Cinema Returns To Saudi Arabia After Decades-Long Ban – With 'The Emoji Movie'

Movie theaters may be slowly losing prominence in the American landscape, but they're just starting to re-emerge in Saudi Arabia. The Middle Eastern country banned movie theaters in the early '80s as a result of a conservative Islamist pressure to clamp down on public entertainment and the intermingling of men and women, but now the 35-year ban is finally ending.

Reforms led by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been slowly easing old conservative restrictions, while still maintaining the country's "moral values." The first movies available at the makeshift movie theaters that stick by those values? The Emoji Movie and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.

The young 32-year-old crown prince is pushing for progressive social reform in his country, which has opened the doors to everything from movie theaters, concerts, comedy shows, and female drivers in Saudi Arabia, according to Reuters.

Because no movie theaters have existed in the country for the past 35 years, authorities are setting up temporary theaters like the state-run cultural hall in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, which has been equipped with a projector, a red carpet, and a popcorn machine. Mamdouh Salim, whose Cinema 70 brand organized the first week-long screenings at the makeshift theaters, told Reuters that these theaters are just a jumping off point to see how movies will play with Saudi Arabians:

"Until now, there is no infrastructure for movie theaters, so we are trying to take advantage of (alternative) venues to approximate the cinematic form. We tried to use these films to be a starting point as the first cinematic screening after the decision on Dec. 11 to permit movie theaters."

To start audiences off easy, the makeshift theaters seem to be exclusively showing children's movies for now, including not-so-acclaimed fare like The Emoji Movie and Captain Underpants. It's a little unfortunate that Saudi Arabian audiences will be introduced to Hollywood movies by bottom of the barrel movies like the two above (though to be fare, the good family-friendly animated offerings in 2017 were sparse), but it seems like a safe bet to introduce movies that have very few actual humans in them to potentially conservative audiences.

And again, this will just be a jumping off point, and the offerings will probably expand to other genres like action, romance, comedy, and drama, especially with 2,000 screens planned to open by 2030. 30-year-old movie-goer Ibtisam Abu Talib told Reuters that he hopes for the same, saying, "I want to see everything because it is something new for Saudi. I hope everything is available – action, romance, children's films, comedy. Everything, God willing."

Maybe we'll even start seeing comic book movies catering to Saudi Arabia. The eventual Saudi Arabian box office probably won't rival that of China and other nations in the near future, but it's an exciting new sign of the country opening up to both progressive reforms and (hopefully) quality entertainment.