New Saudi Arabia Theaters Could Include Prayer Rooms

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"We've offered showtimes for prayer time and for purposes of Ramadan," says National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian.

Theater owners who are planning on operating cinemas in Saudi Arabia are preparing for the possibility that they will have to construct prayer rooms on site.

The sole AMC theater that is now open in Riyadh has a prayer room, according to National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian, who addressed questions about Saudi Arabia during a press briefing at CinemaCon on Tuesday.

Fithian said it is yet to be determined whether prayer rooms will be required in all new cinemas, but that's a real possibility. The current AMC location is a renovated performing arts center that already had a prayer room.

"We've offered showtimes for prayer time and for purposes of Ramadan," Fithian also said. 

As Saudi Arabia opens its doors to the entertainment industry after a 35-year ban on cinemas, a lingering questions remains as to how exhibitors will accommodate the country's cultural and religious practices, which include daily prayer and the segregation of genders.

"There were many options on the table," said Fithian at a panel yesterday of meeting with Saudi officials about the logistics of gender segregation while 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."

"As recently as three weeks ago, all showings were going to be integrated," said AMC CEO Adam Aron. 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."