NEW YORK — Saudi Arabia's first movie theater in decades will open April 18, as the Gulf kingdom readies for a rush of cinema operators eager to turn the Middle Eastern country into nation of moviegoers.
AMC Theatres said Wednesday that it will open the country's first new theater in Riyadh, with plans for up to 100 theaters in approximately 25 Saudi cities by 2030.
In December, the Saudi government said it would open the country to commercial movie theaters for the first time in more than 35 years as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to transform the ultraconservative Saudi society. In June, Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive.
The Leawood, Kansas-based AMC, the world's largest exhibitor, secured the first cinema operating license. In a statement, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Culture and Information, Dr. Awwad Alawwad, hailed it as "the opening of very significant opportunities for exhibitors."
AMC, which is owned by the Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group, will have competition. Other chains are currently preparing theaters in Saudi Arabia. But the prospect of 33 million new consumers is particularly appealing to exhibitors, many of whom have struggled recently.
"We expect this to be a very lucrative opportunity for AMC," AMC Chief Executive Adam Aron said in a conference call. "If we can open up to 100 movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, in a country where there is literally no capacity now, we think the market will have staggering levels of pent-up demand."
Questions remain about what kinds of movies Saudi Arabia will tolerate, and if moviegoers will be segregated by gender. But the expectations are that the country could be a very valuable new territory for Hollywood.
"We think it could be a very big market," said John Fithian, chief executive and president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "It's literally as fast as we can build them and they will come."