Saudi Arabia Prepares for First Public Cinema Opening in 35 Years

Black Panther Still 29 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

'Black Panther' is set to make history on Wednesday night in Riyadh, with 40 seconds of the film having been cut by local censors.

For Saudi Arabia's film industry, April 18, 2018 should go down in history.

At roughly 9 p.m. in Riyadh (11 a.m. PT), around 600 guests will sit down in a refitted ultra-modern conference hall in the King Abdullah Financial District to watch Black Panther usher in a new cultural era for the country.

The Marvel superhero blockbuster — already a major cultural landmark — will add another historic string to its bow when it becomes the first film to get an official public screening in the kingdom at the first movie theater to open there for 35 years. Saudi Arabia lifted its decades-long cinema ban in December.

Awwad Alawwad, Saudi's minister of culture and information who first announced the end to the ban, is set to attend the event, alongside Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Entertainment, which won the first license to operate movie theaters in the kingdom and runs the Riyadh cinema, one of 350 expected to open across the country by 2030. THR understands that diplomats and industry experts will also be in attendance, although no Black Panther stars or other Hollywood figures have made the trip. 

While Wednesday's opening has a strict schedule (socializing and networking followed by prayer, followed by ribbon cutting and inauguration), there is still one unknown that will only be unveiled on the night.

Will there be segregated seating separating male and female guests? The Saudi government has recently relaxed enforcement of laws banning co-mingling between unrelated men and women.

Another question is censorship: Will some scenes of Black Panther — particularly scenes showing too much skin — be cut? 

THR understands from Disney's regional distributor Italia Film that just 40 seconds of the film has been removed. While they wouldn't elaborate on which scenes these came from, the censoring is believed to be in line with cuts made to Black Panther across the region. 

Another industry insider suggests that, with the eyes of the world being on the event as a major step in Saudi Arabia's liberalization program, rules may have been relaxed.

"They want to send a special message out there," they told THR. "But going forward ... I don't know what the deal is going to be."

The opening of cinemas has been hugely welcomed in a country of 32 million, 70 percent of whom are under 30 years old. But there have been a few grumblings regarding the nature of Wednesday's event, with several complaining on Twitter that "regular people" couldn't attend. 

Others from the film industry have suggested that, while the new freedom for Saudis to watch films in public rather than on home entertainment or in gated communities is something to celebrate, the launch should have come with a highlight of locally made projects. 

"There are five ready feature and animation films (of Saudi origin)," says Mahmoud Sabbagh, director of Barakah Meets Barakah, which bowed in Berlin in 2016. "I wonder why the officials neglected them when orchestrating this gesture."

But there's significant promise on the horizon in the weeks and months following Black Panther's historic screening. The newly formed Saudi Film Council is set to attend the Cannes Film Festival, where Saudi Arabia will have its first pavilion and showcase several local shorts. News of the organization's film fund is likely to be announced in due course, alongside other initiatives aimed at providing a supportive platform for the nascent local scene. 

Irrespective of whoever got an invitation to Wednesday's event, there should be plenty to celebrate going forward.