Debbie Kristiansen, CEO of Novo Cinemas Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Going to the movies in the UAE has come a long way.

The dizzying number of multiplexes, with their stylish options, VIP services and special offers are a public favourite.

Cameron Mitchell, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Cinemas, which operators VOX Cinemas, said multiplexes, when they first arrived on the UAE scene, were not that different from cinema halls.

“To share some VOX Cinemas history, when we first opened in Ajman in 1999, it was the first multiplex in the UAE with six screens, and we had just four staff. The Candy Bar only served salted popcorn, soft drinks and chocolates … Because going to the cinema was still a very new experience, certain etiquette was not yet established. Cinemas were noisy, guests spoke on their mobile phones and, as it was still legal then, some even smoked inside the theatres,” he added.


A decade ago, Mitchell said, stand-alone cinemas with 2,000 seats were common. VOX Cinemas launched as a multiplex and now every location they currently operate has six or more screens — and every location is within a mall (except for the Grand Hyatt Cineplex in Dubai).

Why are multiplexes in the UAE almost exclusively found in malls? “The weather in this region means there’s consistent demand for a range of exciting indoor experiences for the whole family. In the UAE there is a strong mall culture and going to watch a movie is complemented by all the other activities families can do within that space, including shopping and dining out…,” he explained.

Debbie Kristiansen, CEO of Novo Cinemas, one of the biggest multiplex brands in the region, said: “People are looking to malls for additional forms of entertainment … and, of course, multiplex cinemas. Since its inception, Novo Cinemas has been one of the market leaders, opening its doors in 2004, as the first IMAX in the region at the Ibn Battuta Mall Megaplex.”

Changing content

Content too has changed, from mostly Indian and Hollywood films in the early days, to movies in Arabic, Tagalog, French, Russian, Tamil and Malayalam. It makes sense, then, to offer such variety all under one roof, Mitchell said.

“The Middle East boasts a huge mix of nationalities so we have to provide a variety of content in many different languages to please all types of movie-lovers. With this volume of content, we need more screens and bigger cinemas, and a multiplex allows us more freedom to cater to our large and diverse fan base.” Kristiansen said: “Going to the cinema is part of the cultural DNA in this region; a much-loved pastime. The audiences can be described as discerning with high expectations and Novo Cinemas offers a competitive portfolio of film offerings for Hollywood, Bollywood and Arab films, as well as for alternative content.”

Great expectations

As demand and expectation of moviegoers rise, multiplexes have had to innovate to keep pulling in the crowds.

“Our guests now demand more from the cinema than simply watching a movie, so all exhibitors have had to develop new concepts and technology to provide a more stimulating and multi-sensory experience,” said Mitchell.

3D progressed into 4D, for example, where movements of the theatre seats and special effects like mist or air are timed with on-screen antics for an “immersive” experience.

Regulated prices

Multiplexes also offer VIP services such as gourmet food, waiters, dedicated entrances and reclining leather seats in their theatres.

All the special services and add-ons come at a price, of course, with some top-end tickets costing over Dh100 per person. Standard, no-frills tickets cost Dh30 or Dh35 per head.

Mitchell said ticket prices are regulated by the UAE government “and we are compliant with their requirements.”

Kristiansen said, “The prices for regular tickets are regulated by the government and have only increased by Dh5 over the past five years.”

The end?

Where does all this leave the cinema hall? “It’s the era of multiplexes and standalones are disappearing,” said Haris Ali, theatre manager at Cine Royal in Khalidiyah Mall, Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2009. The multiplex brand can also be found in Dalma, Deerfields and Ruwais malls in Abu Dhabi.

Another problem facing stand-alone cinemas in Abu Dhabi for example is parking, Ali added. “You can hardly find a parking space as they are located in very crowded localities and you have to pay for it, so people resort to malls, which offer all facilities.”