Hollywood Studio Chiefs Hail Opening of Saudi Arabia's First Cinema

Black Panther in Riyadh - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of The Center for International Communication

Tom Rothman, Jeff Shell, Jim Gianopulos, Alan Bergman and Kevin Tsujihara were among those to record special messages for the historic screening on Wednesday night in Riyadh.

The historic screening of Black Panther in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday night — marking the opening of the first movie theater in the country since a 35-year ban on cinemas was lifted in December — may have been a largely local affair, with the audience made up mostly of Saudi dignitaries and figures from the nation's cultural scene. 

But while Hollywood might not have been in attendance, its top brass paid tribute to the landmark occasion via a series of special videos shown before the screening. 

Sony's Tom Rothman, Universal's Jeff Shell, Paramount's Jim Gianopulos, Disney's Alan Bergman and Warner Bros.' Kevin Tsujihara all recorded messages congratulating Saudi Arabia on the opening of the cinema and hailing of a new era for film across the country. 

"We're so thrilled that we'll now be able to share our movies with audiences in Riyadh and throughout Saudi Arabia," said Tsujihara

"I can't tell you how thrilled and excited we are that now Columbia's movies will be available to be seen by the great people of Saudi Arabia, in theaters in your own country," added Rothman, while Bergman said Black Panther would be "the first of many great movies shown in this theater."

Former Film Academy president Hawk Koch also offered his optimism about the future prospects of Saudi Arabia's nascent film industry. 

"Given this opportunity, I'm sure that Saudi Arabian filmmakers are now going to start making the kinds of films that will gain recognition all over the world," he said. "And I bet very soon, a film from Saudi Arabia will get nominated for an Oscar. I love that you're going to the movies!"

Ensuring that it wasn't a purely male affair, Black Panther star Angela Bassett also recorded a video in which the acterss said she was "thrilled, honored and excited to bring Black Panther to Saudi Arabia."

Someone who actually was in the room to witness the historic moment was Mohammed Al Turki, the Saudi producer of titles including Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere, and the Andrew Garfield-starrer 99 Homes. 

"There were so many emotions," he told The Hollywood Reporter, speaking just hours after the screening ended. "When I arrived, I felt like a child all over again."

Al Turki said there there many Saudi actors and YouTube stars present in the audience, and confirmed what had been shown in photos from the event — that there wasn't any segregation.

"I was sitting next to a Western couple, and in front of us there was a group of Saudi women," he said, adding that he felt that this approach — still a gray area in Saudi Arabia as it undergoes dramatic reforms — wouldn't just be a one-off for the launch. "I think this is how it's going to be going forward." 

While Wednesday's screening was a private, invite-only affair, tickets for public screenings will start online Thursday (Al Turki said that they're only accepting online bookings at first because of a fear that huge pent-up demand will create traffic chaos). Black Panther will soon be joined by both Avengers: Age of Ultron and Dwayne Johnson's latest blockbuster Rampage, with another cinema set to open in central Riyadh next week.

"It really felt like a historic moment," Al Turki said. "People were very happy, there was a lot of cheering."

And as to why Black Panther was chosen to lift the 35-year ban, Al Turki said AMC Theatres president and CEO Adam Aron had an answer connected to Saudi Arabia's recent seismic developments.

"He said it wasn't just because it was so successful, but because the story of the film followed a prince who wanted the best for his kingdom, and it was something a lot of people here could relate to," said Al Turki.