AMC Theatres, the world’s largest cinema operator, said Wednesday that it plans to open up to 100 theaters in 25 Saudi Arabian cities by 2030, the latest sign of the chain’s desire to become a major player in the kingdom’s nascent entertainment industry.
Leawood, Kan.-based AMC and the entertainment subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund have signed a deal to operate cinemas in the kingdom, with up to 40 locations expected to open in 15 cities within five years, the theater company said.
The deal follows almost four months after the government said it would grant licenses to open movie theaters for the first time in 35 years. AMC received the first cinema license issued by the country’s Ministry of Culture and Information, the company said.
The first new theater in Saudi Arabia, an AMC Cinema in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District, is set to open April 18. AMC, whose biggest shareholder is Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, hopes to control 50% of the Saudi Arabian theater industry.
Theater owners, movie studios and media companies have been moving quickly to get into business with the country. Theater chains such as Boca Raton, Fla.-based iPic Entertainment and London-based Vue Cinemas are also competing to break into the potentially lucrative cinema market in Saudi Arabia, which could be worth $1 billion in annual box office revenue within a few years.
“We expect this to be a very lucrative opportunity for AMC,” said AMC Chief Executive Adam Aron 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.”
In the months leading up to the deal, questions have swirled concerning how theaters and studios will address social norms in Saudi Arabia, including the separation of unrelated men and women. Aron said he expects that theaters will not have gender segregation, with the exception of certain screening times for one group or another. However, he cautioned that the rules and regulations are still being worked out.
“I’m sure it will be a trial-and-error situation,” he said. “The rules of operation are in formation as we speak.”
The first AMC theater in Riyadh will be converted from a symphony concert hall, Aron said. It is expected to open with a gala with more than 400 guests in attendance. He did not say what the first movie shown at the theater will be. The cinema is expected to open with one screen this month, and have four in operation by July or August.
“I can tell you, this will be the prettiest movie theater in the world,” Aron said.
The announcement comes as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his entourage of dignitaries are meeting with entertainment industry executives during their visit to Los Angeles as part of a broader mission to forge ties between the conservative desert kingdom and Hollywood.
Mohammed, 32, attended a Monday night dinner party at the Bel Air estate of Rupert Murdoch, where he met with show business leaders such as Walt Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, Warner Bros. Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara, Universal Filmed Entertainment Chairman Jeff Shell and 20th Century Fox Film Chairwoman Stacey Snider.
Also in attendance were “Avatar” and “Titanic” director James Cameron and movie star Dwayne Johnson, according to people familiar with the event who did not want to speak publicly about the private party. The celebrity attendees were first reported by the Hollywood Reporter.
The Murdoch-hosted event was just one of a flurry of meetings between the Saudi heir apparent and his delegation and entertainment industry bigwigs in Los Angeles, as part of a coast-to-coast U.S. tour that has included stops in Washington, D.C., New York and Seattle.
Details of the meetings have been cloaked in secrecy, but Mohammed and the studio executives discussed potential opportunities for partnerships in entertainment and culture in the country, people familiar with the matter said.
Endeavor Chief Executive Ari Emanuel and producer Brian Grazer are arranging a dinner at Grazer’s Santa Monica home, according to people familiar with the plans. Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority is hosting a lunchtime entertainment summit Wednesday at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where the dignitaries are staying during their visit.
Endeavor is said to be close to securing a more-than-$400-million investment from the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in exchange for less than 10% of the powerful talent agency.
11 a.m.: This article was updated to include comments from AMC CEO Adam Aron.
This article was originally published at 9:30 a.m.