Middle East exhibitor VOX Cinemas has reopened around 71%, or 391, of its 550 screens amid the coronavirus crisis. “Tenet,” which bowed on Aug. 26 in the region, is currently playing on 209 of those screens, six of which are IMAX. On some of Vox’s multiplexes in Saudi Arabia, the Christopher Nolan blockbuster and other films are being shown 24/7, “which helps mitigate some of the capacity restrictions,” says VOX CEO Cameron Mitchell.
Mitchell — whose VOX operates in the UAE, Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — spoke to Variety about how “Tenet” and, soon, “Mulan,” which will get a theatrical launch in the Middle East, are driving moviegoers back to cinemas in a region that is considered to have great growth potential for theatrical.
“Tenet” is considered the big game changer by international exhibitors, especially in Europe. Is that how you perceive it?
Content in general coming back has been a huge win for us. Two weeks ago, we had “Scoob!” which was the first major release to come back to the screen. We are now looking ahead to “Tenet” this week and we’ve got “Mulan” next week. Over the last weekend, while certainly the numbers are lower than usual, we had a 65% increase in trade in the UAE, and a 50% increase in trade in Egypt. As we are starting to see content coming back, it’s really going to help us.
Yes, but let’s talk “Tenet.” How important is it for VOX?
“Tenet” has become a sort of poster child for “movies are back.” We launched a “blockbusters are back” campaign, and advance ticket sales have been amazing for “Tenet” in Saudi and the UAE. So we are expecting a massive weekend.
Can you give me more specifics on the “Tenet” rollout in Vox Cinemas?
At the moment, we have reopened across all of the UAE, Saudi and Egypt. We had “Peninsula” last weekend and “Scoob!” before that. This weekend, “Tenet” will have the lion’s share of all of our premium screens, including our IMAX screens, across the board. In all of our markets where we have reopened, it’s all about “Tenet” this weekend.
Talk to me about advance sales
They’ve been amazing. As of Tuesday, we sold more than 10,000 tickets [for “Tenet”] in advance. For people to be that confident says a lot in terms of how excited people are about this film and its release.
Can you put that number into perspective for me?
I’d say it’s twice as many as we expected. Our maximum allowable capacity in any market where we operate is 50%, so we range from 25% to 50% capacity across the three countries.
I was expecting up to 5,000 advance sales from the die-hard fans. 10,000 is by far double my expectations, given that we haven’t seen any advance bookings at all over the last couple of months since we reopened, progressively, from May.
Where are you still closed?
We have yet to open in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Amman [Jordan]. We had reopened in Lebanon, but have been forced to re-close due to the tragedy weeks ago.
Was there any censorship issue in terms of having to tweak “Tenet” to conform with Arabic cultural sensitivity?
No. We are showing exactly the same movie [that’s playing for Western audiences].
How many screens do you have open in Saudi?
In Saudi, at the moment we have 112 screens. But by the end of this year we will have tripled our screen count from last year. Saudi is still seeing strong growth. Once the curfew was lifted, construction continued again.
We are operating 24/7 in Saudi Arabia, in most of our sites. And, again, we are seeing everyone flock back to the cinemas. We are taking the safety element incredibly seriously. We have socially distanced cues, and a contact-less experience so you can buy a ticket and food, scan your phone, and enter the cinema without interacting with any staff.
Can you talk to me a bit about releasing “Mulan” in cinemas? As you know, it’s premiering on Disney Plus at a premium cost in lots of other territories
Disney has made the decision in some markets to release on Disney Plus, where it exists. But we don’t have Disney Plus in the Middle East, so we are releasing it [in cinemas] next week. It will be huge because there is a massive family culture and we are still on the tail end of summer. Aside from “Scoob!” we haven’t had any family-friendly content.
So you have the fortune of having two big drivers for VOX Cinemas as they re-open
Yes. And what we are going to see as the business continues to return — since we are operating at a 50% capacity restriction — is that people are going to realize, “I am going to need to pre-book if I want a ticket!” because of the restrictions in place. I think as we move forward, as we start to get more content, we’ll see more sellouts. And more people encouraged to book in advance than they would normally.