Silver Screen Gets New Life in Saudi Arabia

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April 5, 2018

Saudi Arabia will begin showing movies in public later this month. First up: Black Panther.

The reopening (or construction) of movie theaters is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 plan, a wide-ranging initiative to prepare for the country and its economy and its people for a leading role in the world from now until that year and beyond. Already, the country has embarked on a plan to move beyond its dependence on oil, including a recent announcement of a plan to build the world's largest solar power plant.

The movie theater plan calls for dozens of theaters in cities across the country. Up first will be America-based AMC, which will open up to 40 theaters during the next five years and 100 in a total of 25 cities by 2030. Straight on the heels of that initiative comes an announcement from U.K.-based Vue International of a 30-theater deal.

Saudi Arabia had movie theaters, opened and run by expats, in the 1930s. Those theaters ran movies for decades but were closed in the 1980s. The Internet has brought many Saudi residents into the realm of streaming video; that access is restricted to private viewings.

Box office giant Black Panther will screen at a converted symphony hall in Riyadh, the country's capital for five days, then make way for another superhero blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War. The government made the movie theater announcement in December and had a test-screening of a handful of animated children's films in January.

Also, and perhaps more important culturally, many theaters will not divide movie-goers by gender. That policy will stand in stark contrast to other public venues at which men and women to this day are required, by law or by custom, to keep separate. This from the government that recently announced its intention to allow women to get driver's licenses for the first time, beginning in June. Thousands of women have already begun driver training.

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