IMAX is ‘close’ to striking a deal to open movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, CEO says

Shaheen Sattar, special to CNBC.com
Key Points
  • Saudi Arabia banned movie theaters in the early 1980s, a ban that was lifted on Monday
  • IMAX hopes to open up to 20 theaters in the Kingdom within three years
IMAX Corp. signage displayed outside the NYSE in 2011 when the company went public.
Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty Images

IMAX is pursuing a scale-up of movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, the cinema technology firm's CEO said Tuesday.

Richard Gelfond told CNBC that IMAX hopes to operate up to 20 theaters in the conservative country within three years, after a ban on cinemas that had been in place for 35 years was lifted on Monday.

"We've heard rumblings for the past year that this was going to happen. We've actually been in preliminary negotiations with a number of cinema operators, who have clients, to go into Saudi Arabia," Gelfond said.

"We're close to announcing a deal, which we're hoping to announce at the end of this year. For the size of this market, there's a big opportunity. We could have 15 to 20 theatres over the next three years in Saudi Arabia and open the first one in 2018."

The ban on movie theaters was put in place in the early 1980s following the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure that gave religious clerics a powerful hold on the country.

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IMAX, alongside U.S. cinema giant AMC Entertainment Holdings, expects to significantly permeate Saudi Arabia's movie theater industry in the coming years.

Saudi Arabia was ranked 10/10 in the Big Spenders Index 2015 for expenditure on luxury imported items, and therefore is an ideal market for IMAX to open in, Gelfond said.

"Since the market is not that price sensitive, and likes premium luxury goods, this will be a strong market for IMAX," he said.

Prince Muhammad bin Salman's introduction of social and economic reforms in Saudi Arabia, under the Vision 2030 banner, aims to diversify a dipped local economy following a drop in oil prices.

Following the repeal announcement Monday on Saudi state television, Information Minister Awwad Alawwad said it was a "watershed moment in the development of the economy in the Kingdom."