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Now playing: Cinema nostalgia in UAE

With the rise of the multiplexes, the standalone cinema hall culture is all but dying in the UAE

Image Credit: Photo Pankaj Sharma/Xpress
People queue to buy tickets at Reel Cinemas, The Dubai Mall
Gulf News

Abu Dhabi/Dubai: Not too long ago, going to the cinema to watch a film meant going to the cinema to watch a film.

It used to be a grand experience, as grand as the giant screen inside the cinema hall, while the neon signs outside spread colour into the night sky.

The experience, a ritual almost, began with frantic phone calls between friends as soon as the release date for the upcoming blockbuster was revealed. The weekend plan would be set in stone; people would rush after school or work to jostle for advance ticket sales at the box office, days ahead of the release.

Some film buffs and socialites even bought new clothes for the first day, first show. After all, their classmates or colleagues would be there too, and there would be a lot of them. It was an occasion to see and be seen.

For many people, cinema was an experience in itself, as much about what was playing on screen, if not more.

Changing experience

Today, when going to the cinema, chances are, shopping and dining out are also a part of the cinema outing thanks to the multiplexes in malls.

With the rise of multiplexes, the cinema experience has undergone a shift. While many love the multiplex culture, many also miss the stand-alone cinema hall experience.

In the UAE, there are now around eight brands of multiplexes, offering over 300 screens in total, at dozens of locations across the country. Meanwhile, only a handful of stand-alone cinemas have survived, perhaps less than half a dozen in the whole country.

Once well-known Dubai landmarks, such as Al Nasr, Strand, Plaza Cinema, Golden Cinema, Dubai Cinema, Deira Cinema and Rex have disappeared one after the other. Also closed is Sharjah Cinema, leaving just Al Hamra Cinema still operating in Sharjah. New buildings — banks, shopping centres — or empty spaces now fill where these cinemas used to stand.

Gulf News spoke with residents on their going to the movies experiences.

‘Real excitement’

Mohammad Omar Zameer, a British legal consultant in Dubai, recalls his teenage years when he would buy new clothes for new shows at the cinema. Now 41, Zameer said he misses those cinema days that he believed were marked by a sense of community and kinship.

 I truly miss going to the cinema with school friends, heading off to 3pm matinee, dressing up ... buying new clothes for a new movie. The excitement was palpable.”

 - Mohammad Zameer | Legal consultant 

“I liked the experience because everything was playing at one cinema hall and everybody got together there. The excitement of heading to a cinema hall was immense. At half time — intermission — you would chat up friends and acquaintances discussing plot points of the movie. What I also truly miss is going to the cinema with school friends, heading off to 3pm matinee, dressing up for it ... We would buy new clothes for a new movie. The excitement was palpable,” Zameer said.

Today, it’s all very different, according to him.

Growing distance

“With the advent of multiplexes and more screens, the excitement has fizzled out, [cinema going] has become more common. It feels like the distance between people has grown; you can now watch movies online. You don’t get so excited anymore.”

The last one standing ... Al Hamra cinema in Sharjah

Zameer was a regular at cinemas such as Al Nasr and Strand in Dubai. Throughout the 90s, he spent many weekends watching movies with friends.

“Back then, when a movie released, it would run at the cinema for a month. If you missed it, you would have to wait months for it to come out on videocassette. So, just not be caught out, you would go to the box office a week in advance of a release to make sure you got the tickets.”

But there were a few inconveniences too, said Zameer. “There was no online booking. So for the most anticipated movies of the year, you had to queue up at the box screen a week in advance. I’ve done that through the 90s, up to 2002. In today’s online culture, you get to choose your seats online, and pay online.

“Snack options too have undergone a revision. Up until 1997-98, cinema halls offered only salted popcorn, soft-drinks and crisps. But now, at multiplexes, there is a feast of things you can enjoy.

“You can watch movies in 3D, 4D, Laser IMAX,” he said.

And there is the equal footing scenario to consider.

“I prefer today’s seating culture. They have done away with the system of balcony and orchestra seats. Now people are more or less on the same footing.”

Multiplexes rule

Mohammad Obaid Al Matlaei, Emirati, 24, said, “I prefer watching movies at malls because of the big screens and advanced sound technology. Plus, the ambience is good.

“Even if I have to watch an Indian movie, I go to the malls. I don’t like going to stand-alone because they lack the ambience.”

Now  The location where the Golden Cinema’s building once stood in Dubai.

Obaid also does not mind paying Dh50 for VIP seats at Al Maria Cinema as he thinks it’s worth it.

Madu Paravoor, 49, Indian expatriate, who works as a purchasing manager in Abu Dhabi, said, “I like stand-alone cinema halls and watch movies there as most regional movies from south India are screened in them. But if the same movie is being screened at the multiplex, I prefer watching it there.”

 I like stand-alone cinema halls and watch movies there as they screen most regional Indian movies. But if the same movie is at the multiplex, I prefer watching it there.”

 - Madu Paravoor | Purchasing manager 

But Paravoor still has a deep attachment to the two stand-alone cinema halls in Abu Dhabi. “They are only a walking distance away,” he said.

Paravoor said there was another stand-alone cinema hall at Hamdan Centre on Hamdan Street but it was converted into a shopping complex.

Another change in the moviegoing experience is the price of tickets. Over the last seven years, ticket prices increased from Dh20 to Dh30 at stand-alone cinemas, while multiplex tickets can go up to Dh140 for the most exclusive service, Paravoor said. “It’s become expensive to watch a movie. It costs Dh100 for me and my wife at a mall, with refreshments.”