Wednesday night, Black Panther changed Saudi Arabia’s entertainment landscape during the first film screening in the kingdom in 35 years.
The screening, an invitation-only gala held by AMC, celebrated the arrival of Saudi Arabia’s new AMC theater, a renovated concert hall in Riyadh. The New York Times reports that the screening was attended by hundreds of VIP guests, including Princess Reema bint Bandar, the second cousin of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who orchestrated the kingdom’s new stance on movie theaters. According to Reuters, the princess also brought her 16-year-old son so he could experience “a historical moment.” The screening had no clear separation between men and women.
Movie theaters were originally banned in the 1980s by religious conservatives, but the decision to reopen them comes from the 32-year-old crown prince, who plans to reform the kingdom in many areas aside from entertainment; Prince Mohammed also wants to take his country away from its dependence on oil and bring a moderate take to the country’s religious rhetoric, according to The New York Times.
The Black Panther screening affects Saudi Arabia in more ways than one. Aside from it being the first film to screen in the kingdom in over three decades, it’s also one that could be seen as a reflection of Prince Mohammed himself; both Prince Mohammed and the newly-crowned Wakandan king T’Challa seek to transform their countries into more moderate, open societies. Ironically, they both also had to challenge their cousins for the right to rule; while T’Challa had Killmonger, Prince Mohammed had his older cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, head of the Saudi Interior Ministry.
The film’s popularity also reflects how big of an industry movie theaters can become in Saudi Arabia; instead of forcing young Saudis to visit nearby Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to see films, Saudi Arabia can now take advantage of their market of young people and utilize its spending power to help the kingdom’s economy instead of other nations’. Also, a new sector can create more jobs for the kingdom’s young workforce; as The Guardian reports, the majority of the kingdom’s population of 30 million are under 25 years of age, which not only makes them a huge factor in Saudia Arabia’s economy, but also an untapped market for international theater chains.
That excitement was exhibited by many in attendance, including 35-year-old Fouz al-Thiyabi, a vice principal of a girls’ elementary school. She told The New York Times, “We are very happy…They should have done this a long time ago.”
According to The Guardian, AMC chief executive Adam Aron said tickets would go on sale Thursday for the first public screenings of the Marvel film Friday. However, Saudi authorities said test screenings could go on for days; the kingdom’s movie theaters are expected to open in May, according to officials on the ground. More AMC theaters are expected to open in 15 cities over the next five years. During that time, VOX Cinemas, the leading Middle Eastern theater company, as well as other companies are going to attempt to claim their stake in Saudi Arabia’s new movie market.