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.


Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. (AFP)
Updated 21 April 2019
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Quest for food stamp data lands newspaper at Supreme Court

  • Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going”
  • The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release

WASHINGTON: In the summer of 2010, reporters at South Dakota’s Argus Leader newspaper decided to request data about the government’s food assistance program, previously known as food stamps. They thought the information could lead to a series of stories and potentially help them identify fraud in the now $65 billion-a-year program.
They sent a stream of what they thought were routine requests for information to Washington.
Government officials eventually sent back some information about the hundreds of thousands of stores nationwide where the food program’s participants could use their benefits. But the government withheld information reporters saw as crucial: how much each store received annually from the program.
Trying to get that data has taken the paper more than eight years and landed it at the Supreme Court, which will hear the case Monday.
Argus Leader news director Cory Myers, who directs a staff of 18 at the Sioux Falls paper, says getting the information is about “knowing how our government is operating” and “knowing what government is doing with our tax money.”
A supermarket trade association opposing the information’s release argues that the information being sought is confidential. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case could be narrow or could significantly affect the interpretation of a law that grants the public access to government records.
The Argus Leader is owned by USA Today publisher Gannett and is the largest newspaper in South Dakota. It wrote about the government’s initial release of information. But Jonathan Ellis, one of the reporters behind the requests, said there’s more to learn if the paper gets what it’s seeking.
Ellis said he would like to write about the companies who profit the most from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program , called SNAP. He would like to analyze how successful efforts to involve farmers’ markets in the program have been. And he is still hoping to use the data to identify stores that seem like outliers, an indication of potential fraud.
Megan Luther, the other reporter behind the requests, said the paper has been fighting for the information for reasons beyond “there’s a good story there.” Luther, who now works for InvestigateTV, said it’s “transparency 101” that “taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going.”
The paper has gotten close to getting the data before.
After initially opposing the information’s release, the federal government reversed course after the Argus Leader took it to court and won. But the Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute , a trade association representing grocery stores and supermarket chains, stepped in to continue the fight. The group lost an appeal, and the paper hoped it would soon get the data. Then the Supreme Court took the case.
The Food Marketing Institute, which declined interviews before Monday’s arguments, has said in court papers that the public already has access to a lot of data about SNAP. But SNAP sales data by store is confidential “much the same way how much business grocers do in cash, credit, debit, checks or even gift cards is confidential,” wrote Food Marketing Institute president and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin in a blog post last month.
To decide whether the information should be released, the Supreme Court will have to interpret the federal Freedom of Information Act .
It gives citizens, including reporters, access to federal agencies’ records with certain exceptions. In the Argus Leader’s case, the US Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, argued that disclosing the data the paper sought was barred by FOIA’s “exemption 4.” It tells the government to withhold “confidential” “commercial or financial information” obtained from third parties.
It will be up to the court to determine whether what the paper is seeking counts as “confidential.”
The Trump administration is backing the grocery stores in arguing against the information’s release. The Associated Press is among dozens of media organizations that have signed a legal brief supporting the Argus Leader.
Myers, the Argus Leader’s news director, said that in the years it has taken for the paper’s case to reach the Supreme Court, the paper has continued to do the kind of investigative reporting it was attempting to do in seeking the SNAP data.
In South Dakota, he said, “there are more stories and more malfeasance than one newsroom can root out, but we certainly try.”
The case is 18-481 Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media.