Saudi Arabia's 35-year cinema ban ends today with Black Panther screening

Saudi Arabia held a private screening today of the Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther — a stark reversal for a country where public movie screenings were banned in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism.

Event will be followed by a rush to build up to 40 AMC cinemas across the country

People gather at the King Abdullah Financial District Theatre in Riyadh a day ahead of the first public screening of a commercial film after a wave of ultraconservatism that began in the 1980s. (Center for International Communication via AP)

Saudi Arabia held a private screening today of the Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther — a stark reversal for a country where public movie screenings were banned in the 1980s during a wave of ultraconservatism.

Authorities planned the invitation-only screening of the movie in a concert hall converted into a cinema complex in the capital, Riyadh. The screening at the King Abdullah Financial District Theatre, attended by both men and women, will be followed by a rush to build movie theatres in major cities. 

The Saudi government has dubbed Wednesday's event as "the showing of the first commercial film in the kingdom after more than 35 years."

Audience members clearly enjoyed the moment, eating popcorn and erupting into applause and hoots when the movie started. 

"This is a landmark moment in the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a more vibrant economy and society," Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad said in statement ahead of the screening.

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 sought to ram through a number of major social reforms with support from his father, King Salman.

Dr. Awwad Alawwad, the Saudi minister of culture and information, tours the King Abdullah Financial District Theatre to follow up on preparations a day ahead of the Black Panther screening. (Centre for International Communication via AP)

Satiating desires of young population

The crown prince is behind measures such as lifting a ban on women driving that will go into effect this summer, and bringing back concerts and other forms of entertainment to satiate the desires of the majority young population. The social push by the 32-year-old heir to the throne is part of his so-called Vision 2030, a blueprint for the country that aims to boost local spending and create jobs amid sustained lower oil prices.

The government projects the opening of movie theatres will contribute more than 90 billion riyals ($30 billion Cdn) 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.

Over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has gradually been loosening restrictions on movie screenings, with local film festivals and screenings in makeshift theatres. For the most part, though, Saudis who wanted to watch a film in a movie theatre would have 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.

Saudi writer and dissident Jamal Khashoggi describes the theatres of the 1970s as being "like American drive-ins, except much more informal." In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, he wrote that to avoid being arrested at one of these screenings in Medina, a friend of his broke his leg jumping off a wall to escape the religious police.

By the 1980s, movie screenings were largely banned unless they took place in private residential compounds for foreigners or at cultural centres run by foreign embassies.

Cinema movies still subject to censorship

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.

Movies screened in Saudi cinemas will be subject to approval by government censors, as is the case in other Arab countries. Scenes of violence are not cut, but scenes involving nudity, sex or kissing often do get axed.

It's not clear whether Black Panther underwent a similar censorship for Wednesday's screening, which was attended by diplomats, industry insiders, the media and CEO of AMC Entertainment Adam Aron.

U.S.-based AMC was granted the first licence to operate a cinema in Saudi Arabia in a deal signed earlier this month in California with the crown prince.

AMC is partnering 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.