EXCLUSIVE: Saudi Arabia is getting serious about going back to the movies. The kingdom is in the early stages of an initiative to build and open cinemas after more than 30 years of no public screens. The idea was mooted earlier this year by Ahmed Al-Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, and was one focus of the Future Investment Initiative conference held in Riyadh late last month.
The conference was organized under the aegis of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al-Saud who invited Tim Richards, founder of leading exhibitor Vue International, to attend. Richards tells Deadline his company is continually exploring new attractive high-growth markets and says this looks like a very interesting opportunity. “They have some incredible plans in place and we would very much like to be a part of that going forward,” he says.
Saudi’s earlier cinemas were shuttered in 1982 after clerics persuaded the government to do so. While censorship could be an issue, the GEA chief previously told Reuters he wanted to create entertainment that “will be like 99% of what is going on in London and New York.”
Overall, the Middle East has seen significant increases in box office in the past few years and Saudi’s population is 65%-70% under 30-years-old. A Comic-Con event in Jeddah this February attracted more than 10,000 people.
The Crown Prince is seen as a progressive — a royal decree this year granted women the right to drive — and a move to bring back the cinemas falls within the Vision 2030 program which targets cultural reforms.
Richards says of the cinemas, “It’s early days, but it’s a very exciting initiative. The Saudis want to build something very exciting, different and world class. That’s something we would look at providing.” Vue currently has 212 sites in 10 countries.
Richards adds, “I was really inspired by what I saw and heard. It felt like history in the making… All anybody wanted to talk about was when are the movies coming in.”
This follows some years of forward momentum within the local filmmaking community. In 2013, Haifaa al Mansour became the first woman to direct a film inside the kingdom. That movie, Wadjda, went on to be the first-ever submission from Saudi for the Foreign Language Oscar. In 2016, Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah was also entered as the Saudi candidate after a successful showing at the Berlin Film Festival.
Another of the popular Crown Prince’s recent moves was an anti-corruption purge. In an ironic twist, one of the people detained last weekend was Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor in such companies Twitter, Apple and, previously, Fox. Al Mansour wrote at CNN last January that he was the only Saudi investor “willing to take a chance and support my film… we will need more people to join us in this journey if we want our products to truly shine.”
Next weekend, the third 1,000 Dialogues conference on the future of film and filmmaking in Saudi Arabia will be held in Riyadh.