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International companies compete for cinema market in Saudi Arabia

Vue Entertainment [Ross Watson/Geograph]

The world's largest film companies are stepping up their plans to open cinemas across Saudi Arabia after the kingdom issued a resolution to lift a 35-year ban on such entertainment venues, Huffington Post Arabic has reported. According to a report published in the Financial Times, Britain's Vue Entertainment, America's AMC and the Canadian IMAX Corporation are among the most prominent companies competing to open cinemas in the Kingdom. The first could open as soon as March.

The lifting of the Saudi ban provides these companies with the opportunity to recover from a downturn in business in North America and Europe, where their main markets are. Saudi Arabia is a hugely promising market, which is apparently hungry for cinemas. The government in Riyadh has revealed its willingness to provide financial support for the expansion of the film industry and its market.

According to estimates, 300 cinemas will open in the Kingdom by 2030, creating 30,000 jobs and boosting the economy by around $24 billion.

Vue Entertainment is among those moving forward with their plans. Informed sources say that the company is already talking with a $200bn Saudi sovereign wealth fund. It hopes to open 20 to 30 cinemas across the country. According to the Financial Times, Vue CEO Tim Richards received a personal invitation from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to attend a business conference in October, which was attended by senior CEOs from various international companies.

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The aim of the conference was to review Bin Salman's plans to modernise the conservative Kingdom and attract investment. One goal is to increase the average expenditure of Saudi families on entertainment to reach six per cent of the GDP; it is currently at 2.9 per cent.

Vue did not comment on the projects, but Richards described the opening of the Saudi market as "an exciting moment in the history of cinema." He added: "This may become an important opportunity for Vue as it has fantastic projects underway, and we look forward to completing our discussions in the region."

AMC is the world's largest company in terms of the number of cinemas that it owns, which includes the Odeon chain. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Public Investment Fund last month, saying it would "consider options for trade opportunities cooperation that will support the growth of the Kingdom's leisure sector." However, AMC did not reveal any details of its projects and declined to make further comments on the matter.

Nevertheless, the official spokesman of the Saudi Public Investment Fund said that it sees many promising opportunities in the Kingdom's leisure sector. "We look forward to working with AMC Entertainment to explore the industry's development opportunities, the value of which is expected to reach $1bn."

Saudi Arabia allows cinemas after more than a three-decade ban

The CEO of the Canadian large screen IMAX Corporation, Richard Gelfond, said that the company is already managing the only cinema in Saudi Arabia, which was opened at the Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Centre for Science and Technology in 2005 and features educational films.

"We have been monitoring the situation closely for a year now," explained Gelfond, "and we are already engaged in preliminary negotiations with a number of film operators interested in the region. We are about to announce our first deal in the Kingdom, and we believe that in three years we will be able to open 20 cinemas there."

He pointed out that IMAX has done well in its performance and growth in the Middle East in recent years. "Since Saudi Arabia is a market for quality luxury products, we expect it to be a promising market with strong growth."

Other companies have also been preparing for liberal modernisation and openness in the Kingdom for months. They have started to build the infrastructure for the announcement on cinemas. In December, Majid Al-Futtaim, a Dubai-based shopping centre operator, said he would open a branch in Saudi Arabia for his company's Vox Cinema brand.

The background to all of this is that cinemas have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s. The Crown Prince's modernisation plans aim to boost domestic spending and reduce the flow of cash to more open destinations such as Dubai and Bahrain, both of which are popular tourist destinations for Saudi citizens.

However, according to one of the CEOs who attended the negotiations with the Saudi authorities, the cinemas that are to be opened will be designed with the conservative values of the Kingdom in mind. This means allocating whole cinemas or certain seats to single men, families and women. The interviewee added that the distributors must also submit their films to be censored prior to them being shown.

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Middle EastNewsSaudi Arabia
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