‘Black Panther’ to break Saudi Arabia’s 35-year cinema ban with men and women seated together

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led a life of luxury, but that has never included a trip with the royal family to a local movie theater.

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He’ll have the option next week after a theater starts showing motion pictures in Saudi Arabia for the first time in 35 years, premiering with the blockbuster “Black Panther.”

As part of the prince’s aggressive campaign to modernize Saudi Arabian society, the new Riyadh multiplex will also allow men and women to sit together.

But Disney’s red-hot “Black Panther” will share attention with the event itself, a glittering invitation-only rededication of a space built two years ago as a symphony concert hall.

The main theater will have 620 leather seats, orchestra and balcony levels and marble bathrooms. Three more movie screens, accommodating a combined 500 people, will be added by the summer.

PHOTO: Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright in a scene from Black Panther. Marvel
Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright in a scene from “Black Panther.”

And it is only the beginning. The government struck a deal with U.S. company AMC Entertainment to repurpose the concert hall in the King Abdullah Financial District and open theaters in 40 Saudi cities over the next five years, up to 100 cinemas by 2030.

The new movie palaces are just one example of Saudi public space meant to make the country look stylish and modern, and more friendly to women, who now can drive cars and attend public concerts, speeches and soccer games.

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The 32-year-old prince, known by his initials, MbS, has also been campaigning to modernize the national economy. His plans include reducing the country’s near-total reliance on oil revenue and diversifying into regional business and financial services and tourism. Both those sectors need the participation of women to succeed.

“The crown prince knows that Saudi Arabia has a problematic image in the Western world,” a Western diplomat in Riyad, requesting anonymity, told ABC News. “What he wants to do is transform Saudi Arabia and its society in ways that will be very appealing to Westerners,” meaning Americans and Europeans.

The apparent losers in this cultural makeover are Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative clerics. The grand mufti, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, publicly called commercial films a source of “depravity” and opposed the opening of movie theaters as recently as last year.

So the April 18 grand opening signals not just a bet on Hollywood, but royal family confidence that in today’s Islamic world, a country that shows movies to a mixed public can still draw millions of devout pilgrims to the annual Hajj in Mecca, the spiritual heart of Islam.

Whatever the outcome, movies shown in Saudi Arabia are unlikely to escape the kind of censorship that affects all films in the Middle East, experts say.

Censorship is toughest in Kuwait, for instance, a veteran executive at Italia Film, Disney’s Middle East distribution partner, told ABC News.

The most relaxed censorship, he said, is in the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.

Saudi censors are drafting their classifications and ratings this week, the executive said, adding that he believes “Black Panther” could undergo the same limits in Saudi Arabia as it did in Kuwait: one kiss and one curse.

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