Saudi Arabia’s first new cinema in decades to open on April 18

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's first cinema in more than 35 years will open on April 18 in Riyadh, the capital, the authorities said on Wednesday after agreeing with AMC Entertainment Holdings to open up to 40 theatres over the next five years.

Movie theatres will not be segregated by sex like most other public places in the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom, and the first screening will be Marvel's Black Panther, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia had cinemas in the 1970s but its powerful clerics closed them, reflecting rising Islamist influence then.

Last year, the government said it would lift the ban as part of ambitious economic and social reforms pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed Salman. He is touring the US seeking investments to help broaden the economy and lessen its dependence on oil.

Saudi Arabians are avid consumers of Western media. Despite the cinema ban, Hollywood films and television series are widely watched at home and discussed.

AMC's first cinema will be in the King Abdullah Financial District, in a building originally intended as a symphony concert hall, AMC chief executive Adam Aron said. The main theatre will have about 500 leather seats, orchestra and balcony levels and marble bathrooms, he said.

Three more screens will be added by mid-year.

"We think it is going to be the prettiest movie theatre in the world," Mr Aron said.

To serve a population of more than 32 million, most of whom are under the age of 30, Saudi Arabia wants to set up around 350 cinemas with over 2,500 screens by 2030, which it hopes will attract US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in annual ticket sales.

"The restoration of cinemas will... help boost the local economy by increasing household spending on entertainment while supporting job creation in the kingdom," Culture and Information Minister Awwad Alawwad said in a statement.

Mr Aron said he expects the same versions of films shown in Dubai or Kuwait will be suitable for Saudi Arabia.

Separately, Six Flags Entertainment said it plans to develop a theme park in Riyadh with PIF, Saudi's sovereign wealth fund.

Cirque du Soleil will stage its first show in the country on Sept 23, according to a statement from the kingdom's General Entertainment Authority. It also said it had reached a deal for other live shows such as Disney On Ice. - REUTERS