From Marvel movies to Hollywood rom-coms and Oscar-winning blockbusters, the magic of the Big Screen has captivated audiences across Saudi Arabia for five years since the Kingdom – under its Vision 2030 plans – lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, paving the way for theater chains to open a multitude of cinemas and screens across the country.
American chain AMC Entertainment – the first cinema to operate in Saudi Arabia – reopened its doors on April 18, 2018, with a historic first screening of Marvel’s “Black Panther” at the AMC cinema in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District.
Other cinema heavyweights, including VOX Cinema, Emaar’s Reel Cinemas and Muvi Cinemas have since followed.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English, CEO Adon Quinn said Muvi Cinemas was the first homegrown cinema brand to launch in the Kingdom and operates dozens of cinemas and hundreds of screens across the country – with many more in the pipeline in 2023.
“We currently have 205 screens across 21 locations and 10 different cities across the Kingdom,” he said. “The company is the market leader in both screen and market share, employing over 1,000 team members. Another five locations are scheduled to open in 2023, and there are more premium locations in the pipeline.”
Since 2018, Quinn said, across the Kingdom, the time before the buzz of a new box office release and packed-out cinemas from Riyadh to Jeddah is a distant memory.
A ‘world class’ cinema offering
“The cinema offering in Saudi Arabia is world-class,” said Quinn. “The oldest cinema in this market is only five years old, and this is why you see the latest technology experiences across the Kingdom.”
“Exhibitors had the opportunity to focus on delivering the most up-to-date experiences,” he added.
According to Quinn, for Muvi, the top month-spinners at the box office have been Top Gun Maverick starring Tom Cruise. Other films making up the top five films in terms of admissions see a mix from Hollywood, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with Spiderman No-Way Home (Hollywood) coming in at number two, followed by Bahebek (Egyptian), Sattar (Saudi) and Wafeet Regala (Egyptian).
Power of homegrown films
The box office figures demonstrate the power of homegrown films – which have soared since lifting the cinema ban. Up until 2018, the Kingdom’s film pioneers had to focus on foreign markets to get their works shown. The lifting of the ban has demonstrated the wealth of opportunity for producing local content on Saudi soil.
Saudi entertainment giant MBC has invested enormously in producing more homegrown content in the Kingdom. At the same time, Dubai-based mall operator Majid Al Futtaim, which owns the VOX Cinemas chain, has also tapped into the market.
Quinn said Muvi, too, saw the vast potential within the Kingdom.
“After seeing the strong demand for homegrown films, the company has made the decision to establish Muvi Studios with a focus on Saudi and regional films,” said Quinn.
“To date, we have released two films which have delivered over one million admissions to the Saudi box office in 2023.”
Sattar, the first Saudi film from Muvi studios, is the most prominent Saudi film of all time and number four of all movies released since the reopening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia, according to Quinn.
“Furthermore, Etneen Lel Igaar, the first Egyptian film from Muvi Studios, was received from the Saudi audience as number 37 of all time in the Saudi box office which is a great achievement given there are over 400 films released each year,” he said. “Looking ahead, Muvi Studios aims to release another four to six titles in 2023, building up to more than 25 films every year from 2025.”
A ‘historic moment’
Across the Kingdom, nationals and expats alike say lifting the ban has made a huge impact.
Moussa Fares, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, told Al Arabiya English that he still remembers when the news about the ban being lifted was announced.
Fares said there was a lot of excitement surrounding the news and that many were looking forward to witnessing this new experience in the Kingdom.
“We waited [for] weeks to get tickets and when we went, we felt like this was the first time we visited a cinema,” he said. “We felt and saw the excitement [among] all the people that were around us. Adults were like children going to an amusement park. People were happy, laughing and enthusiastically waiting to watch their movie in a Saudi cinema,” Fares recalled.
After the ban was lifted, Moussa said that more entertainment options were announced, including the launch of Saudi seasons “that encouraged people to enjoy the country even more.”
