Stock - CinemaCity's Karim Atassi
CinemaCity's Karim Atassi has six screens up at Downtown Dubai and there will be more in the UAE. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: Cinema is big business – and not least when it comes to the screening side of things. Multiplexes and Imax screens dominate the UAE and Gulf cinema landscape, and these are owned and operated by some of the biggest real estate and leisure-focussed companies in the region.

The age of indepedent cinema operators - i.e., not owned by a conglomerate - would then seem such a relic of the past. More likely to be seen in reels – think Cinema Paradiso - than in reality.

Karim Atassi, Vice-President of CinemaCity Fountain Views, begs to differ on that point. The family-owned business from Lebanon has got screens up and running in Dubai and he feels there is space among all the multiplexes to be a draw for audiences. In an interview to Gulf News, he explains the why and how.

In the last two decades, cinema in the UAE has been dominated by mall owners and developers. Can a pure-play cinema operator fit in?

It’s no easy task competing with massive chains, but as a private and family-run business we have a more dedicated and personal approach to our operation. Major mall operators owning their own brand of cinema chains make it quite a challenge when it comes to securing good real estate in a prime location – one of the key factors of every successful cinema.

This also stems into securing special deals with banks, something that is especially hard for a smaller company with limited boutique branches versus a chain with many pop-up-style multiplexes spread across the country. Therefore, we differentiate ourselves by creating a personalised cinema experience.

Karim Atassi loves Downtown's New York vibes, which explains the choice of a CinemaCity screen there. Image Credit: Supplied

Do you own the screens that you will be putting up in the UAE?

All our cinemas are in leased locations, and in some instances, landlords’ partner with us on a JV basis. We build each of our locations from the core, including structural, MEP, kitchens, furniture, systems, and audiovisual. It’s an extensive job as our team handles everything, from the concrete to the furniture, all the way to the flatware and silverware.

Why choose the Downtown for the first location? Isn’t that already an area with one of the highest concentrations of screens?

For our new concept, a high-end licensed cinema boasting a stunning bar/lounge, definitely seemed the right fit for Downtown Dubai. We wanted a New York City feel, where pedestrians could walk off the street and enjoy a movie and drink.

This is a unique spot on MBR boulevard, and we wanted to expose our brand to the area’s visitors and residents. This location is also licensed, making it the only licensed cinema in this part of the city and different from all others around it.

Stock - Azul theatre
Creating a setting for an after-cinema experience.

What will you look to different from the established operators?

Other cinemas within malls offer a night at the movies, however we want to offer our guests a night out – a comfortable movie experience followed by dinner. Moreover, as a family-run business, we really pay attention to our customer service and all the details that really make a difference. In our other locations like Lebanon, and Jordan, we know many of our customers on a first-name basis, and we hope to put this new cinema on the schedule of every neighbor around us.

Are you still operating the screens in Lebanon? Are you getting regular movie releases there? Is yours a private company?

Our company is private, but we do have partners in a few of our locations. Our Beirut Souks location - the number one location for many years - is still open yet its undergoing major remodeling following the huge explosion of August 2020 which destroyed most of the iconic building. The challenge remains in the ticket pricing where the price dropped from $10 a ticket to $2 a ticket, as we wanted to ensure the cinema experience was still affordable. The process is difficult; however, we have succeeded until now and hope to continue bringing films to our Lebanese customers.

Are you already there in other markets outside of Lebanon and the UAE?

Yes, we are the number one cinema operator in Jordan under our other label, Prime cinemas, where we currently operate three sites.

For the UAE venture, do you have any JV partners?

We do have JV partners, one being our landlord at Sharjah Cinemacity Imax, Zero Six mall, and another in our soon to open, Cinemacity AlQana - part of the AlQana project in Abu Dhabi. This is a 100,000 square foot venue which is located on the water and will be launching in March 2022. The cinema will offer 15 screens across three floors.

Cinemas are not just about the movies any longer. What will you bring as add-ons?

A stunning design and personalised service, a licensed lounge and theatre, and accessibility from two streets, with the option to valet park. Additionally, the venue plays host to Backlot Cafe, an intimate space which can be found towards the back of the building. Diners can enjoy made-to-order gourmet sandwiches, salads, pastries, desserts - and great coffee.