Golchin at a film festival in Italy in the 1970s. Image Credit: Supplied

There's a strange comfort which comes from knowing some things never change.

In the UAE you can watch, eat and experience. Alternatively, you can watch, eat and experience VIP style.

In cinema terms it means sinking into leather-clad lazy boy chairs, personal waiters at the click of a button and gourmet food choices.

In 1968, however, things were slightly different and while the VIP culture the UAE has become renowned for existed, the service came with a sarcasm which today you simply couldn't get away with.

"You'd be handed a bottle of Pepsi and given the crate it came from," Ahmad Golchin, the man who thrust said bottle in the hands of his customer, says matter-of-factly.

A knowing smile creeps across his face. "A movie was going to screen," he justifies. "It was all about entertainment. The magic of the picture on a screen. It doesn't matter where you are. But if a few needed crates to make them a little higher than those happy on the sand or concrete, so be it," he adds, laughing.

Golchin is the now 68-year-old man who handed that first-time moviegoer his complimentary beverage.

When it comes to cinema-going, he's credited by those in the industry as the UAE's founding father.

"There is one man who can tell you everything about the history of the UAE film industry. He was here when it all began and he's still here carving the way," says John Chahine, Country Manager for Italia Film. "Ahmad Golchin is the man who started things in the UAE. His success and hard work has shaped the industry."

Credited as the father of the Middle East film, many say the UAE's multi-million-dirham entertainment and cinema industry wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for Golchin. The Iranian doesn't see it that way.

"It's been a true-life Mission: Impossible," he says humbly, sitting in his Dubai Marina home. "That's all."

The irony stares us both in face: Golchin and his partner Salim Ramia's successful distribution arm, Gulf Film, has secured the rights to show the latest instalment of the Tom Cruise-led Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. "I never knew all this would happen. I didn't even mean it to. I just wanted people to enjoy film on a wider scale. There wasn't anything to do back then," he said before reeling off the many activities and entertainment options on offer today.

The CEO and founder of Phars Film and a partner in Gulf Film and Grand Cinemas, the expectation was of meeting a businessman. Instead, Golchin is a man passionate about film — the reason he claims his business works.

Educated in Iran, where from humble beginnings he established himself as a reputed publisher, Golchin left his publishing career behind and relocated to the UAE. With a Persian-dubbed, Mexican-made film under his arm, he landed on UAE's shores in 1963.


"I saw people sitting to watch movies they had bartered for with Indian gold merchants," he recalls. "But nobody knew what time they would screen. It was hard to communicate in the '60s — no radio, no television, no newspapers."

Since that day, he has been building the foundation of what is now the largest and most successful film empire in the Middle East.

"I put banners on the abras crossing the Dubai Creek to tell people where and when films would be screened so more people could watch."

Within months Golchin was attracting more than 1,000 people to the city's earliest cinemas at Nasr Square National Cinema, which amounted to a white painted wall. A screening — held nightly at 9pm — was the equivalent of Rs3 or Rs6 (Indian rupees were the currency of the day) for a seat higher up.

"Sometimes people would stand. In those days people didn't care as long as they were watching a movie," he says. "Well, most people anyway."

In 1968 it was a beg, steal or borrow state of affairs. "The films would trickle from Europe to Lebanon and eventually to the Bahrain Cinema Company. I would pick up movies for around $50 [Dh183] but by the time they reached us they had been watched over and over and were scratched."

Today Golchin supplies movies he's paid "the earth" for — figures ranging up to $1.5 million — and supplies distributors and exhibitors in the Middle Eastern countries.

"By the '70s the prices were starting to rise, sometimes I would pay $2,000-$3,000 for a film but the demand was also growing. Some of the biggest challenges back then was having the cinemas to screen the movies."

Proof enough of this was in 1998 when James Cameron's Titanic opened and the cinema market in the UAE boomed after the release.

Big difference

"More than 465,000 people watched the movie in just five cinemas," said Golchin. "It was quite unbelievable.

It was a record unbeaten until just last year when Cameron's Avatar peaked at around 760,000 catching the flick.

"There's one big difference though," said Golchin. "The 760,000 viewers were spread across more than 100 cinema screens. That figure really puts into perspective just how successful Titanic was."

Since then, local cinema distribution companies have been set up and the multiplexes have opened by the dozen. There are now more than 200 screens in the UAE.

"Back then we would bring 30-40 films every year. Now it's nearly 500. Of course things have moved on."

So what's the real secret to Golchin's success? According to the man himself his marketing has always been his strong point.

"I worked in publishing in Iran. I realised it was possible to sell a book by it's cover. It's the same with independent movies. Bright, colourful, well-positioned posters do more than you know to get people on seats. Then it's up to the film, the actors and the directors."

While Golchin credits his marketing and hard work, his daughter and group communications director Mahi Golchin-Depala said her father has succeeded because he understands what people want.

"My father is a man who wanted to bring film to people who wanted to watch. It brings him pleasure which can't be expressed. While others watch film he watches people. That's what makes him happy."