RIYADH, Saudi Arabia >> The lights dimmed and the crowd of men and women erupted into applause and hoots today as Hollywood’s blockbuster “Black Panther” premiered in Saudi Arabia’s first movie theater.
Though it was a private, invitation-only screening, for many Saudis it marked one of the clearest moments of change to sweep the country in decades. It’s seen as part of a new era in which women will soon be allowed to drive and people in the kingdom will be able to go to concerts and fashion shows, and tuck into a bucket of popcorn in a cinema.
“It’s a new era, a new age. It’s that simple. Things are changing, progress is happening. We’re opening up and we’re catching up with everything that’s happening in the world,” said Rahaf Alhendi, who attended the showing.
Authorities said the public would be able to purchase tickets online Thursday for showings starting Friday. But there may be delays.
Movies screened in Saudi cinemas will be subject to approval by government censors, and Wednesday night’s premiere was no exception. Scenes of violence were not cut, but a final scene involving a kiss was axed.
Still, it’s a stark reversal for a country where public movie screenings were banned in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism that swept Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi clerics view Western movies and even Arabic films made in Egypt and Lebanon as sinful.
Despite decades of ultraconservative dogma, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed through a number of major social reforms with support from his father, King Salman, to satiate the desires of the country’s majority young population.
“This is a historic day for your country,” Adam Aron, CEO of AMC Entertainment, told the crowd at the screening. “It’s been about 37 years since you’ve been able to watch movies the way movies are meant to be watched in a theater, together on a big screen.”
U.S.-based AMC, one of the world’s biggest movie theater operators, only two weeks earlier signed a deal with Prince Mohammed to operate the first cinema in the kingdom. AMC and its local partner hurriedly transformed a concert hall in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, into a cinema complex for today’s screening.
Aron said the company plans to rip out the current concert-style seats and replace them with plush leather recliners and build three more screens in the complex to accommodate up to 5,000 movie-goers a day.
Samer Alsourani traveled from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province for the event. He commended the crown prince for following through on his promises to modernize the country.
“This is the first time that we really see something that’s really being materialized,” he said.
The social reforms undertaken by the 32-year-old heir to the throne are part of his so-called Vision 2030, a blueprint for Saudi Arabia that aims to boost local spending and create jobs amid sustained lower oil prices.
The Saudi government projects that the opening of movie theaters will contribute more than 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) to the economy and create more than 30,000 jobs by 2030. The kingdom says there will be 300 cinemas with around 2,000 screens built by 2030.
AMC has partnered with a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, to build up to 40 AMC cinemas across the country over the next five years.
Saudi Arabia had already started gradually loosening restrictions on movie screenings in the past few years, with local film festivals and screenings in makeshift theaters. For the most part, though, until now Saudis who wanted to watch a film in a movie theater had to drive to nearby Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates for weekend trips to the cinema.
In the 1970s, there were informal movie screenings but the experience could be interrupted by the country’s religious police, whose powers have since been curbed.
Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi writer, describes the theaters of the 1970s as being “like American drive-ins, except much more informal.” In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, he wrote that a friend once broke his leg at a screening in Medina when he jumped off a wall to escape the religious police and avoid arrest.
By the 1980s, movie screenings were largely banned unless they took place in private residential compounds for foreigners or at cultural centers run by foreign embassies.
Access to streaming services, such as Netflix, and satellite TV steadily eroded attempts by the government to censor what the Saudi public could view. By 2013, the film “Wadjda” made history by becoming the first Academy Award entry for Saudi Arabia, though it wasn’t nominated for the Oscars.
To adhere to the kingdom’s norms on gender segregation, certain screenings may be held for families and others for male-only crowds. But, generally movie theaters will not be gender segregated with “family sections” for women and related men and separate “single sections” for male-only crowds as is customary at restaurants and cafes.
Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad told the Associated Press the government aims to strike a balance between the country’s Islamic mores and people’s movie experiences.
“We want to ensure the movies are in line with our culture and respect for values. Meanwhile, we want to provide people with a beautiful show and really enjoy watching their own movies,” he said.
The new movie theater also came equipped with prayer rooms to accommodate the daily Muslim prayer times.