Saudi cinema opens after decades-long ban

In this Wednesday April 17, 2018 photo, people gather at the King Abdullah Financial District Theater a day ahead of the first public screening of a commercial film in more than 35 years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A private screening of the Hollywood blockbuster “Black Panther” will herald the launch of movie theaters that are set to open to the public next month. (Center for International Communication via AP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) – The lights dimmed and the crowd of men and women erupted into applause and hoots Wednesday evening as Hollywood’s blockbuster “Black Panther” premiered in Saudi Arabia’s first movie theater.

Though it was a private, invitation-only screening, for many Saudis it marked one of the clearest moments of change to sweep the country in decades. It’s seen as part of a new era in which women will soon be allowed to drive and people in the kingdom will be able to go to concerts and fashion shows, and tuck into a bucket of popcorn in a cinema.

“It’s a new era, a new age. It’s that simple. Things are changing, progress is happening. We’re opening up and we’re catching up with everything that’s happening in the world,” said Rahaf Alhendi, who attended the showing.

Authorities said the public would be able to purchase tickets online Thursday for showings starting Friday. But there may be delays.

Movies screened in Saudi cinemas will be subject to approval by government censors, and Wednesday night’s premiere was no exception. Scenes of violence were not cut, but a final scene involving a kiss was axed.

Still, it’s a stark reversal for a country where public movie screenings were banned in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism that swept Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi clerics view Western movies and even Arabic films made in Egypt and Lebanon as

sinful.

Despite decades of ultraconservative dogma, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed through a number of major social reforms with support from his father, King Salman, to satiate the desires of the country’s majority young population.

“This is a historic day for your country,” Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Entertainment, told the crowd at the screening. “It’s been about 37 years since you’ve been able to watch movies the way movies are meant to be watched in a theater, together on a big screen.”

U.S.-based AMC, one of the world’s biggest movie theater operators, only two weeks earlier signed a deal with Prince Mohammed to operate the first cinema in the kingdom. AMC and its local partner hurriedly transformed a concert hall in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, into a cinema complex for Wednesday’s screening.

Aron said the company plans to rip out the current concert-style seats and replace them with plush leather recliners and build three more screens in the complex to accommodate up to 5,000 movie-goers a day.

Samer Alsourani traveled from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province for the event. He commended the crown prince for following through on his promises to modernize the country.

“This is the first time that we really see something that’s really being materialized,” he said.

The social reforms undertaken by the 32-year-old heir to the throne are part of his so-called Vision 2030, a blueprint for Saudi Arabia that aims to boost local spending and create jobs amid sustained lower oil prices.