Saudis enjoy makeshift cinema ahead of arrival of movie theatres

A general view of the new first Saudi cinema at a cultural club in Jeddah

LONDON - Saudis got a glimpse of the near future with the first public screening of feature-length films in more than 35 years as the kingdom prepared permanent theatre venues in its drive to offer additional entertainment options.
Authorities in Jeddah set up a makeshift theatre on January 15 at the Culture and Arts Society to show a double feature of “The Emoji Movie” and “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.” If the public reception is an indicator, the cinema industry will be a force to be reckoned with in the kingdom.
“It’s more comfortable, more fun to have a change of scenery and an activity on the weekend. It is a step that was very late in coming but, thank God, it’s happening now,” Sultan al-Otaibi, 28, who attended the screening with his family, told Reuters.
The screenings were part of a 6-day movie festival organised by the General Entertainment Authority, the governmental body tasked with sponsoring entrainment, sports and cultural events and is creating an entertainment industry relatively from scratch.
Saudi officials in December announced that cinemas would be opening in the country in 2018. The first theatre is to open in March, local reports said.
The government plan is to have more than 300 cinemas, totalling more than 2,000 screens, by 2030. Experts said the industry could add $24 billion and 30,000 permanent jobs to the Saudi economy.
“Opening cinemas will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification,” Information Minister Awwad Alawwad said at the time.
Saudis traditionally venture to nearby countries such as the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain for cinemas. With the lifting of the ban, experts said as much as 25% the estimated $20 billion Saudi nationals spend overseas on such entertainment would go to Saudi businesses.
However, Riyadh’s efforts to nurture domestic tourism and give Saudi citizens more recreational options have been a challenge to cultural norms. Saudi authorities prepared for a possible backlash, Foreign Affairs magazine said, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz developing a strategy to deal with the situation.
That includes a rating system, like one recently introduced for video games, to help ensure the films shown do not conflict with local sensibilities, the General Entertainment Authority said.
In an interview with entertainment trade publication Deadline, Fahad al-Moammar, the superintendent of the Saudi Cinema Industry at General Commission of Audiovisual Media, said the rating system has helped video game developers “understand what kind of content to put in their pipeline.”
Hollywood actress Lindsey Lohan announced she would film a movie in the kingdom beginning in September. Lohan, who broke the news on “The Wendy Williams Show” a daytime talk show, said the film would be titled “Frame.” The plot revolves around a female American photographer who moves to the kingdom for work-related reasons after leaving her husband in the United States.
Movie theatres were banned in the early 1980s due to pressure from religious conservatives. Crown Prince Mohammed recently vowed to return the kingdom to its moderate roots.
Several international movie-theatre chains, including the United States’ AMC Entertainment, are considering entering the Saudi market.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.