The Roxy Cinemas in Dubai
The Roxy Cinemas opened in Dubai in January this year, after taking over Reel Cinemas at The Beach mall and City Walk mall, followed with the opening of The Roxy at Boxpark.
There are four experiences to select from, with a price ranging from AED 35 to AED 130, the experiences are categorised as The Set(available at The Beach mall) Editor's Suite(available at City Walk mall), Director's Lounge (available at both The Beach and City Walk) and The Roxy (available only at Boxpark).
In a cinema landscape of big chain multiplexes, Roxy Cinemas is trying to offer something different to cinemagoers, ranging from the premium to regular experience. I’ve been to Roxy Cinemas at The Beach (The Set) and City Walk (Editor's Lounge) and in both cases, it reminded me of Curzon Cinemas in London which is considered up market there.
Additionally, there has been a recent shift in terms of what is screened at our local cineplexes. In April, Dubai International Film Festival announced an all year program of film screenings, with one new title every two weeks at a dedicated hall called DIFF365 at VOX Cinemas, Mall of the Emirates. The Scene Club rebranded itself to The Scene a couple of months ago (it is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year) and announced a partnership with Roxy Cinemas (after a year of hosting screenings at VOX Cinemas, and prior to that in Knowledge Village). In the last couple of years, we've seen Cinema Akil hosting pop-up screenings in various parts of town, but I am waiting for the day it opens its permanent cinema space.
We also have the ongoing annual Dubai International Film Festival, European Film Screenings, Franco Film Festival and recently the Korean Film Festival. We've never this kind of choice of film screenings in the city and I can only hope it gets better and richer in its offerings.
When I read in the papers that Roxy Cinemas wants to be "a hub for everything related to movies in the UAE", said by Jean-Marc Bled, General Manager, Leisure & Entertainment at Meraas Holding which owns Roxy Cinemas, it was music to my ears and I wanted to know more.
I met Jean-Marc Bled at Roxy Cinemas (City Walk) on 21st June 2017. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Tell me about the experience you want people to have when they visit your cinemas. How are you differentiating yourself from other cinemas in the city.
The experience at our cinemas is focusing on the movies. It is not about the technology and fine dining. The experience revolves around the movie itself. We are trying to offer different programming as much as we can. Our aim is to do something different, to bring movies that are not normally shown in the UAE. Of course we will show the big blockbusters, this is what the public wants, but we are also trying to offer something that's a bit different, including more Indian and Arabic language movies and classics.
We also have our Cinema on Demand in The Roxy at Boxpark, a hall that can be reserved for private screenings. People can contact us and watch a selection of films from our library.
One of my pet peeves with cinemas in the UAE is the lack of strict enforcement against phone usage during film screenings. Since Roxy Cinemas is projecting an image that is focusing on the movie experience, what’s your policy about phone usage during screenings?
We try to enforce it, but what we witnessed since we launched The Roxy is that we have people that are more respectful compared to an audience at the bigger multiplexes. Maybe it is because of the location, or maybe it is the image we are projecting, that we're for movie aficionados. I've spoken to some of the customers and they like the fact that our cinema is not as crowded as other multiplexes, they come here because they want to have some peace and focus on the movie, and it seems that we are building a nice community.
It’s good to know you are building a community through your cinema. How are you engaging with this community. Have you screened a series of specific films, because I don’t recall seeing anything in your previous schedules.
It is coming along slowly because it is not easy. We have plenty of ideas, for instance we want to have themed movie marathons, like the Back to the Future trilogy, or a series of iconic films. These movies are available on DVDs or via home streaming, but we want to create an event around these screenings, but it is not easy.
What are the challenges you are facing?
Some of the distributors we are dealing with don’t have access to the kind of movies we would like to screen. Also, because of the technology, especially the digitised projectors, some of the movies we are requesting are old and don't exist in a digital format that we could screen here. It is also expensive to get some of these films. But we are keen to do something and keen to start an event that is at least monthly.
