With two more cinema operators announcing their intentions to open hundreds of screens across the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s movie future looks brighter than ever, according to those lining up for access to the country’s lucrative box-office market.
“It is a huge country. There is access for everyone who wants to operate there and to co-exist, should they want to,” said PV Sunil, managing director of Carnival Cinemas, one of the fastest-growing and largest multiplex chains in India. “And from what I can see, there will be plenty of competition from cinema operators in the world ready to do business in one of the most exciting cinema markets.”
On the sidelines of the inaugural MENA Cinema Forum, taking place in Dubai on Sunday and Monday, Sunil said Carnival Cinemas plans to open 500 screens across the Kingdom in the next five years, with a focus on more remote areas.
“Our aim is to spread cinemas far and wide, to all the remote locations. We have made a study of all the provinces and identified several locations, subject to approval. Our idea is to move to all these provinces maybe to set up smaller cinema theatres rather than big multiplexes, and to take movies to every person in Saudi Arabia.”
“We are almost in the position of securing the operational license, and we already have the distribution licence,” said Sunil, speaking exclusively to Arab News. “As soon as we will get the license, we will start the process of multiplexes in Saudi. There is no doubt of the great potential in the country. Anticipation and excitement have led to big business.”
Novo Cinemas, which has 11 screens in the UAE and one in Bahrain, also announced it is in talks to roll out its enterprise to Saudi Arabia. Partnership deals with both would follow four licenses already awarded to major cinema operators since Saudi Arabia formally ended a 35-year-long ban on cinemas earlier this year. Currently, there are only theaters in Riyadh, although VOX has plans to open in Jeddah by year’s end.
Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen, CEO of Novo Cinemas, headquartered in Dubai, said the company aims to open its first screens in Saudi Arabia in the last quarter of 2019. “We are in discussions already,” she said. “I cannot disclose exact locations, but we are in a number of exciting discussions at present. It is an important market, and we are a leader in cinemas in the region, having started back in 2000, and it is a natural progression for us to move to KSA.”
According to research by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), the number of cinema screens is expected to increase by 38.4 percent to 1,800 in the MENA region in the next three to five years, while more than $3.54 billion investment in cinema screens across the Gulf is expected to help boost the cinema industry’s expansion plans.
Dr Martin Berlin, real estate leader at PWC, said the growth sector of the market is “very high” and outlined that the “biggest opportunities will come from the opening of the Saudi market.”
At the MENA Cinema Forum, Ashish Shukla, CEO of Cinepolis Gulf, spoke about the expansion plans of the company. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia granted its fourth operational license to Lux Entertainment, a partnership between Cinepolis, the biggest cineplex chain in Mexico, Al-Hokair Group for Tourism and Development and Al-Tayer Group. Lux plans to open 300 screens in 15 cities around Saudi Arabia in the next five years.
The other licenses have been awarded to AMC Theaters, an American chain owned by Wanda Group which plans to open around 40 cinemas in 15 cities in Saudi Arabia over the next five years, and between 50 to 100 cinemas in about 25 cities by 2030; VOX Cinemas, now one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest movie operators, which plans to open 600 screens by 2022; and the Al-Rashed United Group – Empire Cinema, which plans to build 30 theaters in the country over the next three years.
Cinepolis, one of the biggest global cinema operators, has 5,371 screens and about 1.1 million cinema seats in 15 countries. Shukla said the Gulf is “the biggest growth opportunity” for the company, adding that the Kingdom tops the list in the Gulf when it comes to investment potential.
“There are no two ways about it,” he said. “We set our feet in the region about a year back. The Gulf region is our next natural growth circuit, and while we are not operational in Saudi Arabia yet, we see big potential.”
Cameron Mitchell, CEO of Majid Al-Futtaim Cinemas, of which VOX Cinemas is a subsidiary, said the Kingdom, in addition to the sheer number of screens rolled out across the country, would soon see other exciting developments in the film industry, including the development of locally produced content and film, and international Hollywood makers using the country as a destinations spot for filming.
“Our goal is to heavily invest in Saudi Arabia, upwards of SR18 billion ($4.8 billion). We are the largest cinema operator already in the region. Next year, we will open 100 screens in the Kingdom alone. That is a very hard number to beat. I do not know of anyone else who can top that. Healthy competition is great.
“We are very excited about our Riyadh Front location, The Roof, and the Mall of Saudi, when open, will be the best cinema in the world without a doubt.”
Mitchell said the company aims to ensure its booming business in the Kingdom is led by Saudi nationals, with the business having a 98.8 per cent Saudization scheme, having achieved 98 per cent to date. He said the company would also be supporting local Saudi filmmakers, saying VOX is “desperate for more local content.”
Earlier this year, VOX signed an exclusive distribution deal with Myrkott, the Saudi production company behind YouTube animated series “Masameer” that has attracted more than 700 million views across social media. The development marks the first deal of its kind deal with a Saudi production company under whi ch Myrkott content will be screened across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Mohamed Al-Hashemi, country manager for Saudi Arabia at Majid Al-Futtaim, said the Saudi market is special for two major reasons. “Firstly, because of the population and the purchasing power within the market itself; the second, because it is a virgin market,” he said. “There was a ban for almost 35 years in the cinema industry and now it is open for business to a ready population who has set expectations on what they want to see.”
Al-Hashemi said while the first VOX screens are in two of the Kingdom’s major cities, Jeddah and Riyadh, the chain plans to roll out cinemas across the country, with a focus on Madinah, Dammam, Tabuk, Alkhobar and cities in more remote locations.
Just as the UAE has attracted Hollywood movie producers to shoot blockbusters including “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and “Fast & Furious 7,” Al-Hashemi is confident that film producers will turn to the Kingdom for shoot locations.
Arturo Guillén, vice present for EMEA and India for movies at comScore, an analytical company that has been studying cinema trends, said “Saudi Arabia is right now in the centre of attention of the global cinema community.
“This is mainly because it has the potential to be a Top 10 market globally over the next five years. This would mean a global total of box-office takings of up to $1 billion a year. Saudi can definitely compete against Hollywood.”
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