for the first time in more than 30 years. While it’s as-yet unclear when exactly they will open, the Saudi Center for International Communication (CIC) is currently in the midst of developing a ratings system, which could help with concerns over censorship. Its chief, Fahad Al-Moammar, tells me to think of the CIC as the FCC equivalent and a sort of task force executing changes in the media ecosystem which includes several types of content consumption.
The move back to the movies falls within the Vision 2030 program spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud who is seen as a progressive — a royal decree this year granted women the right to drive, and sports stadiums will open their doors to women for football matches for the first time ever tomorrow.
While Deadline had earlier reported that exhibitor Vue International already saw the market as a huge opportunity and could be an early adopter in the Kingdom, there was an immediate response on December 11 from the National Association of Theatre Owners which said that several of its member companies had developed “extensive plans” for cinemas in Saudi who “stand ready to develop luxurious and cutting-edge movie theaters for all Saudis to enjoy.”
The MPAA also weighed in to applaud the Kingdom for its decision to end the prohibition on movie theaters. And, AMC Entertainment Holdings added that it has signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia to “explore a range of commercial opportunities for collaboration that will support the growth of the Kingdom’s entertainment sector.”
I’m told by Al-Moammar that an official rollout date is undetermined because “we have to focus on regulations and the framework” before granting full go-ahead permission. More will be known in the next few months. “The industry itself is complicated and everyone is trying to give the best experience possible,” he says. Distributors also “have to understand their potential within the market.”
A ratings system has already been introduced for video games. That was a successful move says Al-Moammar and “more titles have been approved to come in than before.” The video game ratings have helped publishers “understand what kind of content to put in their pipeline,” and with that knowledge comes the possibility of being able to amend content before it gets there. Also, says Al-Moammar, “Parents are very aware of what they are buying for the kids. It’s their judgment and they are now well-informed.”
It’s particularly notable that Saudi is going this route with films too since ratings systems are not a staple of the Middle East (and also because the world’s second biggest box office market, China, still doesn’t have one).
Gianluca Chakra, Managing Partner of Middle East distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment, is excited by the prospect of Saudi, saying, “It could be massive, but it’s going to take time.” Chakra consults with the authorities in the UAE, where Front Row is based, as well as Kuwait and Bahrain regarding their own oversight of ratings. Although he says the systems can be somewhat arbitrary. “If you go to Kuwait, there’s only a G or a 16+ and even when they use the system, they still edit. The UAE has a ratings system, but they don’t follow a bible; it’s based on perception.”
It is not yet known if the cinemas will be segregated with theaters for men and women separate in the religiously strict territory. Al-Moammar says, “We haven’t gotten to the point yet of whether theaters are divided.”
It’s understood that designs for cinemas are being made within the framework of today’s reality, but will also be built for tomorrow. IE: there could be separate viewing areas for women and men at the outset, and should restrictions loosen down the line, the cinemas would be easily convertible.
But cinemas with separate sections for single men, and also for women with families, could be a bonus. In Kuwait, some auditoriums are divided with the single men in one area and the women and families another. I’m told that those different sections can be seen as a selling point because women may find it uncomfortable to be seated so close to single men.
There are several factors that make this a sweeping and important change to the international landscape. The Middle East in general has seen strong box office growth in the past few years, particularly in the Emirates. With 65%-70% of Saudi’s population under age 30, there is expected to be strong uptake when they’re able to spend their weekend evenings in front of big screens as opposed to consuming content at home or on mobile devices. The latter will of course continue, but the option of convening for the theatrical experience is nevertheless widely welcomed. The Kingdom’s first Comic-Con was held in Jeddah in February and attracted more than 10,000 people.
“It’s a cool thing and potentially could be really big,” says Chakra. “It depends on the laws they will implement and when it matures. The first one or two years it will probably be underscreened and will favor the studios. Whoever releases the first few films will sweep the box office.” But he allows that a potential bugaboo is that the Kingdom’s largely under-30 population already has access to Netflix and Amazon.
For Al-Moammar cinemagoing will be “a new experience and a family and friends thing.” But it’s important to bear in mind that content creation is expected to be a key component of the ban lifting. “We have lots of different stories to share,” he says, expecting there will be “a lot of creativity coming out of that. Every healthy movie market has a healthy local industry. It’s one of the biggest positive outcomes.”
Indeed, what’s enticing about the effort being placed behind opening cinemas is the knock-on effect it should have on the local film industry. There has been some forward momentum in recent years with two Saudi films: 2013’s Wadjda by Haifaa al Mansour and 2016’s Mahmoud Sabbagh-directed Barakah Meets Barakah were both submitted to AMPAS as the first-ever entries from the Kingdom for the Foreign Language Oscar race.
The local production effect will be “dramatic” says one executive. “They’ve never had a forum for their films and suddenly they’ll have modern multiplexes.” It’s a natural progression that’s been seen in other markets: When more movie theaters go up, the local industry benefits. Says Al-Moammar, “In any healthy industry with local cinemas, local content is important.” Creators have been having to “reach outside of the borders to serve their purpose,” he continues. And so, the “reintroduction of cinemas is definitely going to give them a platform to explore more content creation.”
There may be a lag before we see a major shift. Within the project ecosystem, says Al-Moammar, there are plans to revamp a granting program for content creators — across all sectors, not just film. They also don’t want to limit a program to just local content.
As for the studios, execs I’ve spoken with are pleased at the prospects that Saudi may offer. It could be particularly lucrative for, say, Disney, which already has a brand history in the market and makes family-oriented movies that don’t inherently present censorship issues. Says Enders Analysis’ Alice Enders, “The Saudi market I am sure will go the way of the Chinese, where it is an event and the demonstration of common cultural values dominate the choice of films shown in the theater. Great for Disney, no question.”
Censorship is a worry, but with 33M people, folks see an opportunity. Even if, as one person says, “It will take a while to build proper theaters” perhaps as late as 2019/2020.
Still, “The Middle East is an absolute growth market,” says an international exec — and it helps that ticket prices are higher there. Saudi is expected to over-index when it comes on line. “Any time you’re told you can’t have something and you finally get it, you consume it a lot heavier” goes the refrain I’m hearing.