Dubai: “Let’s build a drive-in…”
For Cameron Mitchell, it was the ‘Eureka!’ moment he - and the cinema business in the UAE - was searching for to get viewers back after multiplexes were closed during the COVID-19 lockdown phase. Of course, get them queuing up and watching in socially distanced ways…
It was also the time when doubts were set to rest whether UAE residents would ever return to the cinemas amidst a pandemic. “The drive-in cinema at Mall of the Emirates was delivered in about five days – from when we said “Let’s do it” to its opening,” said Mitchell, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas and Majid Al Futtaim Leisure & Entertainment.
“At the time, it was one of the only cinemas that was open globally. People just embraced it. We feel it came at a time when people needed some good news, when they wanted to spend some time with their family – outside of their homes.
“We were getting a lot of feedback on social media that people were really missing the experience. With all the cinemas closed, we looked at what we could do. We spoke to the government whether we could run a drive-in, following their guidance on the number of people that could be together at any given time.
“We worked through the protocols with them, and these were similar to those being followed at the malls. We also worked with our sustainability team to offset the carbon emissions from the cars at the drive-in so that it wouldn’t adversely affect the environment.”
Work in progress
The drive-in was as much about making a statement of intent as it was about gauging potential viewer interest in catching a flick at a big screen. With cinemas having re-opened subsequently, the drive-in has dropped in prominence as a box-office draw – but it sure had its moments.
Recently, VOX Cinemas opened the biggest multiplex in Sharjah, at the brand new City Centre Al Zahia. That’s 1,485 additional seats spread over 16 screens, and puts VOX Cinemas firmly in line to “hit 1,000 screens in about three to four years and that will take us to the Top 10 cinema operators globally,” the CEO said. “We are investing $100 million annually and we will stick to that.”
Curbs on capacity
It will be some time before catching a cinema heads back to pre-COVID-19 times. For one, there are strict limits on the audience numbers for each show, and these vary across Gulf markets.
But Mitchell says it’s about adapting as every other business and sector has been doing. But did the pandemic force a re-think on existing Majid Al Futtaim multiplex projects in terms of seating capacity or number of screens?
“It was never considered to downsize - we show about 400 movies a [normal] year,” he said. “It’s about giving customers the right experience along and where they have the ability to see any film at a time convenient to them. Maximising the size of a location is always critical.
“We have a mix of different screen sizes – that matters. Whether it’s for someone who wants to catch the latest release in its first week at a 400-seat cinema, or who prefers 80- or 100-seat cinema after six to 10 weeks from its release.
“No cinema operator can sit back and say we hope people come back. We are sticking to the investments we have announced [on new screens]. Yes, last year was disastrous for the industry and that too coming from a record year in 2019, when between 6-7 billion people went to the cinema.”
Saudi is central
Some of that bullishness stems from all that can be done in the near- to mid-term in Saudi Arabia, which allowed cinemas to operate in 2018 after a long gestation period of 35 years. VOX Cinemas currently operates 12 cinemas and 134 screens in the Kingdom and is fast catching up on the 22 cinemas and 237 screens it has in the UAE.
“In Saudi Arabia, we are running the cinemas 24 hours a day - there is demand for it,” the CEO added. “If customers are looking for something, we deliver it. We are entering a number of new cities across this market including Hail and Jubail.
“Saudi Arabia in three- to five years will be a $1 billion market on its own - it is going to be a Top 10 global market very, very quickly.”
Even before COVID-19 came calling, the global cinema industry has had its share of worst-case scenarios to contend with. Web-delivered content was building audiences worldwide, and the thinking was it will massively eat into cinema’s viewer base.
Is cinema entering a crisis phase? To that Mitchell has one short and eloquent response: “Rubbish…”
“What we have seen in recent months is people are missing not going to the cinemas. As cinemas returned, we are seeing phenomenal results. We released ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ and I think we had a 35 per cent increase in business in one week on the back of that single release. Globally, it went on to reach almost $300 million.
“As and when movies get released, people will race back to the cinemas. Of course, they are a little bit nervous.
“Yes, you can watch movies at home, but we definitely see there is a market for both. Our region admitted 55 million cinema visits in 2019 and we are predicting 90 million to 100 million next year. The cinema experience here is better than anywhere else in the world and the line-up is incredibly strong.
“In some markets where operators aren’t as focussed on the cinema experience - food, ambience, concepts, and whatever else - maybe there attendances have plateaued. But in our markets, we expect to see strong growth. Anyone who thinks those people are going to stay at home moving forward are just kidding themselves.”