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

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.


Facebook researchers use maths for better translations

Updated 13 October 2019

Facebook researchers use maths for better translations

  • Facebook researchers say rendering words into figures and exploiting mathematical similarities between languages is a promising avenue
  • Allowing as many people as possible worldwide to communicate is not just an altruistic goal, but also good business

PARIS: Designers of machine translation tools still mostly rely on dictionaries to make a foreign language understandable. But now there is a new way: numbers.

Facebook researchers say rendering words into figures and exploiting mathematical similarities between languages is a promising avenue — even if a universal communicator a la Star Trek remains a distant dream.

Powerful automatic translation is a big priority for Internet giants. Allowing as many people as possible worldwide to communicate is not just an altruistic goal, but also good business.

Facebook, Google and Microsoft as well as Russia’s Yandex, China’s Baidu and others are constantly seeking to improve their translation tools.

Facebook has artificial intelligence experts on the job at one of its research labs in Paris. Up to 200 languages are currently used on Facebook, said Antoine Bordes, European co-director of fundamental AI research for the social network.

Automatic translation is currently based on having large databases of identical texts in both languages to work from. But for many language pairs there just aren’t enough such parallel texts.

That’s why researchers have been looking for another method, like the system developed by Facebook which creates a mathematical representation for words.

Each word becomes a “vector” in a space of several hundred dimensions. Words that have close associations in the spoken language also find themselves close to each other in this vector space.

“For example, if you take the words ‘cat’ and ‘dog’, semantically, they are words that describe a similar thing, so they will be extremely close together physically” in the vector space, said Guillaume Lample, one of the system’s designers.

“If you take words like Madrid, London, Paris, which are European capital cities, it’s the same idea.”

These language maps can then be linked to one another using algorithms — at first roughly, but eventually becoming more refined, until entire phrases can be matched without too many errors.

Lample said results are already promising. For the language pair of English-Romanian, Facebook’s current machine translation system is “equal or maybe a bit worse” than the word vector system, said Lample.

But for the rarer language pair of English-Urdu, where Facebook’s traditional system doesn’t have many bilingual texts to reference, the word vector system is already superior, he said.

But could the method allow translation from, say, Basque into the language of an Amazonian tribe? In theory, yes, said Lample, but in practice a large body of written texts are needed to map the language, something lacking in Amazonian tribal languages.

“If you have just tens of thousands of phrases, it won’t work. You need several hundreds of thousands,” he said.

Experts at France’s CNRS national scientific center said the approach Lample has taken for Facebook could produce useful results, even if it doesn’t result in perfect translations.

Thierry Poibeau of CNRS’s Lattice laboratory, which also does research into machine translation, called the word vector approach “a conceptual revolution.”

He said “translating without parallel data” — dictionaries or versions of the same documents in both languages — “is something of the Holy Grail” of machine translation.

“But the question is what level of performance can be expected” from the word vector method, said Poibeau. The method “can give an idea of the original text” but the capability for a good translation every time remains unproven.

Francois Yvon, a researcher at CNRS’s Computer Science Laboratory for Mechanics and Engineering Sciences, said “the linking of languages is much more difficult” when they are far removed from one another.

“The manner of denoting concepts in Chinese is completely different from French,” he added.
However even imperfect translations can be useful, said Yvon, and could prove sufficient to track hate speech, a major priority for Facebook.