Cinemas in the UAE now follow social distancing during the pandemic
Cinemas in the UAE now follow social distancing during the pandemic Image Credit: GN Archives

They say ‘the show must go on’, but how true is that when you’re in the midst of a global pandemic?

For cinemas, it’s becoming a reality again.

In March, film sets around the world were interrupted by the sudden onslaught of the coronavirus. A-list actors were sent home as studios lost time and money. Earlier this month, a handful of major titles announced their return to work, including ‘Mission Impossible 7’ and ‘The Batman’.

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible
Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Image Credit: Supplied

It’s showtime

Movie theatres had also temporarily shuttered their doors. Social distancing rules and regulations prevented people from leaving their homes for non-essential purposes — much less something that would involve congregating in a small indoor space.

Now, however, cinemas in Dubai have begun to operate at 30 per cent capacity, with necessary safety measures in place: Only a limited number of people are allowed to be seated together, rows are being skipped to act as a buffer between viewers, and contactless payments are encouraged, if not mandated, for tickets and F&B.

Plus, your standard fare of hand sanitiser, PPE and stickers on the floor to indicate safe distances.

To understand the future of cinemas in the UAE, we spoke to three major venues of various sizes in the UAE — VOX Cinemas, a large cinema chain that operates approximately 201 screens in the country, Roxy Cinemas, a boutique cinema that operates 29 screens, and the independent arthouse movie theatre Cinema Akil, which operates only one screen at their single-location venue.

Cameron Mitchell, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas, Vox Cinemas. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Cameron Mitchell, the CEO of Cinemas at Majid Al Futtaim, said that at VOX Cinemas in the UAE, queues have been split in half and contactless payment is encouraged across the board as a gradual return to business is introduced.

“It’s not like you open a business and all of a sudden, you’ve got a million people queued up trying to sort of race back in,” says Mitchell.

A survey of staff and customers after re-opening, however, came back with 93 and 99 per cent approval of the changes introduced, respectively, signalling an appetite for a new, cautious cinema experience.

Because cinemas have been closed throughout the pandemic, gaps in programming are not expected to be significant.

“Everything’s stalled by three months. If production stalled, and content continued to play [at cinemas], we’d have a three month gap early next year. We don’t,” says Mitchell.

“We release up to seven new films every single week, in the Middle East, because you’ve got Arabic content, Indian content with different languages, Hollywood content and independent content.

“Let’s say we’ve had 20 weeks of interruption, that means 140 films sitting on the shelf, waiting to release across our cinemas. Now, some of those have gone direct to streaming, a small amount. But there’s still that significant amount of content that is backed up waiting to come to cinemas.”

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Vox Cinemas at City Centre Sharjah Image Credit: GN Archives

Mitchell adds that cinemas in the US, and particularly in Los Angeles and New York, would have to reopen before major Hollywood studios consider releasing their movies, which explains why we’re seeing frequent delays on release dates.

The more screens that are open, the more tickets that can be sold and the higher the revenue that can be made.

“They want to see the critical mass of cinemas opened globally to release their film … A lot of the Hollywood-based studios want to see that movie at their local cinema,” he explains.

Blockbusters on hold

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Roxy Cinemas Image Credit: GN Archives

At Roxy Cinemas, considered a boutique experience with four locations and 29 screens locally, a similar story is unfolding.

“Global blockbuster releases have been put on hold, lockdown restrictions have been implemented across the world — meaning a lack of revenue for cinema chains. We are currently experiencing delays with some of the major film releases expected in 2020, meaning that cinema schedules have changed. However, this is across the board and we expect a strong line-up of film releases in Q4 [fourth quarter] 2020 and into 2021,” says Victoria Lynn, General Manager — Meraas Leisure and Entertainment.

Victoria Lynn, General Manager, Roxy Cinemas
Victoria Lynn, General Manager, Roxy Cinemas Image Credit: Supplied

It has also pushed them to go back to basics.

“It is important that in a time of crisis, cinemas adapt to still provide customers with the beloved cinema experience. For example, we’ve seen a great response to bringing some of the much-loved movie classics back on the big screen.”

Meanwhile, at Cinema Akil, having only one screen has meant that the impact of the pandemic has been heightened. Plus, their unique programming focuses on independent films, presenting its own set of problems.

“We are down to 35 seats, from 133,” says Butheina Kazim, co-founder of Cinema Akil.

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Cinema Akil has cordoned off many of it's seats to practice social distancing Image Credit: Supplied

The homey venue, lined with both cinema seats and non-traditional sofa rows, have physically removed some seats, while marking others out-of-commission. Even after cinemas received the green light to re-open, they waited two weeks to open their doors, to ensure that utmost safety measures were put into place.

“There are definitely very big impacts, but our insistence on continuing to operate this art house cinema, this community space remains strong and our commitment remains strong during the lockdown,” says Kazim.

“We do see opportunity in a few things. One, the insistence of our audience on coming to the cinema and our collective experience and the type of cinema that we offer … the coziness of shared cinema viewing. The insistence on classic cinemas, the magic of cinema and not the reliance only on commercial releases. Those are the things that we are betting on. Comparative to the multiplexes, ultimately, the thing that we have is a strong connection with our audience, strong connection to the community, and the belief that we will stick together.

“Having said that, the thing that makes it a commercially difficult proposition — we are a single screen cinema so reduction of 70 per cent is quite a hard hit.”

At Cinema Akil, “our entire programming slate that we had knocked out for 2020 has completely changed, we had the Venice Film Festival programme planned for April, we had Sudan film week, we had several releases scheduled of recent releases, interactions with the film festivals including [Cannes], which is the most important for us. It has created a huge gap, in terms of the way we think of programming,” says Kazim.

What the future holds

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Butheina Kazim, co-founder of Cinema Akil Image Credit: Supplied

Across the UAE, cinemas are banking on residents not travelling during the summer months and utilising the cinema experience as a way to escape the heat and enjoy relatively affordable entertainment. Cinema Akil is taking that one step farther.

“We developed a theme, Cinema Akil: Traveller, essentially rallying around the idea of travelling through the big screen, in lieu of summer travels, getting on a plane, allowing that sort of respect and exhale and wanderlust to be spoken to. We want to be there for audiences to make sure that we are not only a safe space physically, but also emotionally … to keep people’s spirits up … Our programme starts with ‘Journey to Italy’ … It is one of the hardest hit countries in the beginning of the pandemic. We wanted to pay homage to that,” says Kazim.

Going forward, can Mitchell, Lynn and Kazim envision a time where cinemas will go back to normal?

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Vox Cinemas at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai since reopening. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

“I do foresee in the future and I do believe we will get back to a point when a cinema can be 100 per cent full and you can book any seat you want to book. I do think that’ll happen. When it happens will depend on how quickly each country fully recovers … However, we would definitely always retain enhanced cleaning measures,” says Mitchell.

Lynn is optimistic about the future, too.

“In the face of COVID-19, a lot of the anticipated film releases around the world have been put on hold. As industries begin to return to normal and recover from the crisis, film fans across the city can expect much of these awaited film releases at a Roxy screen near them,” she says.

Meanwhile, Kazim looks outward for the answer.

“One thing I will say, across the board, we do rely only on our community’s patronage to continue to keep the cinema alive because ultimately that’s what will be the deciding factor as to how we’ll survive this.”