RIYADH: Ending Saudi Arabia’s 35-year ban on cinema theatres is one of the liberalising reforms attributed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and international cinema brands have been quick to respond to the opportunity.
Vue Entertainment of the UK, AMC of the US and IMAX of Canada are among a number of leading industry players that have already entered negotiations with the conservative kingdom, which the Financial Times reports has indicated it is willing to provide financial assistance to fund expansion.
Vue Entertainment is arguably at the most advanced stage of talks after its chief executive, Tim Richards, received a personal invitation from the Crown Prince to attend a business conference last October.
Citing “people familiar with the situation”, the Financial Times revealed that Vue is in talks with the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi $200bn sovereign wealth fund, about setting up a joint venture with the aim of opening between 20 to 30 cinemas.
Although Vue declined to comment on its plans, Tim Richards has described the opening of the Saudi Arabian market as “an exciting moment in the history of cinema”.
“This could be a significant opportunity for Vue,” he added. “They have some incredible plans in place and we look forward to continuing our conversations in the region.”
Saudi Arabia, with a population of about 30 million, is an entirely untapped cinema market, yet it has plans to open about 300 cinemas by 2030 as it seeks to boost domestic spending and reduce the flow of tourist money to more liberal destinations, such as Dubai and Bahrain.
Meanwhile, IMAX chief executive Rich Gelfond has confirmed that the Canadian firm is close to announcing its first deal in Saudi Arabia that could lead to it opening 20 theatres in the country within three years.
“We’ve been following the situation closely for nearly a year now and are already in preliminary negotiations with a number of cinema operators that are interested in the region,” he said.
And AMC Theatres, the Kansas-based owner of the Odeon and UCI brands, has said it would “explore a range of commercial opportunities for collaboration that will support the growth of the kingdom’s entertainment sector” after signing a memorandum of understanding with the PIF last month.
However, as global cinema brands make their preparations, at least one industry executive has warned that they will have to adapt to the particular requirements of the Saudi market.
That could include separate screens or seating areas for single men, families and women and, most likely, would also require movies to be submitted to official censors prior to screening.
Sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff