Saudi Arabia has officially declared that public movie theaters will return to the kingdom for the first time in more than 30 years. The move had been expected. Deadline reported last month that an initiative was afoot to build and open cinemas after being a focus of the Future Investment Initiative conference held in Riyadh in October.
Minister of Culture and Information Awwad bin Saleh Alawwad said today, “Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification; by developing the broader cultural sector we will create new employment and training opportunities, as well as enriching the Kingdom’s entertainment options.” The first moviehouses are likely to open in March, per local reports.
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.
Saudi’s earlier cinemas were shuttered in 1982 after clerics persuaded the government to do so. While censorship could be an issue, the General Entertainment Authority has previously said there is a desire to create entertainment that “will be like 99% of what is going on in London and New York.”
Tim Richards, founder of leading exhibitor Vue International, attended the Future Investment Initiative conference and told Deadline shortly afterwards that Saudi 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 said last month.
Saudi Arabia’s board of the General Commission for Audiovisual Media passed a resolution today allowing the authority to grant licenses to cinemas. Alawwad added, “This marks a watershed moment in the development of the cultural economy in the Kingdom.” By 2030, there are projected to be over 300 cinemas with more than 2,000 screens.
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.
Today’s announcement 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, Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah was also entered as the Saudi candidate after a successful showing at the Berlin Film Festival.