As Saudi Arabia opens its doors to the entertainment industry after a 35-year ban on cinemas, a lingering question remains as to how exhibitors will accommodate the country’s cultural and religious practices, specifically when it comes to gender segregation.
Last week, Black Panther screened at the country’s first theater to open since the cinema ban lifted, at an AMC in Riyadh. On Monday afternoon, on the opening day of CinemaCon in Las Vegas, AMC president and CEO Adam Aron shared a few images from the event at a panel discussing the country’s burgeoning exhibition industry. The image included one of the audience inside the theater, with Aron making the point, “As you can see, the seating is not segregated by gender.”
“There were many options on the table,” said NATO president and panel moderator John Fithian of meeting with Saudi officials about the logistics of opening up theaters in the country. The options discussed included gender-exclusive separate complexes or showtimes, separation by levels or down the aisles. “We just discussed how to be respectful of the culture while also selling tickets.”
Aron recounted the back-and-forth in deciding how theater seating would be arranged in the region where gender segregation is the norm in most public venues.
“As recently as three weeks ago, all showings were going to be integrated,” he said. Then the plans changed to allow for “single male” or “bachelor” screenings and separate “family screenings,” which require a woman to be accompanied by a spouse or male blood relative. “In the end we just opened up with family screenings only.”
“It’ll change again and again as the country tries to get it right,” said Aron. “If I can make a prediction — they are going to integrate theaters. That’s our working expectation. But it may take some time.”
He added, “So far, it is not inhibiting sales, because we are sold out.”
AMC plans to open additional screens in Riyadh in the coming days, with Aron adding that Dwayne Johnson’s Rampage has been approved by Saudi censors to screen in the country, while Avengers: Infinity War is also expected to screen.