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Cinemas in Saudi Arabia …Between Past & Present

Cinemas in Saudi Arabia …Between Past & Present

Cinemas started to appear in Saudi Arabia during the 1930s when the employees of the US Arabian-American Oil Company known now as “Aramco” installed show screens in their residential compounds where they were working on discovering oil in the Kingdom’s desert.

The company itself produced a documentary film about the inauguration of the first oil well in the Kingdom, in the presence of Saudi state founder King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud.

The company also produced what many consider the first Saudi documentary film, “The Flies” in 1950, starring the Saudi actor Hassan Al-Ghanim, who is known to be the first Saudi film actor. The film aimed to educate people about the dangers of flies that spread during that period in Saudi Arabia.

Movie Screens

The cinema screens continued to appear in the residential gatherings of foreigners, so the people of Riyadh began to set up places to show films in the city center within the Al-Murabba neighborhood, and a large number of movie screens were collected.

Foreigners have mastered the setting up of showplaces.

Inside each residential square, a screen is set up, surrounded by barriers that give the place privacy, and wooden seats are placed in two rows so that the audience can watch the movie, and each square is added to some decorations to have its character.

During the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies of the past century, theaters began to spread among the local population.

Cinema shows dedicated to the Saudi citizens were specifically located in local sports clubs, and in some famous courtyards and homes, especially in Riyadh, Jeddah, Taif, Abha, Dammam, and sometimes in some foreign embassies.

However, this was not a real presence of Cinemas in the Kingdom, instead, it was a random offer that lacks the organization and preparation necessary for viewing, appropriate marketing, and serious selection.

JEDDAH AL-AHWASH CINEMAS (Backyard Cinemas).

 “Al-Ahwash Cinemas” was home to the wealthy and middle classes in Saudi Arabia.

After sunset, Al-Ahwash used to show two or three films per night, the film program often included an Egyptian movie.

These backyard cinemas were filled with what sparked the imagination of the people of Jeddah and enriched their cinematic culture.

The program of the aforementioned cinemas also contained an Indian film that lasted about 3 hours, meaning that the program extended Until the early morning hours.

Closing Theaters

Short years after the Grand Mosque incident in 1979, the Saudi government closed theaters and cinemas. The ban continued, but in the following years, specifically since (2006 ), some Saudi literary and cultural clubs were showing some films and holding festivals or competitions for documentaries and short films produced locally.

 Many Saudi Film Competitions were organized by the Literary Club in the Eastern Province of Dammam. In 2008 the Rotana Company has produced a Saudi film in which actor Fayez Al-Maliki plays the main character, it was shown in some cinemas in the neighboring Arab countries.

Rotana succeeded in obtaining the license to show it in December 2008 in Jeddah at the King Fahd Cultural Theatre, followed by other shows in Taif, and in the first half from 2009, it was shown in Riyadh, Abha, and Jizan, after which the commercial shows stopped.

As for Jeddah, Fouad Jamjum took the initiative, and the cinema lane there was known as “Al-Jamjum Quarter” concerning the wealthy family that set out to revive cinema in Saudi Arabia, in the same way as in Riyadh and Medina.

Back & Current Status

In December 2017, the board of directors of the General Authority for Audio-Visual Media in Saudi Arabia approved the issuance of licenses for those wishing to open cinemas in the Kingdom.

On April 18, 2018, the first cinema was opened in Riyadh, then on January 28, 2019, another cinema was opened in Jeddah. Saudi Entertainment Ventures has signed a partnership agreement with the First Real Estate Development Company, intending to increase the number of cinemas in Saudi Arabia.

In November 2020, Saudi Arabia became the most profitable market in the Middle East concerning box office overtaking the UAE as the largest market in 2019, and this rise comes in light of a global drop in box office revenues estimated at 80% in the wake of the Corona Virus 2020 pandemic.

Ticket sales in cinemas reached more than $73 million over the 40 weeks before November 2020, a $2 million increase in box office revenue compared to the same period in 2019, while the UAE generated $51 million in revenue, a quarter of what it achieved in 2019.

The CEO of VOX Cinemas, Cameron Mitchell, said that the Kingdom is the only cinema market in the world that expanded in 2020. He added that the Saudi market has increased its profits by an estimated 4% since the beginning of 2019, despite the closure of cinemas from March to mid-June 2020.

He predicted a growth of 8% by the end of 2020, noting that the Saudi share of the cinema market in the Middle East amounted to $110 million in 2019, out of a total of $600 million, excluding Indian and Arabic movie releases, and some independent content.

It is also expected that there will be 340 screens in operation by the end of 2020, while the number of screens will reach nearly 700 screens by the end of 2021.

The Saudi Ministry of Tourism announced in early 2021 that through the initiative “Launching and activating the cinema sector in the Kingdom”, which is one of the initiatives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 entrusted to the (Quality of Life) Program and implemented by the General Authority for Audio-Visual Media, 17 cinemas were opened in 10 cities.

 The number of operating cinemas across the regions of Saudi Arabia reached 31 cinemas after the opening of 17 cinemas in the Kingdom in 2020. Through four global operators: “Fox”, “Movie”, “EMC” and “Ampere Cinemas”.

In 2020, cinemas opened in Dammam, Tabuk, Hafr Al-Batin, Jubail, Dhahran, Al-Ahsa, Abha, and Al-Majmaa, in addition to 7 cinemas in Riyadh, and 3 cinemas in Jeddah.

