A cinema in just six weeks? Anything’s possible. David Wallace gives the inside track on the realities of the expansion of the cinema market in Saudi Arabia.
AFTER A BAN ON CINEMA EXHIBITION of more than 35 years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) opened its first new cinema — the 620-seat, single-screen AMC cinema in Riyadh — on 18 April 2018. The opening up of the sector is a key part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 — a gradual modernisation and relaxation of the entire country.
The press photo for this event (see over) was published worldwide. It showed KSA dignitaries and officials, male and female, with AMC’s CEO, all seated, bunched up together in the front row. Officials, foreigners, and women, all together; this was indeed a moment of change. The film they were watching — the first for 35 years — was “Black Panther”, a movie with a primarily non-white cast. There was little censorship of the film. This was not the KSA of old.
That one photo illustrated how quickly KSA was changing — and with it, cinema had arrived. This event was closely followed in June 2018 by the Kingdom granting women the right to drive. A host of other relaxations have occurred since then. More will likely follow.
What’s behind such rapid change?
There is a desire to modernise and open up the Kingdom. Currently, KSA is an economy heavily reliant on oil dollars; it is estimated that one in eight barrels of world oil production is from KSA. In the near future, we will, out of necessity, be less reliant on oil, and even more interconnected via the internet, so KSA has a need to find new sources of income, be more progressive and be better aligned for the benefit of younger generations. Cinema has a place in all of this change. It has always been at the forefront of cultural shifts. Cinema buildings are a highly visible change, one the population can immediately experience and enjoy. Only 17 years ago, China also ushered in cinema when Warner Bros. opened the first modern venue in 2003. Now, there are over 60,000 screens in the country.
Shortly after AMC swung wide the doors on the Kingdom’s first cinema, VOX Cinemas opened its four-screen cinema at Riyadh Park. Since then, multiple cinemas licences have been awarded and many cinemas have opened. The KSA authorities have announced that 300 locations, hosting 2,000 screens, will be built before 2030. AMC has plans to open 50 locations in three years, and VOX is aiming for 600 screens by 2023.
All of these cinema opening announcements seemed to happen almost overnight. In fact, the sites themselves are being built almost overnight! When I visited VOX at Riyadh Park, I was informed by the manager it took just six weeks to build. I understand that the AMC project, although involving only one screen, was assembled in just a few weeks. For those involved in the delivery of these projects, it was a huge race to catch up with the rest of the world after a 35-year absence.
The signs of a promising future
At this time, my firm Chapman Taylor was busy developing cinemas in the UAE for Reel Cinemas; we were involved in building eight locations in Dubai over a two-year period. I often noticed many KSA visitors at the Dubai cinemas, recognisable by their distinctive red and white head-dress and smart collars.
They would often watch many films continuously, sometimes throughout the night. It was clear that KSA nationals enjoyed cinema. It was also clear that, once cinema was permitted in KSA, it could only be a huge success.
One dark and miserable October Monday morning, while taking the kids to school in the UK, I received a phone call from KSA’s largest retail developer, Fawaz Al Hokair, which wanted to start its own brand of cinema. These were to be built within its own ‘Arabian Centre’ shopping malls.
They asked me to meet them to discuss the idea.
The following evening, I was in Riyadh and met the client early the next morning — I left that afternoon with four cinema projects to design as quickly as we possibly could. The first opened
in October 2019 at The Mall of Arabia, which, at that time, was the largest cinema in KSA. A further two are now open in Riyadh and Dammam, and another seven locations are now under construction, with seven more due on site in the next month. Muvi Cinemas’ plan is to have 20 cinemas opened by the end of 2020.
A look back to compare
It is interesting and informative to compare the KSA’s cinema start with the UK’s 1990s cinema restart; it’s a comparison that clearly demonstrates the massive change that has occurred in cinema within that period.
The first of the new generation of cinemas in the UK appeared in the early 1990s. At that time, cinema was in decline throughout the world (except perhaps in India, where it is deeply embedded in the culture). The first of this new wave of UK cinema exhibitors could not find willing development partners, so many of these early cinemas were built by the exhibitors themselves.
It was a risky move, and investment was low. This cautiousness was reflected in the design; the early cinemas were built in such a way that, if the cinema concept failed, the interior could be quickly and easily removed, and the building shell converted into a simple retail shed — which at that time was a much better bet for property developers.
There were relatively few blockbuster movies released in the early 1990s, and these centred around school holidays, which made the business of cinema cashflow one of massive peaks and troughs. I recall listening to cinema operators saying, when “Jurassic Park” released in 1993, that they made as much money from that one film as they did for the entire previous year. Such was the business of cinema at that time.
