When Saudi Arabia announced it was opening cinemas for the first time in 35 years at the end of 2017, international exhibitors and Hollywood studios were excited about a fertile new market of opportunities. Importantly, 70% of the Kingdom’s 34 million people are under the age of 30 and have money to spend.
And the expenses they have, with an impressive increase at the box office. From April 2018 to the end of December of this year, revenue reached over $ 454 million per comScore. Even with the end of Covid in 2020, that year saw a 26% increase over 2019. This year so far is already 85% larger than the last at around $ 230 million. Saudi Arabia currently ranks 14th globally in the market (although it comes with an asterisk given the impact of Covid elsewhere).
According to an international distribution manager of Saudi Arabia’s Potential: âThis is going to be really important. It will be a billion dollar market. The high ticket prices (around $ 16 to $ 18 each) will also help push it forward.
Adon Quinn, who is deputy managing director of large operator Muvi Cinemas, expects the billion dollar mark to be crossed by 2025, sooner than expected. âWe plan to reach the 1,500 screen mark around 2025/2026. Once we get to that screen level, that’s when those numbers can realistically be achieved, âQuinn said.
Mohamed Al Hashemi, Country Head for KSA at Majid Al Futtaim, owner of the Vox channel, was a little more optimistic, expecting the $ 1 billion threshold to be crossed by the end of 2024. Whenever it happens, it will represent a staggering 926% growth from 2019, the first full year of market opening.
While theaters offer a premium experience, the Kingdom remains under-broadcast, with around 330 in operation. The initial fanfare of potential foreign investment has cooled following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And during the pandemic, exhibitors focused intensely on their core business areas, which slowed the expansion. But now we hear that ambitious plans are being formulated to build cinema infrastructure. An international distribution official says, âI hope the pandemic doesn’t rule this out because in 12 to 18 months it would be a lot more theaters. “
Vox, based in the Emirates, recently opened its 15th multiplex in the Kingdom and now has 154 screens while Muvi has just opened its 18th site. The exhibition giant AMC is also active in the market with around 65 screens. CEO Adam Aron recently Recount the the Wall Street newspaper that the pandemic has slowed the pace of its cinema openings, but that the company is “perfectly happy and content” with its expansion.
Ignace Lahoud, a Disney veteran who is now CEO of Vox owner Majid Al Futtaim, told Deadline: âIn all respects there is still a lot of room for growth.
Vox, which is also a distributor, is currently present in six cities and intends to continue its expansion, especially in level 2 areas which are expected to move towards the local tariff. âThere will be gradual growth in the share of Arabic content. It’s important not to be completely dependent on Hollywood, âsays Lahoud.
Good to know: Egyptian comedy A stand worthy of men (Waafet Reggaala) is the biggest title since the theaters re-establishment, grossing over $ 15 million this year (and with a sequel coming in 2022). In 2020, 10% of films released were in the Arabic language and accounted for 28% of the box office, we are told.
In Hollywood terms, the likes are mostly blockbuster (and indie) action, superheroes / comics (if the mythology is familiar), and G-rated family fare. performance of the Warner Bros. adult drama, king richard, which counts Saudi Arabia as its main overseas market.
Studio titles are published by regional companies such as Vox, Italia, Four Stars and others who deal with local marketing. We’re told the market isn’t big enough yet for studios to set up their own operations and the overhead makes it a bit ‘intimidating’, although it may be ‘something to consider’ at the to come up.
In total, according to comScore, the 10 best Hollywood movies from April 2018 to present are Cruel ($ 9.14M), Joker ($ 8.9M), Bad boys for life ($ 8.8M), Anger of man ($ 8.3M), No time to die ($ 8.1 M), F9 ($ 7.8M), Honest thief ($ 7.1 M), Venom: let there be carnage ($ 6.7 M), Principle ($ 6.24M) and A Quiet Place, Part II ($ 6.2M).
On its first weekend, Sony / Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Path Home had the biggest opening ever in the Kingdom with $ 5.2 million. Quinn told me that on the first day of NWH was 190% larger than any previous launch day at Muvi theaters. He says: “We strongly believe in the market”, but “like any other market it depends on the content”.
After a strong summer, a drop in admissions to Saudi Arabia in the fall may be attributed to a lack of blockbuster titles, as other entertainment activities flourish. A distribution manager tells us that the market is âon steroids, everything is going thereâ. This includes concerts (Justin Bieber performed in Jeddah this month) and the recent Formula 1 racing event, which was “unthinkable three or four years ago,” Lahoud said, adding: “There is clearly has an awakening and thirst for openness and recreation, entertainment, art, culture.
And yet human rights issues remain of concern. As part of his Vision 2030 plan, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been seen as a progressive, but the Kingdom still does not recognize LGBTQ rights, for example.
As the recent Red Sea International Film Festival kicked off – a showcase of the Kingdom’s desire to embrace culture – we revealed that Steven Spielberg’s film West Side Story has not received a market distribution certificate, apparently because it has a transgender character.
Likewise, in early November, Disney was asked to make changes to Eternals – which included a homosexual kiss – in order to pass the censorship. The studio refused, and Eternals was not released.
Eternals could have made over $ 5million in the Kingdom, so that’s a little pinch, but West Side Story may not have reached $ 1 million.
If Saudi Arabia continues to grow at a steady pace in the years to come, it could have a bigger impact on a film’s box office if it comes up against censorship. But we’re sure that studios are used to dealing with these kinds of issues across the Middle East (and some Southeast Asian markets which have strict rules based on religious beliefs). In most cases, movies are not shown or privacy is eliminated in all areas.
A distribution official familiar with Saudi Arabia told us he believed censorship would ease, but not overnight. “Things are going to be done in an unconventional way, this is a big step for them.”
Lahoud said, âAs exhibitors, our goal is to be able to offer as many films as possible. But we also have to obey local laws – and censorship is a reality in this part of the worldâ¦ We do our best to navigate these waters. He remains optimistic: âFour years ago, there was no cinema at all and now you will be able to take your boyfriend or your girlfriend. Three years ago we still had segregation. I think it’s fantastic progressâ¦ It’s a journey.