Saudi Arabia has ended a 35-year ban on movie theaters with a screening of “Black Panther.”
American movie theater company, AMC, (AMC) played the Hollywood blockbuster on Wednesday at its new single-screen cinema in the financial district of the capital Riyadh.
The screening opening was limited to about 500 invited guests, executives and officials, but public screenings of the movie will begin soon, AMC said. A Saudi official said that would happen from May 1.
A Saudi private investment firm, in collaboration with AMC Entertainment, an American cinema chain, hosted the opening night and plan to open three more screens at the complex later this year, according to the Saudi Gazette.
The partnership envisions opening 30 to 40 cinemas in some 15 cities nationwide over the next five years. By 2030, the Saudi government hopes to have up to 100 more up and running in 25 cities.
The revival of the cinema is the latest move by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the blessing of his father, to ease social restrictions by also opening concert halls, clubs and dropping the ban on women drivers.
It marks a sharp reversal from the clampdown by the Saudi leadership that followed the 1979 seizure of The Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremists. The siege ended after two weeks with the help of French special forces.
Shaken, the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent while also tightening social norms in a trade off to shore up its support of the ultra conservative Wahhabi clergy. Many Saudi clerics view Western movies and even Arabic films made in Egypt and Lebanon as sinful.
The social push by the heir to the throne is part of his so-called Vision 2030, a blueprint for the country that aims to boost local spending and create jobs amid sustained lower oil prices.
“This is a landmark moment in the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a more vibrant economy and society,” Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad said in statement ahead of the screening. “Cinema has always played an important role in bringing cultures together, and Saudi Arabia is ready to play its part,” he said, according to Saudi Gazette.
Movies screened in Saudi cinemas will be subject to approval by government censors, as is the case in other Arab countries. Scenes of violence are not cut, but scenes involving nudity, sex or even kissing are often deleted.
The U.S.-based AMC was granted the first license to operate a cinema in Saudi Arabia in a deal signed earlier this month in California with the crown prince.
Until now, Saudis who wanted to watch a film in a movie theater would have to drive to nearby Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates for weekend trips to the cinema. Other at-home options include streaming services, such as Netflix, and satellite TV, although this can run into attempts by the government to censor what the Saudi public could view.
Saudi writer and dissident Jamal Khashoggi describes the theaters of the 1970s as being “like American drive-ins, except much more informal.” In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, he wrote that to avoid being arrested at one of these screenings in Medina, a friend of his broke his leg jumping off a wall to escape the religious police.
The film “Black Panther,” which has taken in more than $1.2 billion worldwide, is a particularly apt film to end the ban. It features an African country that was never colonized or conquered and used its wealth to develop advanced technology while isolating itself from the rest of the world.