How Movie Theaters Have Set Up Shop In Saudi Arabia

Despite some controversy, cinema exhibitors have embraced Mohammed Bin Salman’s less than two-year-old reform in regards to movie theaters. Since April of 2018, the country has seen a virtually unprecedented growth in cinema houses, going from having zero to seeing multiple locations open on a single day.

AMC, currently the world’s largest movie exhibitor by theater count, opened the country’s first cinema back in 2018 with “Black Panther”. The company’s CEO began with a joke, comparing the movie’s hero Prince T’Challa to Prince Salman.

Since then, major exhibitors from around the world have flocked into the country, with everyone wanting a piece of the pie. Despite some initial social challenges, the state of movie exhibition inside Saudi Arabia is growing by the minute. Over five new multiplexes have opened just within the past three months.

Gender segregation  —  An initial inconvenience for men, now abandoned

At first, segregated showtimes were the norm. AMC’s single screen theater in Riyadh was segregated merely in seating (men on one side, women on another), but many VOX theaters created entirely separate screenings. Patrons in the latter chain’s theaters had to pick between “family” showtimes for women, children and men accompanied by female partners versus “male” showtimes, which were exclusively for men.

Family showtimes were in higher demand and men had difficulty finding convenient screenings.

“Whenever I’ve checked the time that’s suitable for me [is] is always in the family show,” wrote one Saudi redditor in July. “Most movies are shown mostly for families and there’s not many showings for singles and it’s extremely difficult and a pain in the ass to watch a movie because of that, let alone buy a ticket,” wrote another one in February. “Single males get punished a lot in those sort of things,” wrote a third that month. “A female can just book a family ticket and she doesn’t even need to come with a family. How’s that even fair?”

That practice has now ended. All Saudi theater chains – VOX, AMC, Empire Cinema and Muvie – have integrated their Saudi auditoriums and separations between male and family showtimes have been completely abandoned inside the Kingdom’s multiplexes.

“A year ago, family shows were more than individual shows, but now mixed shows are the only thing in Saudi Arabia,” said Omar, a Jeddah moviegoer who mentioned the change came around September.

Even AMC’s Riyadh flagship location  —  the single-screen auditorium which opened with seats for men on one side and families on another  —  has now been renovated and replaced the gender separation with separations between expensive recliners and lower-priced plush seats.

Censorship and French Subtitles

Although French is not a widely-spoken language in Saudi Arabia, many movies arrive with subtitles for that language. Images posted to AMC Riyadh’s Foursquare page show movies on the silver screen with both Arabic and French subtitles at the same time. Locals claim this is due to Lebanese companies handling some aspects of theatrical distribution around the region.

“A Lebanese company does the translation for all the Arab world,” said Fidaa Lesnar, another Jeddah moviegoer.

The subtitles aren’t the only thing different from Western digital cinema files: there is the expected censorship of sensitive subjects such as nudity. However, Saudi Arabia is by far not the only country to sensor items such as kisses, hugs and skin exposure. For 2018’s “Aquaman”, a kiss between King Arthur and Princess Mera was cut from the film. But the same kiss was also missing in Indonesian cinemas.

The cuts made are, in comparison to the country’s actual dress code, often very lenient.

“The skin topic is not a big deal. They show women in shorts and show the arms, they don’t black out anything,” said Lesnar. “As for super unmodest clothing like a bikini, they cut the whole shot. If the bikini is in the background they leave it alone.”

“Some films don’t get released at all such as ‘Hustlers’,” he added.
Saudi Arabia also has niche films for its domestic audience. An example is last year’s “Born a King” which tells the story of a 14-year old Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who would later become one of the country’s Kings. The film is an international co-production starring two Saudi actors and became a box office hit across the region.

More To Come: A New Market Born

“In all Saudi cinema halls, without exception, you can’t buy tickets from the hall because all tickets are sold quickly via the internet,” said Omar last month. “So far there are 11 cinemas in Saudi Arabia, all of which are crowded because everyone wants to visit them.”

On VOX’s online ticketing platform one can find multiple showtimes for “Bad Boys For Life” and “1917” on a Wednesday evening completely sold out.

Exhibitors have admitted that Saudi locations have seen an unprecedented demand. AMC’s CEO Adam Aron pointed out that the seat utilization in their single-screen Riyadh location was more than double that of their highest grossing theater in the United States, AMC Empire 25 in New York.

“We expect to have somewhere between 12 and 20 theaters opened [in Saudi Arabia] by the end of next year 2020,” said Aron on during an AMC earnings call last November, around a month before the company opened its second location in the country. “We have a single theater opened in Riyadh. It’s currently doing 11 times the revenue of a traditional AMC screen in the United States or Europe.”

With such metrics, crowds and sold-out shows, there is little question for why exhibitors refuse to pump the breaks, despite controversy. The murder of Jamal Kashoggi and the perceived unequal treatment of women in the country has cast shadows for some over how ethical it is for exhibitors to welcome the new market so strongly.

There are currently over a dozen theaters in the country. By the end of 2020, the number is expected to reach 42, depending on the speed of construction. That may be good news for local moviefans and exhibitors, but bad news for those fundamentally opposed to working with the Islamic country.

Some critics responded to IMAX’s CEO Richard Gelfond’s defense of operating in the country with mockery:

Controversial or not, desegregation of public places and open depiction of women are arguably things which movie theaters have helped successfully carry into the country, to large embrace from urban crowds. “People love cinema halls in Saudi Arabia greatly,” said Omar.

With no end to that growth in sight, Saudi Arabia and its large population of avid moviegoers are set to become important players among the global box office and something short of a goldmine for exhibitors.

“Remember, this is an affluent country of 33 million people. It has the 20th largest economy in the world. They like going to movies,” said Aron. “They do it now by driving to Bahrain or flying to Dubai to see movies. They see movies when they travel outside the country. They see movies at home by satellite dish. And as we’ve proven when we open theaters, they come to our theaters in huge numbers.”

Featured Image Credit: Vox Cinemas KSA, Attendees Watching “Frozen 2” in Riyadh.

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