The world's largest movie theatre chain AMC has been granted the first license to operate movie theatres in Saudi Arabia.

5 Apr 2018 - 9:31 AM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2018 - 12:00 PM

The first will open in Riyadh in April 18.

Saudi Arabia's decision to lift a 35-year ban on cinemas has inspired a land rush as theatre chains jockey to break into the market. AMC chief Adam Aron has been particularly aggressive, journeying to the country to try to win over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"It is big news with global significance," Aron said on a call with journalists following the announcement. "Where else are you going to find a movie market that does not exist today that could be a billion dollars three or five years from now?" 

The deal is with the Development and Investment Entertainment Company, a subsidiary of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. AMC expects to open up to 40 cinemas in Saudi Arabia within five years and up to 100 by 2030.

With a population of 32 million, 70% of whom are under the age of 30, and a relatively affluent citizenry, some analysts expect that Saudi Arabia could eventually produce $1 billion in revenues and be among the top 10 markets for theatrical revenues. AMC and the Development and Investment Entertainment Company said their goal is to achieve approximately a 50% market share of the Saudi Arabian movie theater industry.

AMC isn't alone in its efforts to break into Saudi Arabia. Empire, Vue, iPic, CJ CGV, and Cinepolis are among the companies that have announced plans to have bases of operation in the country.

Saudi Arabia is a culturally conservative country - women didn't get the right to drive cars until 2017 - but the crown prince has been leading an effort to liberalise the nation and to diversify its oil-based economy. Despite the culture, AMC does not expect the theatres to be segregated based on gender, but it may offer special showtimes for just women or men.

"Saudi society is changing," Aron said. "I'm sure this will be a trial and error situation as the ministry takes the temperature of the populous. Currently it is our view the theatres will not be segregated."

The AMC chief would not reveal which Hollywood films will play in two weeks, but he predicted a "broad array" of pictures will score releases. Ultimately, the films hitting screens could emerge from local filmmakers.

"I expect to see a Saudi film industry emerge out of this," he said.

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