Vox Cinemas brings popcorn and superheroes to 80 screens across Saudi Arabia

Vox in Riyadh Park Mall. Cinemas in the Kingdom will eventually account for half of MAF’s regional cinema business, Cameron Mitchell, the chief executive of MAF Cinemas, has estimated. (Courtesy: MAF)
Updated 19 June 2018
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Vox Cinemas brings popcorn and superheroes to 80 screens across Saudi Arabia

  • Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), the Dubai-based operator of malls and leisure facilities, is preparing a big roll-out of new cinema screens in the Kingdom
  • Cameron Mitchell, the chief executive of MAF Cinemas, revealed the plans in an interview with Arab News

DUBAI: Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), the Dubai-based operator of malls and leisure facilities, is preparing a big roll-out of new cinema screens in the Kingdom.
Following the first film viewing for nearly four decades in April and the opening of four Vox screens in Riyadh Park Mall, MAF is on the verge of a more ambitious initiative to create 80 screens in the Kingdom by the first quarter of next year.
Cameron Mitchell, the chief executive of MAF Cinemas, revealed the plans in an interview with Arab News.
“By the spring of 2019 we will have invested $100 million in cinema in Saudi Arabia, and by the end of next year we expect to have 200 screens. It is one of the fastest programs of openings anywhere in the world. There’s a lot happening very quickly,” he said.
The latest initiative is part of MAF’s $550 million strategy for cinemas in the Kingdom, and will see screens in Riyadh, Jeddah, in the Eastern Province and eventually many other smaller cities. Mitchell, who has been working in cinema in the region for the past 12 years, said the Saudi Arabian market is potentially huge.
“Saudi Arabia has such a young population and a big demand for entertainment, so the potential is enormous. For example, in Australia the average per capita number of cinema visits is five times a year. Even if every Saudi visits a cinema just once a year, that’s 30 million new visits per year,” he said.
MAF is planning to open 600 screens in Saudi Arabia by 2030, but Mitchell said that could be a “conservative” target. Cinemas in the Kingdom will eventually account for 50 percent of MAF’s regional cinema business, he estimated.
Mitchell said that MAF’s experience so far in Saudi Arabia had been very good. “We think we know what will appeal to Saudi audiences. Black Panther was the first, and the reception was fantastic. Movies such as the Avenger series, Ferdinand, Jurassic Park, X-Men all play well there.The big blockbusters go down really well, but there will also be Arabic films, and Hindi films at other times. Jurassic Park was a real hit — it was the first time some Saudis had ever seen a 3D dinosaur on a big screen,” he added.
The four screens in Riyadh are divided into “family” and “bachelor” venues, and films are chosen to be suitable for the particular audience. “Aside from the segregation of bachelors and families, it’s no different from Dubai. Perhaps over time, that segregation will change too,” Mitchell said.
The reintroduction of cinema has gone very smoothly, he said. “There have been no real challenges regarding content. We’ve been working closely with the censors, but there have been no problems so far.
“We’ve learned a lot from how the UAE censors films, and advances in technology allow us to do it in a more subtle way, for instance zooming in on one subject in a controversial scene. We can avoid (bits) ... rather than cutting the whole scene.
“Areas to avoid are pretty obvious — religion and nudity, and we don’t really show films that have that kind of content anyway. It is mainly action films and family films. We will have lots of screens, so we can match whatever the demand is and the law allows,” he said.
MAF wants to make cinema one of the main forms of entertainment in the Kingdom as it goes through Vision 2030 transformation plans aimed at diversifying the economy and allowing a more liberal lifestyle.
“It is not just about a movie. We want it to be the favorite form of all-round entertainment, and so far it has been a great success. We’ve been selling tickets a couple of days in advance. There have been multiple sold-out sessions, and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback on the popcorn and the nachos,” he said.
One of the biggest cinema hubs will be in the Mall of Saudi, which MAF is planning in the Saudi capital, complete with an indoor ski slope.
“Our cinemas win awards for being among the best in the world, quite an achievement for a Middle East company. The Mall of Saudi will be an entertainment hub, equipped for gaming as well,” Mitchell said. Other new screens will be located in existing malls but there will also be some standalone venues.
“We’re spending a lot of money to develop cinemas quickly, so returns will be consistent with what we normally get from cinemas,” he said.
Mitchell said MAF was open to discussions with existing developers, and would be interested in projects in places such as King Abdullah Economic City and Qiddiya, the huge leisure complex planned outside Riyadh.
“We like to see ourselves as the local developer. Of course, there is competition, but we always build the best in the region, and we run the best malls in the region too. We don’t do cheap, we do best in class and we won’t cut corners,” he said.
MAF plans to employ 3,000 mostly Saudi staff in its cinema business, and wants to recruit a Saudi to run the distribution business in which it partners with 20th Century Fox.
The boost to KSA cinema entertainment is also expected to have a big effect on film-making in the region, Mitchell said.
“We’re looking for some big Saudi film premieres in the autumn. I was at the Cannes Film Festival recently, marketing the product and looking at how we can support the film industry in Saudi Arabia.
“Regionally, there is not a lot of locally made content, but we expect a lot more in years to come. We want local content and we see lots of Saudi films in coming years. We will work with the government to help that along. Cinema in Saudi Arabia is a government-backed and endorsed initiative as part of 2030,” he said.


