National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian said during a CinemaCon press conference that development of movie theaters in Saudi Arabia is moving forward, even as the relationship between the country’s government and Hollywood has deteriorated after the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“It’s a matter of sorting out the censorship rules and the rating system, which is going fairly well. It’s about dealing with the government licenses and finding a place to build the theaters and roll them out,” Fithian said.
At last year’s CinemaCon, the lifting of a 35-year ban on movie theaters in Saudi Arabia was one of the most talked about topics at the Las Vegas trade show. AMC and Vox Cinemas made deals to build dozens of movie theaters in the country, with AMC aiming to have 100 theaters built by 2030.
Meanwhile, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went on a tour of Hollywood, courting major names in the tech and entertainment industries and making key investment deals, including a $400 million investment in William Morris Endeavor.
But in October, after Saudi dissident and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that changed when the CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered the assassination. Multiple businesses withdrew from a business conference held by KSA’s Future Investment Initiative, while this past month, WME completed a return of the Saudi investment money.
Despite this, infrastructure plans are still moving forward. Four theater chains with licenses to build theaters in Saudi Arabia are continuing construction, and this past month, Vox Cinemas said it plans to invest $500 million in construction over the next four years.
Fithian said that Khashoggi’s murder was “an awful, tragic human rights violation,” but said remained confident that movie theaters can have a role to play in changing Saudi culture and helping to “open up thinking.”
“This is a country in transition. It’s a country with a very different perspective than Americans and Europeans on a lot of issues and had very few liberties for decades. I’m proud of the fact that we are helping to bring new ideas to that country,” he said.