ALEXIS CRUZ WRITES – The Saudi government lifted a 35-year ban on movie theaters in January. Saudi citizens are now able to experience the thrill of a big screen in their country. Is this the beginning of a typical Hollywood happy ending?
For this momentous occasion, a film festival in Jeddah put out a red carpet and sold popcorn to introduce the Saudi public to the movie-going experience. Screenings at Jeddah’s cultural center allowed men, women, and children to sit together—an unprecedented move for the conservative Muslim country. The Saudi Gazette published an article on decorum in preparation for the movie screenings, with basic advice on talking, child-monitoring etiquette, spoilers, phones, and sleeping during films.
The only questionable part of the extravaganza was the films chosen to kick the event off: “The Emoji Movie” and “Captain Underpants.” While the latter did decently well, “The Emoji Movie,” was one of the most critically panned movies in 2017. Mamdouh Salem, CEO of Cinema 70, explained that they wanted to show movies that were suitable for families. Although there are plenty of amazing international films that fit that description, people seemed content with the experience nevertheless.
Many Saudi families go to neighboring countries to see movies, and the Saudi government is interested in making more entertainment options available so that its citizens spend more money in their home country. Better product selection might help considerably.
This new freedom comes with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s introduction of new liberties, such as women recently gaining the right to drive, for economic reasons. Salman is reforming different aspects of Saudi society, including the media. Traditionally, television dominated the media market. All Saudi stations are state-owned, but Saudi Arabia is a big market for Pan-Arab cable channels that operate in neighboring countries. These are filled with popular news networks and television shows—meaning a lot of money goes abroad.
Big cinema companies are interested in banking on Saudi Arabia when permanent cinemas open in March 2018. AMC from the United States, United Kingdom’s Vue entertainment, and Canada’s IMAX are planning to open theaters. IMAX already has one theater operating in Saudi Arabia, and all three companies are preparing for negotiations to open new theaters.
But the liberties and new businesses will not bring radical change to Saudi Arabia. Censorship is still pervasive. Television channels, whether foreign or domestic, are censored. Newspapers operate under royal decree and practice self-censorship, Saudi Arabia jails any journalist it finds to be too critical. Any movie that screens in Saudi Arabia will face censorship and follow strict standards. The government is already preparing guidelines for future screenings.
Whatever change this will bring to Saudi Arabia will be interesting. The country seems bent on modernizing, but their reasons seem to be more economically influenced than socially. At least Saudi people now have the opportunity to have a movie going experience in their own country; and hopefully, get better movie selection in the future.