For the first few years of this phase of UK cinema, there was a general suspicion among property developers that cinema would not prosper and would not enhance their shopping centres. As such, these early cinemas were built as an appendage to malls — the rents paid by cinemas were low, so why give them centre stage?
Compare that to KSA right now. The roles of retail and cinema have reversed. Worldwide cinema attendance has been, on average, one of continuous growth, and any aspiring retail development must have a cinema. The cinemas we are designing now are taking centre position within malls — their immediate success will draw customers through the mall and help increase footfall.
When cinema developers were preparing their business plans in the early 1990s, the occupancy rate was expected, on average, to be 20%. The actual occupancy rates for the first cinemas in KSA are close to 100%. Of course, this is likely to reduce as more cinemas are built, but the comparison is very clear to see.
When the first modern multiplex cinemas opened in the UK, each auditorium had the same design, seats and offer; there was little competition and the prospects of success were uncertain. By contrast, when we designed the Muvi Cinema at Mall of Arabia, it included Suites VIP cinemas, the Kingdom’s first ScreenX and Muvi Cinemas’ own brands, such as Muvi Xperience and Muvi Junior.
At the 13-screen Muvi Cinema at U Walk, Riyadh, which is currently under construction, the offer will include Suites VIP,
ScreenX, the Kingdom’s very first Dolby Cinema and the first Onyx (the massive LED screen from Samsung). When it opens this will be the most advanced cinema to date in KSA.
There are challenges, too
The challenge for exhibitors, designers and construction companies is the lack of locally available skills and materials to serve such an explosion of development. Local knowledge of cinema design norms and construction techniques is limited. Building materials specific to cinema are being imported for now, until local suppliers and manufacturers catch up.
Imported electrical items, of which there are many in any modern cinema, now have to comply with recently introduced Saudi Arabia Standards Institute (SASI certification). Many items are being tested for the first time, and the time taken to test and certify often does not match the speed of the cinemas’ construction.
The spaces offered for cinema development tend to be existing spaces within shopping malls — spaces previously designed for retail. Cinema has many differing requirements for key design parameters, such as structural loading, acoustics, spatial heights and column arrangements. A square metre of cinema generally needs more electrical power supply than a comparable square metre of retail.
All of these differences and shortcomings make designing and constructing a cinema much more of a challenge in comparison to a purpose-built project elsewhere. However, this will change as existing retail spaces are built out and new purpose-built developments come on stream.
So what is next after KSA builds 300 cinema locations in the coming years? Will LED screens be the norm? Will VR finally make a massive technological shift and allow cinema to become truly immersive? Will screens beyond 40metres in width be achievable? Will Netflix influence cinema attendance? I expect all of these questions will find answers in KSA during this rapid period of development. One thing is for sure: cinema will respond, as it always has, to any challenges it faces. KSA’s current rapid development is just another contributor to the continual evolution of the industry.
But is the pace realistic?
A speedy pace of development is the norm in KSA. During a typical week in KSA, it is easy to fall into the rhythm of design, eat, sleep, design, eat, sleep, design, don’t eat, don’t sleep — and so on. To design, build and open 20 cinema locations in just over one year is astonishing. However, VOX is developing at a similarly ambitious pace, closely followed by many others. The Kingdom’s stated aim of opening 300 locations by 2030 is not just possible, it is well under way. This pace of development may seem fanciful, but I would not doubt that it could happen. KSA has many ambitious plans on the drawing board, from resort cities larger than Dubai at NEOM City to the world’s tallest tower (1km-high) at Jeddah Economic City. The holy city of Madinah is planning to increase Islamic tourism from 16m pilgrims to 35m pilgrims in less than five years. A new railway station to cater for the predicted influx is already open, and Chapman Taylor is currently designing retail malls and several hotels to accommodate this growth.
The ambition to deliver so many cinemas in record time reflects the country’s wider ambition to develop rapidly. I have been involved at the beginning of modern cinema development in a number of countries, including the UK, China, Portugal, Italy, Mongolia, Germany, Japan, Spain and Vietnam. However, KSA is unique in its speed of development. In all the others mentioned, development was happening as the movie industry was just beginning to grow after decades of neglect. Cinema worldwide was almost dead in the 1980s; consequently, developers were cautious with their plans for the first few years, to see how the public reacted to the new multiplex. KSA cinema development, by comparison, is exploding from nothing during a period of record attendance and record revenues for movie companies worldwide. It is as sure a bet as a bet can get that cinemas in KSA will prosper as quickly as they can be built. This healthy environment for cinema will mean the KSA cinema industry will expand at unprecedented speed — faster than China, where initial growth was hindered by the limited availability of film products. It is exhilarating to be involved in this period of the country’s development.