“We knew and felt that after lifting the ban on cinemas, the entertainment industry will prosper more in Saudi Arabia as this was also part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030,” he noted.
‘A wish come true’
Saudi national Abdulrahman Hamed Alibrahimi also described the excitement that came with the news of the ban being lifted. Having lived through the before and after phases of the decision, Alibrahimi said that the move was a “nice” one and “a decision that should have been made.”
“It was a wish that came true, and we were very happy with the decision,” Alibrahimi told Al Arabiya English.
He recalled the weeks after the ban was removed, saying that the news was at the heart of many meetings and family conversations where the anticipation of cinemas opening was high.
“My first visit was with friends at the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah,” Alibrahimi recalled.
For him, the decision to lift the ban contributed to the beginning of a boost in the entertainment scene and sector, especially in attracting people and visitors.
“Other Gulf countries [had this option available] and for many Saudis watching movies at the cinemas was an essential item on their travel list,” Alibrahimi said. “With the developing entertainment scene in Saudi Arabia, this helped change this notion where “now all means are available in the Kingdom, making it a place that attracts tourists from all over the world.”
Saleem Charafeddine, who moved to Saudi Arabia in 2017, said that although he is not a movie enthusiast, it was still important to have this as an option in the Kingdom among other entertainment facilities.
“Although I’m not a cinephile, but it’s always good to have an option,” Charafeddine told Al Arabiya English. “Now it’s simply one step away and not a part of our travel plans anymore.”
For many, few could have predicted the plans Saudi Arabia had for its film industry.
In April 2019, the Saudi government announced that it would invest $35 billion in building cinemas and theaters, mainly in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
According to a study in the same year by PwC Middle East, a global advisory firm, the Kingdom’s cinema industry – which will serve a population of more than 32 million, the majority of whom are under the age of 30 – is expected to generate $1.5 billion in annual revenue by 2030.
Developing homegrown filmmakers
A huge focus for Saudi Arabia is now on developing homegrown movies and local filmmakers.
In 2021, the Saudi Film Commission – established in 2020 – stepped up its plans to put Saudi cinemas on the map with a new strategy to establish the Kingdom as a world-class film hub and build an industry with an annual revenue of $500 million.
Film Commission CEO Abdullah al-Qhatani said at the time, “The Saudi film sector has gone from strength to strength with the emergence of the sector providing once-in-a-lifetime business opportunities and partnerships. The strategy provides our roadmap to achieve our aspirations of making Saudi a global hub for film production and talent. The cinema industry in Saudi is one of the fastest-growing in the Middle East; which is further evidence that the Saudi film sector is the emerging market to watch.”
The film commission strategy focuses on key areas, including ensuring a world-class talent pipeline; and ensuring homegrown talent can compete with the best; creating a film sector that can compete in terms of services, offerings and incentives; boosting domestic film production, attracting further international production houses, and promoting and distributing Saudi films in regional and international markets.
A new Saudi Film Institute was also launched, dedicated to film production, professional training in cinematic storytelling, and wider creative and technical skills, such as sound engineering and animation.
This was dovetailed by the launch of a national training program for talent development in technical film industry skills including professional certification.
Then, the first ever Red Sea International Film Festival was launched in Jeddah in 2021. It saw local, regional and international film enthusiasts, filmmakers and film investors descend on the Red Sea coast.
Saudi Arabia’s entertainment transformation
While superhero fantasies, comedies and action dramas have delighted crowds across the country, the lifting of the cinema ban has not only provided a much-needed nightly and weekend source of entertainment - it has also paved the way for other avenues of recreation, from music festivals including MDLBeast to amusement parks and entertainment festivals, including the popular Riyadh Festival.
In five short years, the Saudi Arabia transformed its entertainment scene.
Few could disagree it was the moment on April 18, 2018, when moviegoers queued for their tickets, filled their seats and bulk-bought the popcorn, which paved the way for Saudi Arabia’s entertainment transformation.
Al Arabiya English's Ghinwa Obeid contributed to this report.
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