DUBAI: Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), the UAE-based malls and leisure group, is to make the biggest investment yet in Saudi cinema with a SR2 billion ($533 million) plan to open at least 600 VOX Cinema screens across the Kingdom over the next five years.
The plan was announced the day after Saudi film fans gathered for the first public showing of a movie for 35 years, and just as the Dubai-based group received a cinema license from the Saudi authorities.
The first movie will be shown in a four-screen multiplex in Riyadh Park Mall in the coming days, and will be followed by a rapid opening program across the country, Alain Bejjani, MAF chief executive, told Arab News.
“We’re bringing Saudi Arabia the best cinema in the world, and on a scale that will make a difference. It is a historic day,” he said.
The first showings in Riyadh Park mall — in an area that was previously intended as a venue for MAF’s Magic Planet children’s area — will include “animation, family-friendly and educational films.”
But MAF will use its distribution agreement with US Hollywood giant 20th Century Fox to bring the full range of movies to the Kingdom. It will also encourage local film-making talent, Bejjani said.
“We will be able to show anything Saudi law allows us, just as in all the other countries where we operate in the region,” he added.
The boom in Saudi cinema and the wider leisure sector is a result of the transformation of the Kingdom’s economy and society under Vision 2030 reforms.
“Majid Al Futtaim is proud to be one of the largest private sector investors in the Kingdom and Vision 2030, with an investment commitment now increasing to SR16 billion,” the developer said in a statement.
In addition to the cinema expansion, which will involve a SR2 billion investment program and at least 600 screens, MAF also has two big mall projects under way in Riyadh. It is looking to build others across the country, as well as expanding its retail and fashion businesses. The total investment is projected to create up to 120,000 jobs, of which 3,000 will be in VOX cinemas.
Bejjani said that there are plans to build “many more malls,” and that he had already begun to identify sites for these and for new cinemas.” We operate the cinemas like we operate Carrefours (the French supermarket chain for which MAF has exclusive franchise rights in the region), so the cinemas do not have to be in malls. We do not need partnerships, but we are not closed to them either,” he said.
Further cinemas currently under design include MAF’s Mall of Saudi and City Center Ishbiliyah, with both locations opening in Riyadh in future, with additional announcements on new locations expected soon.
The partnership with 20th Century Fox will be exclusively distributing Fox content to all cinemas across Saudi Arabia. In 2018, the company is planning to release anticipated hits including “The Darkest Minds,” “The Predator” and the James Cameron produced “Alita: Battle Angel,” MAF said.
Bejjani explained: “We want to contribute to Saudi cultural life. We’re very committed and it means a lot to us. We want to help Saudi youth to express themselves and contribute to the evolution of society.
“I have no doubt that the Vision 2030 transformation will succeed. It is the cornerstone of the Saudi future, and the country has all the potential to turn this into reality. The leadership is committed to making it work as fast as possible,” he added.
“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that Saudi Arabia is only operating at 10 percent of its potential, and I agree with him. We want to help them achieve the other 90 percent,” Bejjani said.
VOX Cinemas across the region also includes fine dining outlets from British chef Gary Rhodes, and these outlets could also be incorporated into the MAF projects, along with outdoor viewing screens.
Saudi Arabia plans to open 350 cinemas across the country by 2030, which will include 2,500 screens and is expected to contribute around $25 billion to the economy.
The MAF announcement came after the first public showing of the movie “Black Panther” to an elite audience at a new cinema in Riyadh, built and operated by AMC, the American cinema operator.
Bejjani said: “A lot of other operators have declared their interest and their intentions, but we are the only ones who are ready and on the ground. We know the customer, know the market and have a proven track record.”