Renovating the World’s Busiest Cinema

Reinvigorating an existing site is tough. If it’s the world’s busiest cinema, it’s tougher still. Architect David Wallace outlines the design direction and principles behind the renovation of Dubai’s Reel Cinema.


Dubai is a place of superlatives ­— and the Reel Cinema at the world’s biggest shopping centre, the Dubai Mall, is no exception. The cinema is operated by Emaar Entertainment, a subsidiary of Emaar PJSC, which developed both the mall and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Opened in August 2009, with no fewer than 22 screens and 2,800 seats, the Reel Cinema included 18 standard auditoria and 4 Platinum VIP auditoria, making it the biggest in the UAE region and frequently the busiest cinema in the world, with over three million admissions annually.

In early 2016, after more than six years of enormous footfall, it was time for a renovation. Emaar sought design ideas of a select number of international architects, including my firm, Chapman Taylor. There was no fixed brief or indeed budget — it was left to each architect to submit their ideas.

When I visited the existing site, it was the operational difficulty that struck me as the first point to address. Over four main public levels (six, if including the projection levels), the cinema had four ticket check points, four main entrances and three concession stands, all served by two large kitchens and four box office locations. It was confusing to find your way around — I heard stories of customers getting lost when they popped out during the movie and then being unable to find their way back to their screen — staff had to direct them. The other main point noted was that the Mall of Emirates, another large mall in Dubai, had recently opened its own flagship cinema with 24 screens, thus becoming the largest in the UAE. It was clear Dubai is a city with a record-breaking gene in its DNA.

Design direction

Given the ambition of the location and the eminence of Emaar, there was only one solution — to create the largest, most advanced cinema in the world. The previous record holder, Warner Village (now Vue) at Star City in Birmingham, UK, opened in 2001 with 30 screens. Initial sketches were prepared which allowed for 33 screens — 28 in the existing demise and five atop the adjacent car park connected to the main cinema via a short bridge link.

One of the key considerations in the design of very large multiplexes is the long length of the concession stand and the large number of points of sale. Both increase as the seat count increases. The downside of long concession stands and individually staffed sales points is the length of time customers may wait in line to make a purchase. This can be frustrating, just as it is in a supermarket queue at peak periods. An impatient departure without a sale is a lose-lose for both customer and cinema alike. Connected to this issue was the need to accommodate long queue lengths in the lobby at peak periods. Lobbies needed to become larger.

At initial meetings, Emaar personnel expressed an interest in automating the box office and concession stands. The existing sales points necessitated many staff to keep them open and the payroll was, I suspect, much higher than the norm. Interestingly, a number of articles were appearing in the media about automation at this time. Some fast food restaurants had recently started to operate in this way, as had some trendy cafés in the US, Japan and elsewhere. This led to a decision to develop Emaar’s idea for full automation. The traditional, long concession stand would be omitted and replaced by large, fully automated swipe screens, where all ticket and food purchases occur on the same screen during the same transaction. Providing as many sales points as needed at the four entry points would ensure queuing times were minimised.

Emaar was also ken to omit the manned ticket-tear point and replace it with a card reader to check tickets. Given the movie rating system, the technology is not yet there to make this feasible — human verification is still the best way to uncover those trying to look older than they are!

The next design consideration was to simplify complex circulation. Ticket control points were reduced from four to two, while the three concession stands were eliminated and replaced by two pick-up points, all served by one main kitchen instead of two.

The customer journey was planned in a very linear route as follows: enter from one of four entry points, decide your movie, purchase tickets and F&B at swipe screen by that entrance, move along to pick-up point to collect your F&B, go to ticket check, then move to selected screen. This is direct, with no doubling back. Critical to making this design work is the fact that, once you have placed your order at the entry swipe screens, the information is immediately downloaded to the reader screens within the main kitchen. By the time you have walked from the entrance to the pick-up point, your order has been processed and is ready to collect. All that remains is to have your ticket checked and go to your screen.

The other main point considered in the design was how the customer journey would be, vertically. This cinema is planned over four main levels. The logic is that, as you move up the building via escalators, the type of auditorium you enter becomes more exclusive, until you reach the top where the VIP Platinum screens are all located.

The original cineplex, when it opened in 2009, had two options – regular screens and VIP screens. In an effort to improve customer choice and increase income, the screen options have been increased to seven. These include regular screens, luxury seats within a regular screen, a Dolby Atmos Cinema, a Barco Escape screen, an MX4D motion screen, dining screens anchored by US celebrity chef Guy Fieri and VIP Platinum screens.

All these points were developed and included in the initial design and presented to Emaar’s senior management. It was well received, and Chapman Taylor was awarded the project. Construction started 14 weeks later. It was decided to close half the cinema for the phase one renovation and keep the other half open for business.

Phase one is now completed and open, with 14 screens, and phase two is already underway, with a further 12 screens . The original idea of 33 screens has been reduced to 26, as recent changes to Dubai’s seismic planning codes would have necessitated structural works to the existing car park to take the heavy load of new screens. We are now designing another project for Emaar that is to be the world’s largest cinema —26 screens is sufficient for Reel Cinema Dubai Mall once again to be the biggest and best cinema in the UAE region.

putting in the “wow”

All this efficiency of operation and circulation, does not really ‘wow’ the customer. It is taken for granted the journey from entrance to seat should be efficient and logical. It is visual elements, the aesthetics of the journey, that amaze customers. Advances in LED technology allow huge, complex surfaces to screen movie content. Large movie images and video bursts are very visual, very exciting and very cinematic. 

Emaar wanted all signage and movie displays to be electronic and, where possible, to push the boundaries of what is currently considered possible. Together with the signage supplier, we developed many different LED displays. Starting at the front entrance, the Reel Cinema logo is generated via a large LG OLED screen. Just prior to the opening of phase one, Emaar had installed the world’s largest digital screen with LG OLED technology at The Dubai Mall aquarium.

Within the main lobby, the main feature is a huge hero LED screen, 18m long x 6m high, used to display movies, show timings, promotions etc. This is supported by four circular column signs and 28 LED poster screens to promote the current movies on show. Off the lobby is a popular Twitter wall (see opening page), where people relax on long curved sofas, upload messages and wacth them appear live on screen. Reel Cinema tweets pop up with messages and comments about movies on show.

The most striking LED element is located in the auditorium access corridor. The design is modelled around four curved LED inclined walls and soffits. The effect transports customers into a space that feels quite unreal.  This was purposely kept to the last part of the customer journey. From here, customers enter the auditorium, and the projected movie on the screen becomes the next and final visual element.

Phase one is now open. The circulation is improved, queuing times and congestion are down, the payroll is also down due to automation and income up due to the increase in screen choices. Customers go through the sales process faster and spend per head is up.

The renovation of The Dubai Mall cinema has been one of the most interesting and challenging projects I have been involved with. The clients’ ambition to have the best, and its ability to deliver the best, has been amazing. Perhaps only a place such as Dubai would demand it.

Cinema has many challenges, whether that be movie on-demand or shorter release windows. Operators’ responses to these challenges — continuous advancement of projection and sound systems, more luxurious surroundings and increased F&B choices — have been impressive.

Emaar’s response to these challenges has delivered the UAE’s biggest cinema,
the world’s first with all screens using laser RGB projectors and Dolby Atmos sound, the world’s first cinema with a fully automated sales process and one of the first without a concession stand. Cinema is very much alive in the UAE.   

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