Saudi Arabia hosted its first public film screening in over 35 years on Friday, two days after US movie giant AMC unveiled the kingdom’s debut theatre in Riyadh.
Clutching prized tickets for the sold-out showing of Hollywood blockbuster action film “Black Panther”, men and women walked into the movie hall with tubs of popcorn and fizzy drinks.
AMC chief executive Adam Aron on Wednesday said its multiplex theatre at Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District will for now operate one screen with a seating capacity of around 250.
He said plans were afoot for three more screens in the coming months.
The conservative desert kingdom lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas last year as part of a far-reaching modernisation drive, with AMC Entertainment granted the first licence to operate movie theatres.
Religious hardliners, who have long vilified movie theatres as vulgar and sinful, were instrumental in shutting down cinemas in the 1980s.
Reopening movie theatres is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious reform drive as he seeks to balance unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more entertainment options.
The choice of “Black Panther”, a film about a young monarch of a fictional resource-rich African kingdom, has drawn parallels with the Saudi prince.
On social media, many Saudis complained that the ticket price of 75 Saudi riyals ($20), which included a new entertainment tax and value-added tax introduced this year, was too exorbitant in an age of austerity.
“If we go as a family we will need a loan,” one Saudi tweeted.
Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai and Bahrain.
“Welcome to the era when movies can be watched by Saudis not in Bahrain, not in Dubai, not in London… but inside the kingdom,” Aron said Wednesday at the launch of the theatre.
International theatre chains have long eyed Saudi Arabia as the Middle East’s last untapped mass market, with its more than 30 million people, the majority of whom are under 25.
AMC will face stiff competition from heavyweights such as Dubai-based VOX Cinemas, which on Thursday announced it had also secured a government licence to operate in Saudi Arabia and would open the kingdom’s first IMAX theatre in the coming days.
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