How new criminal laws threaten Nepal journalism

A Nepalese roadside vendor reads the news in Kathmandu, Nepal, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. (AP)
Updated 24 September 2018
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How new criminal laws threaten Nepal journalism

  • The codes prohibit publishing private information, including of officials, ban recording without permission and require photographers to obtain permits in order to take pictures and sell and publish them

KATMANDU, Nepal: Journalists in Nepal are demanding changes to new criminal and civil codes they say undermine freedom of speech and expression.
The laws that took effect last month are general codes of conduct that apply to all citizens of Nepal, but press freedom groups say harsher sentences for libel and privacy violations are having a chilling effect on journalists in the small Himalayan country. Here are some details:
WHY THE NEW LAWS CAME ABOUT
Nepal’s new civil and criminal codes are the result of a new constitution adopted in 2015. Nepalese lawmakers had three years to design a set of laws that prescribe how the constitution should be interpreted. The codes cover everything from stipulating the legal age of marriage to enshrining property rights and describe how each civil violation or crime can be punished.
WHY THEY ARE CONTROVERSIAL
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression. But provisions of the new codes appear to limit these freedoms, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “Nepal’s new criminal code marks a giant step backward for press freedom,” program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement. For example, the codes make criticizing the president or members of Parliament criminal acts. The codes also prohibit publishing private information, including of officials, ban recording without permission and require photographers to obtain permits in order to take pictures and sell and publish them. The codes say that authorities can detain suspects for up to 40 days while investigating criminal charges. “Now journalists will be first detained and treated like murder suspects even before they are tried or given a chance to clarify,” said Ramesh Bistra, general secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, which has vowed to fight for the codes to be amended. The codes also ban satire, which in Nepal has been a prominent feature in the press and a popular form of protest throughout the country’s changing forms of government — from monarchy to autocratic rule to constitutional monarchy to the republic established in 2007.
CHILLING EFFECT
Press freedom groups say the language of the laws is broad enough to be used as a tool to attack journalists and deter them from doing their work. The four sections on privacy and defamation decree sentences of up to three years in prison and $260 in fines. Previously, journalists could be fined up to $217 for libel. “These new laws have created an environment of fear for the journalists and more and more of them are now practicing self-censorship,” said Taranath Dahal, who heads the Freedom Forum, a Nepal-based media rights group.
GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE
In response to journalists’ protests, the Nepalese government has formed a committee to recommend changes to the codes’ language. This committee, with representatives from several media rights groups and unions, has been given 45 days to come up with recommendations. The government, however, is not obliged to follow them. Even if the government accepts the changes, lawmakers would have to draft amendments, which would then have to be debated in Parliament before changes could be made. This could take months if not years in Nepal. Until then, the controversial new codes remain in effect.