The number of operating screens until the beginning of 2021 reached 317 screens, with a capacity of more than 32,000 seats, in 31 cinemas across Saudi Arabia.

On April 11, 2021, the Saudi General Authority for Audio-Visual Media approved the amendment of the regulation of cinematography to be more flexible in a way that contributes to strengthening the sector and facilitating and supporting local film producers, artists, and local content makers, by agreeing to exempt local films from any payment for tickets in various theaters Offer in the regions of the Kingdom.

Reducing Fees

 To enable the development of the cinema industry and enhance its access to all citizens and residents, and facilitate investors, the Saudi General Authority for Audio-Visual Media decided to reduce the fees deducted to the authority from each ticket to be three categories according to regions: 15%, 10%, and 5%, instead of the previously deducted 25%.

The number of cinemas in the Kingdom increased from 31 cinemas at the end of 2020  to 54 cinemas by the end of 2021, and the number of screens reached 473 screens with a capacity of 48,090 seats, in addition to the opening of 23 cinemas last year in 9 regions: Hail, Tabuk, and Jazan Asir, Medina, Al-Qassim, Eastern Province, Makkah Al-Mukarramah, and Riyadh Province.

The Saudi 2030 Vision also laid the foundation plans for the cinema sector in the Kingdom by granting licenses and providing facilities to international and local companies to open cinemas in various regions of the Kingdom.

Several initiatives were introduced to advance the film industry sector in the Kingdom, and support the necessary infrastructure for film production, including filming studios, montage, marketing services, distribution, providing logistical facilities, and organizing events and participation through the “Strengthening the Local Film Sector” initiative.

The aforementioned initiative is supervised by the Film Authority, one of the Ministry of Culture’s bodies, where during 2021, 7 locally produced films were shown in cinemas.

Film Production

The first Saudi film was produced in 1950, starring Hassan Al-Ghanim, who is considered the first Saudi film actor. In 1975, the Saudi director Abdullah Al-Muhaisin directed a film on (Developing the City of Riyadh).

 (The Assassination of a City) is a film was presented dramatically about the Lebanese Civil War, and the extent of the damage this war caused to the beautiful city of Beirut.

The Saudi movie won the Nefertiti Award for Best Short Film and was shown at the Cairo Film Festival in 1977.

The number of Saudi films produced from 1975 to 2012 is (255), most of which are documentaries or short films, with a limited budget and low costs. They were shown only in competitions and festivals, whether local, Arab, or international, to compete for various prizes.

A few were commercial, with a huge budget, and shown in cinemas. It varied between documentaries, short films, and feature films, and in terms of content type, to horror films, action films, comedies, silent films, science fiction films, television films, animated films, and YouTube films.

In 2017, everyone was surprised when the Saudi Ministry of Culture allowed the issuance of licenses for the establishment of cinemas.

The aforementioned decision ushered in the winds of change blowing over Saudi Arabia, which has been devoid of the magic of cinema for more than 3 decades.

Legality of Licensing

As for the primitive cinemas, these cinemas did not need an official license and took their legitimacy with their spread in many Saudi cities, and this was helped by the participation of senior Saudi families in the establishment of cinemas, led by the Jamjoom and Al Badib.

Sports clubs hosted cinemas between 1977 and 1983, where, the Saudi public watched police films and American cowboy films, in addition to Egyptian films.

During this period, cinemas spread in 4 Saudi cities, namely, Riyadh, Jeddah, Taif, and Abha, until the number of cinemas in Jeddah reached 30, with ticket prices ranging between SAR 3 and 4, but films were subjected to censorship.

Fouad Jamjoom & His Impact on Saudi cinema

Fouad Jamjoom is a Saudi film producer and distributor, known as the first Saudi film producer and the first to establish a cinema in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s.

In 1962, Fouad, in partnership with his brother Abdul Aziz, founded the “Jamjoum Cinema” in Al-Jamajmah neighborhood in Al-Baghdadieh neighborhood in Jeddah, and they were importing “respectable” films and presenting them to radio and television.

Abdel Aziz was in charge of negotiating and accounting work related to cinema activities, both with film producers and distributors. The brothers were getting show revenue every day.

 Jamjoom Cinema is considered the first cinema in Saudi Arabia, after which other cinema halls were opened, including Abu Safiya Cinema, and other branches in the neighborhoods of Jeddah, where they rent locations, supervise the show and fortify revenues.

Ticket prices in Jamjoom Cinema were SAR 10.

Fouad also tried to introduce the Saudi theater to the Arab space when he decided in 1980 to present a theatrical show featuring Faykh Farid Shawqi, Hussein Fahmy, Hassan Mustafa, and others. Such as Fouad Bakhsh, Lotfi Zainy, and others, but he was unable to perform because he did not obtain approval to display this theatrical work in a public manner.

Film Production

Jamjoom produced and distributed more than 30 films under the umbrella of “Fouad Jamjoom Films” studios, in which he collected Egyptian movie stars in that period, such as Adel Imam, Mahmoud Yassin, Hussein Fahmy, and Farid Shawqi.

 Jamjoom used to host stars from time to time in Jeddah. Among the films distributed by the studios are “The Thief of Love” (1977), “Ramadan Over the Volcano” (1985), “Under Threat” (1986), “The Death of Samira” (1985), “The Patience in the Salinas” (1986) and others.

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