RIYADH (AFP) - Blockbuster action flick Black Panther will play at a cinema test screening in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday (April 18), the first in a series of trial runs before movie theatres open to the wider public next month.
The conservative kingdom lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas last year as part of a far-reaching liberalisation drive, with US giant AMC Entertainment granted the first licence to operate movie theatres.
Anticipation had been building after the authorities announced earlier this month that Saudi Arabia's first cinema in over three decades would open on Wednesday in Riyadh.
But officials close to the government and local media said this week that it would be a test screening at the new cinema in the King Abdullah Financial District and movie theatres are expected to open to the public in May.
"It will be the first in a series of test screenings, attended by industry specialists, that will be held... to support final preparations for the opening of the cinema to the wider public," said a public relations firm representing the Saudi government.
AMC Entertainment signed a non-binding agreement in December with Saudi Arabia's vast Public Investment Fund to build and operate cinemas across the kingdom.
Saudi state media has said the company expects to open 40 cinemas across 15 Saudi cities over the next five years.
International theatre chains have long eyed the kingdom as the Middle East's last untapped mass market of more than 30 million people, the majority of whom are under 25.
AMC will still face stiff competition from other heavyweights including Dubai-based VOX Cinemas, the leading operator in the Middle East.
The move to reopen cinemas is part of a modernisation drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to balance unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more entertainment options - despite opposition from religious hardliners.
Long known for its ultra-conservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a wide-ranging programme of social reforms that includes boosting sports and entertainment and allowing women to drive from June.
In February, Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority announced it will stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump US$64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.
The reform stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom reels from an oil slump since 2014.
Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai.