The invitation-only gala event comes after the conservative kingdom lifted the ban on cinemas last year as part of a far-reaching liberalization drive, with US giant AMC Entertainment granted the first license to operate movie theatres.
Anticipation had been building after the authorities announced earlier this month that Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in over three decades would open on Wednesday, but officials dubbed the event at Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District a “dry run”.
AMC chief executive Adam Aron said ticket sales will commence on Thursday for the first public shows on Friday.
But local authorities indicated the test screenings could last for days before an online ticketing system is formally launched. Officials earlier said movie theatres are expected to open to the public in May.
“This is a historic day for AMC. This is a historic day for your country,” Aron told an audience of government officials and industry figures as he stood before a large screen in a converted concert hall.
“Welcome to the era when movies can be watched by Saudis not in Bahrain, not in Dubai, not in London… but inside the kingdom,” he said before the screening of “Black Panther”.
Religious hardliners, who have long vilified movie theatres as vulgar and sinful, were instrumental in shutting them down in the 1980s.
The move to reopen cinemas is part of a modernisation drive by reformist Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to balance unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more entertainment options — despite opposition from hardliners.
“Black Panther”, a film about a young monarch of a fictional African jungle kingdom, has drawn parallels with the Saudi prince.
“This is a story about a young (royal) who transforms a nation. That might sound familiar to some of you,” Aron joked.