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JEDDAH: When Saudi Arabia first announced it was lifting its 35-year ban on film screenings four years ago, few predicted the progress the Kingdom’s fledgling film industry would soon make .

Since April 18, 2018, Saudis have been free to visit local cinemas, a totally new experience for many.

“I watch a movie at least two or three times a month and wouldn’t mind going more if it weren’t for my frequent travels,” said Jawaher Abdullatif, a 35-year-old private sector worker from Riyadh, at Arab News.

“You are transformed in the world of film. It’s an amazing feeling and I love being able to finally do it from the comfort of a nearby cinema.

The change was announced in 2017 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to improve the quality of life in the Kingdom through entertainment.

For older generations who remember the days before Prohibition, the return of movie theaters was an encouraging moment. Mostafa Zain, a retired engineer from Jeddah, remembers being captivated by cinema as a child.

“I was good friends with the Jamjoums who established the first cinemas in the city,” Zain told Arab News.

“Even after the ban, I still found time to go see a movie because I frequented Cairo a few times a year in the 1980s and 1990s, and later in the United States. We would always find time for a movie. Today I can wake up and check the movie listings and book my movie in no time. I no longer need to fly to watch a movie.

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The General Commission for Audiovisual Media, one of the government authorities set up to regulate and operate cinemas in the Kingdom, estimates that there will be 2,600 cinema screens in Saudi Arabia by 2030, in an industry worth $200,000. about $1.2 billion.

More than 50 cinemas, operating some 430 screens, have been established across the Kingdom, operated by Vox Cinemas, Muvi, Cinepolis, AMC and Empire. “It takes less than five minutes to reserve a seat in a movie theater today,” Zain added.

By 2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom should reach 2,600. (AFP photo)

Saudi Arabia’s first cinemas appeared in the Eastern Province in the 1930s, established by Western oil workers.

By the 1960s and 1970s, movie theaters had sprung up in major cities across the country. Films were shown in football clubs, backyards, courtyards and hotels.

But in the early 1980s, following the 1979 terrorist attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, religious conservatism began to gain ground in the Kingdom, discouraging public entertainment, including cinema.

To circumvent the ban, many Saudis traveled regularly to Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates.

The opening of theaters in the Kingdom has been widely welcomed by Saudis, who used to flock to Bahrain or Dubai for entertainment. (Courtesy of Red Sea Film Festival)

Nahar Al-Hamrani, producer and managing director of AlMaha Films in Jeddah, would take a two and a half hour flight to Dubai to see a film.

“Sometimes I was just going to watch a movie, have a bite to eat and go home,” he told Arab News.

“As soon as cinemas opened in Saudi Arabia, everything changed. Even the experience changed. It’s fun, convenient, and for some strange reason there’s just something different about going to the cinema here. It’s right in our garden.

“For many of us who traveled abroad during the summer holidays, we had to wait months to get the full cinematic experience. Now it’s just a tap away from our screen and it doesn’t is more part of our travel plans.

For a time, Western films appeared on television through MBC2 or through direct satellite networks such as Orbit, which later merged with Showtime to become the Orbit Showtime network.

Most Saudis could only access Western movies on smuggled VHS. When the DVDs first appeared, they were looking at fuzzy fakes purchased from street vendors or behind the counter in local stores.

Hollywood actor John Travolta attends a special event organized by the Kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority in Riyadh in 2017. (AFP)

Speaking at a special event at Riyadh’s Apex Convention Center in December 2017, hosted by the General Entertainment Authority to mark the lifting of the ban, Hollywood actor John Travolta hailed the historic decision.

“I think it’s an important and historic moment, because I understand that it’s the only country in the world that doesn’t have a cinema and the idea that it’s happening again now after 35 years, I have the feel like part of a celebration of freedom that is tied to a beautiful thing in humanity, so that’s a good thing,” Travolta said.

Movie giants have begun to flock to the country.

Owned and operated by Majid Al-Futtaim Cinemas, VOX Cinemas is the cinema arm of Emirati retail and entertainment giant Majid Al-Futtaim and one of the fastest growing in the region, operating 149 cinema screens alone in Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed Al-Hashemi, Country Director of Majid Al-Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment, Cinemas and Lifestyle in Saudi Arabia, said: “From the beginning, we have differentiated ourselves from our competitors thanks to our holistic approach.

“VOX Cinemas is a leisure and entertainment concept that seamlessly integrates state-of-the-art cinema, interactive attractions such as bowling and arcade games and iconic food and beverage concepts into one experience. enriched.”

Young people are among the growing number of moviegoers in the Kingdom. (A photo by Huda Bashatah)

The return of cinema to Saudi Arabia has invigorated the national industry and inspired new festivals to showcase and celebrate it.

The industry saw theatrical box office market growth worth $238 million in 2021, more than double the previous year’s revenue of $122 million, dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 19.

The year was capped off with the Red Sea International Film Festival in December, which saw the big names in Arab cinema, Hollywood and Bollywood grace the red carpet at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jeddah, Al- Walk.

Sara Al-Munef, a young director whose short film screened at the Saudi International Film Festival at Ithra in Dhahran last year. (Provided)

There, on three large screens erected by VOX Cinemas, some 30,000 moviegoers were able to enjoy 138 films from 67 countries, including 48 Arab premieres and 27 Saudi films.

“Cinemas and content production offer huge potential for economic growth,” said Majid Al-Futtaim’s Al-Hashemi. “We recently announced ambitious plans to bring 25 local films to the big screen over the next five years.

“Our goal of boosting regional film production reiterates our commitment to achieving the goals of Vision 2030 and is aligned with the Film Commission’s strategy to make the Kingdom a world-class film hub.”