Saudi Arabia’s First New Movie Theaters Welcome Women – But Only With Chaperones (For Now)

AMC’s first theater in Riyadh opens this week, but details about integrating men and women remain in flux

Saudi Arabia’s first modern movie theater opened in a gala screening of “Black Panther” last Wednesday to an audience where men and women sat together freely, but it remains to be seen whether that will still be the case when the theater opens to the public this week — and whether other new cinemas will also be integrated.

“Things are moving so fast in the kingdom right now that the plans have changed three or four times,” John Fithian, president of the U.S.-based National Association of Theater Owners said this week at CinemaCon. “We’ve offered showtimes for prayer time and for purposes of Ramadan. We want to respect the country’s cultural values. We want to be responsible to the leadership and we want to be responsible to the people.”

AMC CEO Adam Aron, whose company opened that first new cinema in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District, noted how many details of day-to-day-operations are still in flux even after last week’s gala premiere.

“As recently as three weeks ago, all showings were going to be integrated,” he said on a CinemaCon panel. But then there was a twist in the plans, with the Saudi government calling for “bachelor”-only screenings and “family screenings” requiring women to be accompanied by a husband or male relative. For now, Aron said screenings of “Black Panther” at the Riyadh theater will be “family screenings only.”

“It’ll change again and again as the country tries to get it right,” said Aron. “If I can make a prediction — they are going to integrate theaters. That’s our working expectation. But it may take some time.”

Such are the growing pains of a country trying to start a fledgling entertainment industry in the midst of a major cultural shift. Several exhibition executives who spoke with TheWrap at CinemaCon said that such rule changes should be expected in the coming months and even years as the Saudis develop the infrastructure to bring the cinematic experience to Riyadh and beyond.

“There’s two sides to this: the government and the culture at large,” said Hamid Hashemi, CEO of iPic, which aims to open its first theater in Saudi Arabia in the coming months.

“You go to a restaurant right now, and there’s a section for single men and a section for families. It’s a rule that has been in place for so long that it’s been ingrained in people’s minds,” he said. “It’s more than just the law. It’s one thing for the government to just come out and say, ‘You don’t have to segregate,’ and it’s another for the people to adapt to it. There are going to be men who aren’t going to let their daughter go to a movie if it’s not segregated.”

There’s also another big challenge faced by exhibitors: Once you build the theaters, who is going to work there? As part of the government’s Vision 2030 plan, Saudis are requiring the majority of movie theater jobs go to native-born citizens, a big change from industries like restaurants where up to 75 percent of jobs can go to expats. This is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to move his country’s economy off of the oil industry that has fueled its rise to power in the Middle East.

“If you want to get the country off of oil, first you have to get the workers off of oil,” said Hashemi. “But when there hasn’t been a movie theater industry there for decades, who knows how to run a movie theater? There’s going to be a learning curve for everyone involved in growing this business, and that includes companies having to do a lot of employee training.”

Many execs at CinemaCon believe that Saudi Arabia is committed to building the infrastructure, and dealing with the messy details later. The government is directly driving this speedy development, as its Public Investment Fund (PIF) is jointly operating AMC theaters in the country.

Vue Entertainment will be the next exhibitor to open a cinema in Riyadh, possibly as early as next month. AMC will be adding additional screens before the end of the year, and plans to show such Hollywood fare as Disney/Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and Warner Bros.’ “Rampage.”

IMAX, which already screens science documentaries at the Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Science and Technology Center in Khobar, is expected to be a major partner in the new cinemas. (Before the ban lifted, that museum-based screen was the only public cinema in Saudi Arabia.)

“Because of our presence with that screen, people in Saudi Arabia already know about us and what it’s like seeing films on such a big screen,” IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond said. “Plus there’s the fact that there are a lot of millennials in Saudi Arabia who have traveled to Bahrain and other neighboring countries and seen films on IMAX. So we know that there’s a big demand.”

Ultimately, those Saudi millennials are driving fast change as much as the crown prince. According to the country’s official statistics, more than two-thirds of the current population is under the age of 35. Not all of them agree with bin Salman’s plans. A Bloomberg report in January showed that some middle- and working-class Saudi’s are resentful of the new taxes and subsidy cuts that have come with his new economic strategy.

But the wealthy youth of the country have spent so much money traveling outside the country that their demand for modern entertainment experiences has been a key selling point for bin Salman’s pitch to Hollywood.

“There are thousands of rich, young Saudis going to Dubai to get their fix of the high life, and the government sees that as tens of billions in cash being left on the table, one exhibitor told TheWrap. “If they can bring that experience closer to home, whether it’s moviegoing or some other entertainment, that could go a long way to realigning their economy.”