Riyadh: Saudi Arabia has unveiled its first cinema in over 35 years with a private screening of the blockbuster Black Panther.
The invitation-only gala event in a converted Riyadh concert hall on Wednesday was the first in a series of test screenings after a ban on cinemas was lifted last year. US giant AMC has been granted the first licence to operate movie theatres.
The AMC chief executive, Adam Aron, said ticket sales will start on Thursday for the first public shows on Friday, but local authorities indicated the test screenings could last for days. Officials earlier said movie theatres are expected to open to the public in May.
“This is a historic day for AMC. This is a historic day for your country,” Aron told an audience of government officials and industry figures. “Welcome to the era when movies can be watched by Saudis not in Bahrain, not in Dubai, not in London … but inside the kingdom.”
Religious hardliners, who have long vilified movie theatres as vulgar and sinful, were instrumental in shutting them down in the 1980s.
The move to reopen cinemas is part of a modernisation drive by the reformist 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 hardliners.
Black Panther, a film about a young monarch of a fictional African jungle kingdom, has drawn parallels with the Saudi prince.
“This is a story about a young [royal] who transforms a nation. That might sound familiar to some of you,” Aron joked.
International theatre chains have long eyed the kingdom as the Middle East’s last untapped mass market – the majority of Saudi Arabia’s 30 million people are under 25.
AMC Entertainment signed a non-binding agreement in December to build and operate cinemas across the kingdom.
Saudi state media has said the company expects to open 40 cinemas in 15 cities over the next five years, but AMC will still face stiff competition from other heavyweights, including Dubai-based VOX Cinemas, the leading operator in the Middle East.
Similar to television programming, movies are likely to face some censorship in the kingdom, where sex, religion and politics are widely seen as taboo subjects.
Long known for its ultra-conservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a wide-ranging programme of social reforms that includes mixed-gender concerts and a historic decree allowing women to drive from June.