Cinema ban lifted as Black Panther is screened for Saudi audience

VIPs await a screening of Black Panther, the first public movie screening in Saudi Arabia following a decades-long ban, in Riyadh, on April 18, 2018.
VIPs await a screening of Black Panther, the first public movie screening in Saudi Arabia following a decades-long ban, in Riyadh, on April 18, 2018.PHOTO: NYTIMES
VIPs await a screening of Black Panther, the first public movie screening in Saudi Arabia following a decades-long ban, in Riyadh, on April 18, 2018.
VIPs await a screening of Black Panther, the first public movie screening in Saudi Arabia following a decades-long ban, in Riyadh, on April 18, 2018.PHOTO: NYTIMES

RIYADH (NYTIMES) - The audience strolled down the red carpet, fetched their popcorn and soda, and filed into the cinema for a night at the movies.

It was a sight common around the world. But in the capital of ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, it was a watershed moment: the first opening of a commercial movie theatre in more than 30 years.

The invitation-only screening of the Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther on Wednesday (April 18) was part of a wider social opening in the kingdom championed by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In addition to trying to reorient the Saudi economy away from oil and moderate its official religious rhetoric, Prince Mohammed, a son of the Saudi king and next in line to the throne, has sought to make life more enjoyable for those who have long complained that the country's strict religious rules make it a boring place to live.

Prince Mohammed has tried to change that by creating a government body tasked with expanding entertainment opportunities such as concerts, monster-truck rallies and operas.

While those events have been well-attended, they have reached limited numbers.

It is the opening of commercial movie theatres in shopping centres that will really affect the country's 32 million people.

 
 

Saudi officials hope that expanding entertainment options will not only allow citizens to have more fun, but also help the economy by keeping at home some of the millions of dollars that Saudis spend on entertainment abroad.

They hope that the creation of a domestic entertainment sector will also generate much-needed jobs for young Saudis.

While international companies have swooped into Saudi Arabia, signing deals to build and operate theatres, movies for the masses are not yet a reality, as Wednesday's event made clear.

The movie theatre itself, inside a largely vacant and only partially constructed financial district, had been hastily put together in a two-story concert hall that appeared better outfitted for symphonies.

Two other halls in the same complex still lacked seats.

But enthusiasm for the changes was tangible among the hundreds of VIP guests, who included government ministers, social media stars and at least one princess.

"We are very happy," said Ms Fouz al-Thiyabi, 35, the vice principal of a girls' elementary school, who came with a girlfriend. "They should have done this a long time ago."

She said she and her friends used to go to the movies abroad, like many Saudis who would flock to neighbouring Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates on weekends to see the latest flicks.

Now, she said, she looked forward to seeing movies close to home.

"I like modern movies, action movies," she said. She knew little about Black Panther, but said she would have come no matter what the movie had been.

"I don't know anything about the film; I came for the event," she said.

Some observers have noted similarities between recent events in Saudi Arabia and the plot of Black Panther, which tells the story of a prince who takes charge of his kingdom, struggles against a rival to the throne and chooses to lead his people in a new direction.

Could it be that Crown Prince Mohammed, who ousted his cousin to become heir to the throne and now seeks to transform Saudi society, sees himself as similar to T'Challa, the movie's hero?

Mr Adam Aron, the president and chief executive of AMC Entertainment, which opened the theatre, said he had brought his company to Saudi Arabia after meeting Crown Prince Mohammed in his palace. But he declined to say if he saw similarities in the two stories.

"It's a great movie, very popular with audiences, and we thought it would make everyone happy," said Mr Aron, who was in town for the screening. "What movie would you have picked?"

AMC plans to open at least 40 cinemas in 15 Saudi cities in the next three to five years, he said, and would like to open more than 100 in the next five to 10 years.

"We have a big vision and a big dream for Saudi Arabia," he said.