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Saudi movie industry: from $0 to $24bn

Three days ago, the entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia was worth absolutely nothing.

Today we are talking about an industry that will be worth $24 billion in 2030, offering 300 movie sites with more than 2000 screens.

How did that happen?

It all started with Vision 2030 which aims at opening up the kingdom in many different ways. One of the plans is to set up a $2.7bn company to invest in entertainment, including theatres at new malls.

Then came the three days old revolutionary decision to allow movie viewing again in the kingdom following a ban on it imposed since 1980.

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Shortly after lifting restrictions on cinemas, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund signed an agreement with US-based AMC Entertainment Holdings aimed at developing new cinemas in Saudi Arabia which will start showing films as early as March.

Here is what experts have to say about this new move.

Economic benefit

Variety, an entertainment website, reveals that building the cinema industry in the kingdom will contribute to the economy by more than 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) and create 30,000 jobs until 2030.

Variety quotes Karim Atassi, who handles business development for Middle East exhibition chain Cinemacity, as saying that the fact that so many Saudis are willing to drive for hours to see a film in Bahrain and/or fly for that purpose to Dubai for the weekend indicates that the market could a lucrative one. “It’s a huge population that basically has nothing to do in terms of entertainment,” he says.

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The mayor of Riyadh, Prince Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf, told the media earlier this year that about 230,000 tourists from the kingdom went to the United Arab Emirates in the summer of 2010 simply for the sake of watching movies.

According to Variety, Mario Haddad, Jr., of distributor/exhibitor Empire International, in charge of Sony and Fox product in the Middle East, says that in terms of growth potential, “currently following a major U.S. release, roughly 60% of Middle East intake (viewership) comes from the UAE,” while adding that Saudi could become a bigger market than the UAE.

“That in turn would make the Middle East as big as a major European territory in terms of overall grosses,” he said.

The Saudi ministry of Culture and Information says the cinema industry will create a large impact on the economy which will increase the media market and stimulate economic growth and diversification. “In addition to the 30,000 jobs that the industry will create, it will add 130,000 part-time jobs by the year 2030,” it said.

Promising entertainment sector

Meanwhile, Forbes quotes a spokesperson from Saudi’s Public Investment Fund as saying that the kingdom’s entertainment sector has a huge potential.

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“We look forward to working with AMC Entertainment Holdings to explore opportunities in developing an industry that is expected to be around $1bn in size,” said the spokesperson.

Saudi-born U.S. producer Todd Nims, who is working with the Saudi government, said that the Saudis will have studios, film commissions, and tax incentives for production.

“The government has just opened a business development unit dedicated to movie theaters, gaming and film production,” Nims was quoted by Variety as saying adding that he will be helping them develop this unit.

“I will be going to L.A. to see what is possible in that area. I want to help create that bridge,” Nims says, noting that “there will be some partnerships struck up between Hollywood and Saudi.”

But how will Saudi deal with audiences inside movie theaters?

Role of authorities

“Movie theaters won’t necessarily be segregated. They haven’t decided that yet,” says Nims.

However, AFP reported that in October Saudi men women attended the “Short Film Competition 2” festival, at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh while adding that the hall was segregated by gender at the free screening.

With regard to censorship, CNN media said that movies “will be subject to censorship according to media policy standards of the Kingdom,” to ensure they comply with Saudi values and principles and do not contradict Sharia, or Islamic, law.

Meanwhile, Haddad said that there is certainly going to be strong censorship, which may gradually ease slightly.