Vox Cinemas, the highest-grossing exhibitor in West Asia, where it operates more than 600 screens, will focus on diversification next, while also continuing its geographical expansion plan, says Ignace Lahoud, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Leisure (MAF), Entertainment and Cinemas, which operates Vox.
“In the last two or three years, most of our growth has been focused on building and opening cinemas in Saudi Arabia. We intend to continue expanding there, although probably not at the same pace.”
Several analysts, including PwC, see Saudi as becoming a billion-dollar movie market.
Variety is honoring Vox with its Achievement in Intl. Exhibition Award. The company, operating in eight countries, is optimistic about its future in such markets as Kuwait and Egypt, with plans to bring cinema to rural areas and provide an affordable experience.
However, looking for new ways to diversify cinema-going experience continues to be an integral part of Vox’s business strategy.
“Vox is very good at creating these special experiences,” says META Cinema Forum’s Leila Masinaei. “They have always been pioneers with selection of strategic locations, as part of MAF mall expansion projects, and deploying the latest technologies and advanced offerings. I think right now, they are fortified in their position as the leading cinema chain and it will be hard for anyone to really compete with them, at a regional scale at least.”
Vox Cinemas has already introduced such initiatives as Dubai’s Snow Cinema, a movie theater in an indoor ski resort, sensory-friendly screenings or 24-hour theaters operating across eight cinemas in three Saudi cities: Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. It has also hired Michelin-star chef Akira Back to develop a menu for Theatre, its luxury cinema concept.
“We have been very innovative in our last several years. Being a part of a bigger ecosystem [MAF] puts customers in the center. We are closely connected to them and we are listening to what they are saying,” Lahoud says.
Vox, which will continue to strengthen its social-media team, also managed to prompt a response from “Star Wars” star Mark Hamill, promising — and delivering — an article on why he’s the best thing to happen to Twitter.
“It’s all about building emotional connection with cinema. We have to keep reinventing ourselves and social media is one of the pillars of our marketing strategies today,” Lahoud says.
While the pandemic encouraged Vox to be “more aggressive commercially” as an exhibitor, it also made execs think about the content offered. Its plan to produce 25 Arabic movies in the next five years was announced during the Red Sea Intl. Film Festival in Jeddah, which enlisted its help as exclusive cinema partner.
Now, Vox is working with small production houses, looking for projects and scripts.
“Arabic film is very relevant in the region and there is a strong demand for it. Last year, in Saudi, we have learned the strength of Arab comedy, for example. If we want to continue driving traffic to our cinemas, we need to provide the kind of content that people like. We see it as a critical component for us as an exhibitor,” says Lahoud.
In March 2021, Vox Cinemas distributed the world’s first Saudi-Japanese anime, “The Journey,” while action-war film “The Ambush” (“Al Kameen”) became the most successful Emirati- and Arabic-language movie from the UAE.
Masinaei also sees the move into production as a “the natural progression of things” for the company. “Vox understands what their market wants and needs, and with a major gap in high-quality local content, I think this is the smartest move on their part,” she says.
Partnership with the Red Sea Film Festival, which showed uncensored versions of international productions, with Levan Koguashvili’s “Brighton 4th” crowned as the winner, reinforced its desire to be more present in the industry. Vox also distributed the festival’s closing film, Kabir Khan’s “83.”
“The market is growing at an exponential rate and it’s encouraging to see a genuine appetite for film in Saudi Arabia. Vox is undoubtedly at the forefront of the movement. Having their support was key to the success of our first edition,” says Mohammed Al-Turki, chairman of the committee at Red Sea Intl. Film Festival. The collaboration will continue this December.
“Vox has the ambition to continue to be the ambassador of cinema in the region,” adds Lahoud. “Today, we are present as exhibitors, distributors and we want to be present as producers. From that perspective, partnering with film festivals is an important way of achieving that.”
Currently eyeing Riyadh Season entertainment festival and its potential for open-air cinema experience, Vox will launch the META Film Festival with the Great Minds group in October in Dubai.