Saudis attend a short film competition in Riyadh. Image Credit: AFP

Amman: With the official opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia set for March, cinema companies and movie-goers are embracing for an exciting new chapter in entertainment.

The reversal of the ban, which lasted 35 years, is part of the country’s 2030 Vision stamped by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to modernise and move the country forward.

Many Saudis have lauded the opening of a “cultural sector” in the country that had long been stifled.

Now Saudi film producers, directors, screen writers and actors have a huge opportunity to shape the nation’s art culture going forward.

Internationally award-winning films like Wajda by Haifa Mansour and of Barakah Meets Barakah by Mohammad Al Sabagh are already set to be shown in cinemas for their grand opening.

The government target is to have 300 cinemas houses in the country by 2030, having 2000 screens distributed throughout major cities.

This would generate an extra 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) and create 30,000 jobs nationwide.

While much of the cinema infrastructure is yet to be built and many location sare still to be decided, they will most likely be in the country’s main population centres.

In Jeddah, there are already five malls with ready-to-go cinemas.

“There are 10 malls ready for cinemas currently in the country. They are just waiting for the cinema licences,” Mohammad Al Alawi, chairman of the Shopping Centres Committee in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said.

Many international cinema houses’ companies have already lined up to enter the Saudi market.

Majid Al Futtaim, a UAE property developer of shopping malls and entertainment facilities, and owner of the Vox Cinemas, is at the forefront and wants to capture the Saudi market alongside Britain’s Vu Entertainment, America’s AMC and the Canadian IMAX —  with the latter operating the only single cinema showing educational films at the Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Science and Technology Centre since 2005.

IMAX, which specialises in providing windscreen cinemas, expects to build 20 theatres within the next three years and Vu Entertainment is expected to build between 20 and 30 cinemas in the next three years.

As well, AMC, a Chinese-owned company based in Kansas is eyeing the Saudi market to add to its 11,000 screen cinemas in Europe besides holding the global Odeon chain.

These companies have rushed to sign Memorandums of Understanding with the Saudi government through its Public Investment Fund which has already allocated SR 10 billion ($2.66 billion) to boost what the government terms the “broader cultural sector” that includes halls for concerts and expected to support the growth of the country’s leisure sector particularly in the light of Saudi Arabia’s young population of around 30 million, 65 per cent to 75 per cent of which are under the age of 30 and the fact 50 percent are under the age of 25.

“Saudis thrive on entertainment. They’re some of the biggest film fans in the Arab world,” prominent Saudi Film director Mohammad Al Salman says.

Already, Saudi Arabia held its first stand-up comedy festival in Jeddah earlier this month which was an overwhelming success attracting a whopping 10,000 spectators.

During the years of the cinema ban, Saudis were forced to travel to Bahrain and the UAE for their entertainment fix.

Saudi Arabia wants to keep more money in the country by entertaining its citizens within its own borders.

Under the 2030 Vision, Saudi Arabia aims to boost average household spending on entertainment from the current three per cent to six per cent.

Already industry executives are predicting a double-digit growth in the sector by 2020.

Sociologists have long argued the reason why young Saudis practice the dangerous activity of car drifting is because of the lack of recreational outlets.

“Everyone is banking on the new era. Saudis tend to suffer from national boredom and the introduction of cinemas would certainly put an end to that,” said Saudi screen writer Yasin Kamel who wrote the script for the animated film Bilal: A New Breed of Hero in 2015.

“I feel like we’re about to relive what Egypt was like in the ‘50s,” Mansour said in reference to Egypt’s golden age of cinema.

She also predicted cinema would lessen extremism in the country.

“You need to give people a love of life. A love of life comes from joy and cinema is joy,” she said.

Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a Phd in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.