Exhibition experts talk Middle East cinema trends and challenges

“Making hay while the sun shines” is how John Sullivan of cinema advisers The Big Picture characterizes the current state of theatrical exhibition in Saudi Arabia—a market that, bucking current worldwide cinema trends, is continuing to grow in the latter half of 2020 despite the presence of a global pandemic.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is a rare case, as the country’s decades-long ban on public cinemas was lifted only in 2018; the wider MEAP region (Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan) was the subject of The Big Picture’s November webinar “Trends and Challenges in the Middle East,” offering insight into one of the dynamic more areas of global theatrical exhibition.

With all the potential to be found in Middle Eastern markets—“screen growth has been the bedrock of the sector,” says Charlotte Jones, principal analyst at OMDIA—the loss of box office caused by the Covid-19 pandemic represents a major setback to exhibitors of that region; Fredrik Jonsson of Novo Cinemas (UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar) estimates that it will take “another four to six months until business comes back.” For Pakistan-based Cinepax, the situation is even more dire, as the pandemic came on the heels of another crisis: In 2019, due to geopolitical reasons, theaters in Pakistan stopped playing Bollywood movies, which make up 60 percent of that market’s box office.

Still, there have been silver linings, explains Cinepax CEO Mariam El Bacha. One of those, from a programming perspective, has been the BTS concert film Break the Silence: The Movie, which screened in Pakistan quite successfully upon that country’s cinema market reopening in September. (Cinemas in Pakistan subsequently closed again due to rising Covid-19 numbers.) “Even though sometimes you feel that BTS has nothing to do with Pakistan… you have to look again and see the opportunities,” says El Bacha, who emphasizes the importance of content that is both current and “relevant to the market.”

For Jonsson, the upscale experience offered to Novo patrons (at an upscale price) plays a role in bringing people back to the theater mid-pandemic; “boutique luxury experiences” such as Novo’s “7-star” experience (pictured above), featuring access to a private lounge and and butler service, contribute to social distancing and a sense of safety. “You feel like you’re in a smaller space with fewer people around,” he says. Smaller, more intimate screens “lend themselves quite well into private bookings for a group or a larger family or other private screening.”

Pre-Covid, luxury experiences were a must-have to many theater patrons in the Middle East; Paul Fox, director of Dubai-based Roxy Cinemas notes that the MEAP market “is more competitive at the top end than anywhere else I’ve ever been in the world.” At some cinemas Roxy offers a “Platinum Plus” experience with recliner seats, an exclusive lounge, a full menu, and an on-call waiter. Novo, in addition to the 7-star tier, has begun “diversifying the product offering” away from the traditional megaplexes to a more “boutique style [of] cinemas,” says Jonsson, with smaller auditoriums that allow for a more personalized experience for guests. Fox and Jonsson both emphasize the importance of, in Jonsson’s words, “knowing the customer that comes through the door.” He adds: “The ancillary spend is quite significant. That we are able to monitor that through the loyalty card is quite interesting.”…

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