At the start of the year, it was shaping up to be a landmark for the cinema industry in the MenaENA region. The number of screens in these countries were predicted to grow by 74 per cent in the next four years, and the industry was forecasting box office returns to double over the same period.
Then COVID-19 hit, and while the region’s cinemas have since cautiously reopened, the impact is being felt exceptionally hard across the global cinema exhibition market. How can the industry recover?
Cinema has been forced to innovate ... and quickly. We’ve already seen the swift introduction of drive-in and rooftop cinemas in the UAE, which have helped Reel and Vox Cinema chains to restart revenue generation. Although these drive-ins help to keep the appetite for the cinema satisfied in a socially distanced way for now, they offer just a stopgap arrangement to getting cinemagoers back to see latest new releases.
In many ways, the region is much more likely to regain its love for the big screen quickly. Rather than the situation in the UK (where the tendency is usually to upgrade old locations), cinema screens in the Middle East are already predominantly high quality, featuring slick digital screens. The region’s cinemagoers are already used to experiencing the higher end of what cinema has to offer in terms of sound and picture.
And to an audience no stranger to premium environments, one operator’s offer of renting entire screens to small audiences during the area’s lockdown didn’t seem out of place.
New cinema locations make a natural partner in many of the mall and entertainment projects. With the region well-primed with audiences used to the premium experience, a number of standout developments in progress, and a thriving cinema exhibition market (at least pre-pandemic), we believe there is an appetite to make the most of these factors and develop a world-leading cinema project.
It’s the layout
We have amassed over 30 years of cinema design experience, and even before the pandemic hit, were working on a concept that could prove the ideal offering.
The Ōma Cinema takes a different approach to cinema layout. Rather than seating the audience in banked rows, cinemagoers are instead seated on separate, innately social-distanced balconies, which can be tailored to cinema exhibitors’ needs and differentiated between ‘pods’.
One balcony can feature VIP-style luxury armchairs while the next is tailored for family seating, and the next to a more standard three-row design. This modular design allows cinemas to make the most of available space while also offering different groups different experiences at the same time and in the same room.
This balcony design provides each ‘pod’ with an unrestricted view of the film, and it utilises the full height of the screen to be able to seat the audience much closer to the action.
Change is now inevitable
This is more than just a design however, as the first Ōma Cinema is already under construction in Paris — a market with demanding and discerning cinema audiences. In exploring options that move away from the ‘standard’ for cinema seating layouts, the Mena region could create a completely new approach to the cinema experience. One that has already connected with audiences globally.
When it comes to the challenges facing cinema operators once the pandemic wanes, considering the physical cinema space in an entirely different way could mean a revolution in how cinema is enjoyed by audiences. Such an approach could also be just the way to showcase the region’s burgeoning film production sector too, not to mention some of the world’s leading cinema sites when it comes to hosting premieres.
It is hoped the cinema industry will be able to rebound from pandemic closures more quickly than in some other countries. As the number of screens is expanding so dramatically and the area launching so many world-leading physical developments, rethinking the approach to cinema design and seizing the opportunity to bring a whole new level to the experience could dramatically improve audience trust in coming back.
It could also place the Middle East firmly at the forefront of a cinema exhibition revolution with spaces that are truly ground-breaking.
- Nicolas Chican is Co-founder of the ma Cinema.