By Julia Pierrepont III
LOS ANGELES, April 22 (Xinhua) -- As part of economic development program, Saudi Arabia's newly-installed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a major entertainment industry initiative that has Hollywood rolling out the red carpet for him.
A 35-year ban on movies in the prince's country was feted at an April 18 gala opening in Riyadh of Marvel's megahit "Black Panther."
Popular Saudi film producer, Al Turki ("99 Homes" , "Arbitrage" ), who attended the historic Black Panther screening in capital of the country, thought the film's choice was apropos, since,"' Black Panther' follows a prince who wants the best for his kingdom - that is something a lot of people here could relate to."
The lifting of the ban has Hollywood studios and entertainment companies lining up to nab a piece of an emerging new territory that experts predict could soon be a billion dollar market, comprised primarily of audiences under 30 years of age.
"The younger generation is very sophisticated and they are demanding more entertainment options," explained Saudi's General Authority for Entertainment (GEA) Chairman Ahmed Al Khateeb, "You will never find a better market than Saudi Arabia."
"We're so thrilled that we'll now be able to share our movies with audiences in Riyadh and throughout Saudi Arabia," enthused Warner Bro Chief, Kevin Tsujihara, while former Academy of Motion Pictures President, Hawk Koch, predicted the coming of a new generation of Saudi filmmakers that could nab an Oscar nom someday soon.
In a surprise move last June, Saudi's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud appointed his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the monarchy's new Crown Prince, to replace Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a man known for years of counter terrorism efforts.
Prince Mohammed Salman was appointed also as deputy prime minister, President of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, and Minister of Defense.
Jumping in feet first, Prince Salman has put an ambitious plan in place, called Vision 2030, designed to ease the Kingdom into the 21st Century over the next dozen years. Bracing Hollywood is a part of the plan.
Following a dinner with Queen Elizabeth in London, a meeting with the U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, the prince flew west to meet the cream of Hollywood's power elite to discuss the future of cooperative entertainment.
News Corp's Rupert Murdoch hosted a dinner for him at his swanky Bel Air mansion early this month, where the Prince dined with such industry heavy-hitters as WB' s Kevin Tsujihara, Walt Disney's Bob Iger, Fox's Stacey Snider, Universal's Jeff Shell, and A-listers, Dwayne Johnson, Morgan Freeman, and James Cameron.
He also met with Microsoft's Bill Gates, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
And it's not just social chit-chat. Big-ticket deals are in play. The Prince has reportedly set aside hundreds of millions to jump-start Saudi's nascent entertainment industry and promised up to an additional 64 billion U.S. dollars more for future developments over the next decade to construct cinemas, water parks, themed attractions, and filmed content.
"This is a great opportunity for you to come to Saudi Arabia and invest in the infrastructure," said GEA Chairman Al Khateeb.
Prominent Hollywood producer, Hunt Lowry, who previously brokered a billion dollar film and theme park deal between Warner Brothers and Abu Dhabi, told Xinhua Friday, "They're serious about putting their money where their mouth is. And the scale of investment being discussed would be very good for both Hollywood and Saudi Arabia."
The Kingdom's newly-minted film committee, The Saudi Film Council, will also be making a big splash in two weeks at the Cannes Film Festival, the global film industry' s preeminent annual market and gala meet and greet affair.
"The Kingdom looks forward to its debut presence at the festival, celebrating and supporting the diversity of talent and opportunities within the Saudi film industry," announced Awwad Alawwad, Saudi culture minister and chairman of GEA's board.
"We're starting from scratch," GEA CEO, Faisal Bafarat, told Variety. "In some areas, we are starting from zero."
Another big Hollywood-Saudi deal in the works is with Ari Emmanuel's WME talent agency - the second largest agency in Hollywood after CAA - where the Prince will be buying a 5 percent to 10 percent stake for a reputed 400 million U.S. dollars.
But not everyone in Hollywood is welcoming the Prince with open arms since some activists argued that the prince should take more measures to improve women's rights of all aspects in the society.
Saudi women were given permission in January to attend football matches and to start their own businesses without the consents of their male relatives, while the country just announced its plan few months ago to allow women to drive from June this year.
But producer, Al Turki, told the press that he was more optimistic that the Prince would gradually usher in more substantive changes.
"There was no segregation at the ('Black Panther' ) screening and I saw lots of happiness and cheering of men and woman side by side. I think this is how it's going to be in the future."
Said the CEO of AMC Theaters, Adam Aron, who recently struck a deal to open 350 cinemas in the Kingdom, "The crown prince is aware that Saudi Arabia has had a difficult image in the United States...He wants to transform Saudi society in ways that will be very appealing to Americans."