Saudi Arabia launched its first commercial movie theater on Wednesday, ending a almost 40-year ban on cinemas under a push by the crown prince to modernize the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.
The government hopes that opening movie theaters will act as a catalyst for economic growth and diversification, creating new employment opportunities and providing Saudis with a greater range of entertainment options.
The showing of "Black Panther" was invitation only and subject to government censorship.
"Saudis now are going to be able to go to a attractive theater and watch movies the way they're supposed to be watched: on a big screen", he told Reuters ahead of the screening.
With the dashing return of cinema to Saudi Arabia, AMC Cinemas has announced a partnership with Noon.com to sell tickets online for initial screenings of "Black Panther", the Marvel Studios production of the immensely popular comic book that marks the return theaters to the Kingdom on April 20.
Black Panther premiered Wednesday night in Riyadh, ending the country's 35-year ban on public film screenings.
He said plans were afoot for three more screens in the coming months.
The invitation-only gala event comes after the conservative kingdom lifted the ban on cinemas previous year as part of a far-reaching liberalisation drive, with USA giant AMC Entertainment granted the first licence to operate movie theatres. The Saudi government predicts the planned 300 movie theaters will create more than 30,000 jobs and add $24 billion to the country's economy.
"The restoration of cinemas will ... help boost the local economy by increasing household spending on entertainment while supporting job creation in the Kingdom", Culture and Information Minister Awwad Alawwad said in a statement. For the most part, though, until now Saudis who wanted to watch a film in a movie theater had to drive to nearby Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates for weekend trips to the cinema. Some powerful religious voices still oppose the opening. Though the premiere featured men and women sitting together, it is unclear whether future screenings will segregate the audience by gender. "Meanwhile, we want to provide people with a lovely show and really enjoy watching their own movies", Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad told the AP.
The new movie theater also came equipped with prayer rooms to accommodate the daily Muslim prayer times.