The royal heir apparent, who learned English by watching films as a child, is expected to dine at producer Brian Grazer’s Santa Monica home, attend an event at Rupert Murdoch’s Bel-Air estate and meet with show business power players, including talent agency boss Ari Emanuel and Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger.
Mohammed’s trip to Los Angeles — part of a coast-to-coast American tour marked by meetings with President Trump and Silicon Valley bigwigs — has elicited excited curiosity among entertainment industry executives who see the desert kingdom as a lucrative new market for movies — and a potential source of much-needed financing. Hollywood’s biggest foreign financial partner, China, has mostly stopped writing checks because of a government crackdown on foreign investments and leveraged deals that once dominated headlines.
Cinema owners and studios in the U.S. and elsewhere have been salivating since Saudi Arabia ended its 35-year ban on movie theaters in December. The move was part of a larger push to modernize the kingdom’s culture and diversify its oil-dependent economy. The nation’s cinemas, once built out, could generate $1 billion in annual box-office receipts, industry experts said.
“They’re all vying like crazy to get into the market,” said John Fithian, chief executive of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, a cinema industry trade group in Washington, D.C. “The kingdom’s decision to open up the cinema business is historic and substantial.”
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It’s easy to see why Hollywood would seek to woo the prince, despite the striking incongruity between its predominantly liberal values and the ultra-conservative mores of a country that only recently promised women the right to drive.
Saudi Arabia has 32 million people, most of whom are under 30 years old. Many have significant disposable income and a lack of entertainment options, a prime demographic for theater chains.
“It is a large market, by far the largest in the Middle East,” the Saudi minister of culture and information, Awwad Alawwad, said at his office in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. “It is also an untapped market that hasn’t been explored before.”
Still, U.S. studios face enormous challenges in trying to crack the Saudi market, including heavy restrictions on what kinds of movies will be allowed in a country averse to depictions of sex and nudity (sorry, “Fifty Shades of Grey”). Films will be censored to ensure they reflect the kingdom’s “moral values.” Men and women could be segregated in theaters.