Excitement about the restoration of moviegoing in Saudi Arabia was tempered by a need for caution. That was the sentiment in the CinemaCon panel “The New Frontier: Saudi Arabia Opens Doors to Movie Theaters After 35 Years.” As 20th Century Fox International Distribution president Andrew Cripps warned, “The decisions we make today will have a lasting impact.”

Moderated by National Association of Theatre Owners CEO John Fithian, the session touched on taxes, ticket prices and censorship. Cripps joined the panel along with AMC CEO & President Adam Aron, Universal International Distribution President Duncan Clark and Majid Al Futtaim Ventures CEO Ahmed Ismail.

AMC

AMC christened the return of cinema when it converted an old symphony hall into its first Saudi Arabia venue, completing the overhaul in 10 weeks to open Black Panther on April 18. Tickets were $20 — a price which Cripps believes is to high. “You don’t want to out price the market,” he warned. That price was bolstered by a 25% entertainment tax and a VAT. Cripps questioned where those surcharges would go.

Not everyone agreed with Cripps.

“Honestly it’s too low,” said Aron, who believes that once he installs actual movie theater seats into his Riyadh venue that the price could hike to $30 or $35. “There’s one open theater and in a few days there will be two,” said the AMC chief, pointing out that tickets for a Black Panther showtime sold “out in 47 seconds.” They said the local entertainment tax was high, due to pent-up audience demand. They expect it to come down to earth. Cripps snarked that if movie tickets go for $35, then Saudi Arabia will reach “$1 billion a year pretty quickly.” He made a bet with Aron that ticket prices will be significantly lower. Aron answered, “I included 30% tax in my rental split.”

“This is going to be Hamilton for a year,” Fithian added, pointing out that most movie houses in Riyadh are sold out well in advance.

Aron said audiences were integrated by gender at the cinema’s opening gala on April 18 and he believes that progression will continue. In regard to censorship, there’s a six-tier rating system, and the panel believes that Saudi Arabia will be more conservative at first toward movies, hopefully becoming more tolerant down the line. Aron said only 47 seconds were cut from Black Panther, adding, “That’s not butchering.”  Cripps has Ferdinand going through the censorship board in Saudi Arabia now, a title that’s primed to be 20th Century Fox’s first release there. Warner Bros.’ first title there will be Rampage. 

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What types of movies will work there? Cripps cited family and animated pics like Ferdinand, “films with good wholesome values” and tent pole content. Clark agreed, citing Jurassic World. But Cripps said, “R-rated content will struggle…and with censorship we’re going to learn as we go along.”

Earlier this month, AMC and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia announced that its subsidiary, the Development and Investment Entertainment Company, signed an agreement with AMC Entertainment Holdings, Inc. to operate AMC Cinemas in the Kingdom. AMC opened the first Riyadh venue April 18. The Kansas City theater circuit The Leawood plans to open 30-40 cinemas in approximately 15 cities in Saudi Arabia over the next five years, and a total of 50-100 cinemas in approximately 25 Saudi Arabian cities by the year 2030.

There’s a lot of money to be made in Saudi Arabia, the panelists said. Ismail pointed out that Saudi population spent $30 billion on travel and leisure outside the country, if that money stays within the country, moviegoing could become a billion dollar business.

“It was emotional night,” said Aron about the momentous Black Panther premiere. He said the theater will expand from one screen and 624 seats, to four screens and over 1,000 seats, “It reminds us about our industry’s place in the sun.”