Theater Chains Keep Pursuing Saudi Arabia Deals Despite Khashoggi Death

Charles Rivkin John Fithian CinemaCon - Getty - H 2019
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"I have talked to three chains this week that are proceeding," said National Association of Theatre Owners president and CEO John Fithian, who declined to identify the circuits.

Western theater chains remain interested in doing business in Saudi Arabia, despite the controversy over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last October.

National Association of Theatre Owners president and CEO John Fithian on Tuesday said that at least three chains are pursuing attaining licenses to operate cinemas in that country. That is in addition to AMC Theatres, which opened a location in Riyadh a year ago after a decades-old ban on cinemas was lifted. The first movie shown was Black Panther.

"Movies have been a sword of freedom for a very long time," Fithian told reporters during a press briefing at CinemaCon.

In recent days, Endeavor made good on a promise to return a $400 million investment made in the talent-entertainment-sports firm by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Endeavor first said it would return the money in the wake of the death of Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 and, according to intelligence officials, was brutally murdered and dismembered at the direction of the Saudi government.

Fithian said he consulted with a person high up at The Washington Post: "I told him we want to be respectful. He told me to keep building cinemas in Saudi Arabia."

"I have talked to three chains this week that are proceeding," said the NATO chief, who declined to identify the circuits. "Obviously, the assassination of a journalist is an awful human rights violation. Governments have to address that. I don't think it's our business to make foreign policy as a trade association."

Fithian hosted the press briefing with Motion Picture Association of America chairman-CEO Charles Rivkin. The duo were peppered with numerous questions about Netflix, which is now an MPAA member. 

Fithian declined to say whether NATO is in discussions with Netflix about Martin Scorsese's The Irishman.

"We have been very direct from the very beginning that movie screens are open to anyone that wants a traditional theatrical run," he said. "That offer extends to Netflix."

Rivkin was also asked about a possible Department of Justice inquiry into whether the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts & Sciences is considering changing its rules in order to require a film to play for a certain period of time in theaters. He said learned of the matter from press reports.

Rivkin was, however, happy to shares his thoughts on Netflix and the MPAA. He said the streamer has many of the same interests as Hollywood studios, including anti-piracy, trade and production incentives.

"I'm very proud to be the first MPAA chairman to bring in a digital company," he said.

Rivkin said the six major film studios who make up the MPAA voted unanimously to allow Netflix to become a member (with the Disney-Fox merger, there are now only five majors).

Rivkin said there are no discussions at the moment for Amazon to join the ranks of the trade org as well.