I am very happy with our recent partnership with The Scene because it is exactly what we want to do, show something different. It's a start. We are also partnering with Empire Arabia Magazine with article contributions on movies and reviews and targeting the movie lovers community.
But Empire Arabia mostly promotes blockbusters and superhero franchise films from Hollywood. I remember when I saw the first issue, I asked where’s the "Arabia" content. Generally, we lack publications (online and in print) that focus on film writing and criticism, including Arab cinema.
I think the are facing their own challenges, but they are interested in doing this. But they are also bound by the international version of the magazine. What sells is content about blockbusters and superhero films. But the will is there. I think changes will happen slowly.
Before the existence of cineplexes in Dubai and the UAE, we had independent cinemas screening Bollywood South Indian films and eventually films from Hollywood. But then we moved to the multiplexes in the malls and eventually the experience felt the same regardless of the cinema. Of course the digitisation of films and projections started happening too.
In the early 2000s I started seeing individuals in the city taking on the task to screen international films and documentaries in non-cinema spaces, offering something different that was lacking at the cineplexes. One of my favourites was the Monday film nights at iBO, a nightclub that existed between 2005 and 2007 at the Millennium Hotel, and I recall they were dealing with Front Row Films. With that I started seeing a small cinephile community which I do believe still exists, but it is very small community, and I’m wondering how are you reaching out to them, if indeed you’ve been able to reach them.
We have been able to with our partnership with The Scene. It has allowed us to have a reputation with its members that we are a cinema for them. The Scene has also launched the Made in the UAE initiative, aiming to feature and screen films by filmmakers based here. So this is a start and every time we can support an independent movie, we will screen it. Front Row are offering us films when they can, films that aren't considered "conventional". We recently screened Marley, a documentary about Bob Marley from 2012. We took a bet and told ourselves it might not do as great as a Transformers film, but at least we are showing it and for us it is very important. Even if doesn't make us a lot of money, we will at least we will show it once or a few times a a week.
What kind of programming team do you have?
We have people that are highly experienced in the UAE, they know very well the trends of Indian and Arabic movies, and of course international films. They have a very good relationship with the distributors.
Would you be interested in working with independent programmers, screening films that don’t necessarily have distributors here, perhaps by screening them for free to the public?
We are, but we don't want it to impact our partnership with The Scene. We also need to think of how can we make money, will it just be though F&B, would it mean sacrificing a paid screening? But we are open to this idea.
DIFF365 is charging for its screenings, which I think is a good thing that is happening. But we do have a precedent for free public screenings in our cinemas, during the European Film Festival and Franco Film Festival for instance.
I think the DIFF team is open to work with us too, they liked our facilities and the way we are doing things.
They should. We lack a film institute here and sometimes I wish they could take on some of that role. I do feel they should be more engaged with cinemas across the city, and not just have an exclusive relationship with one cinema. What are your thoughts on Arab cinema as I don’t see enough efforts by the distributors or cinemas in promoting them. They don’t get enough coverage in the English language media too.
It is our responsibility to promote them and the movie makers and screenwriters, especially the locally based ones. We met some through The Scene and we are eager to promote them and feature their work. It is our responsibility.
There’s also gap of documentaries in our cinemas.
I am struggling to convince certain distributors to bring documentaries. I keep getting told it's not worth it, expensive to bring, expensive to translate, it won’t make money, so it is not worth it.
Have you managed or run a cinema before?
Not at all, I come from a leisure and entertainment background. But I am passionate about movies, as the rest of the team working here, and maybe that is why we are are trying to approach things differently compared to other cinemas. To differentiate ourselves and bring something new to the market instead of being just another cineplex.
In a way, the cinema experience has lost its beauty and panache. It’s becoming like junk food. People go shopping and then decide to watch something as an afterthought. Or people are happy to download crappy versions of films to watch at home.
But I do think there are a lot of people here that like to go to the movies for the experience, so we want to capitalise on that. Let's bring back the movies to where it belongs. Yes, we will serve good food, but nothing expensive or by a celebrity chef.
Exactly, if someone wants a fine dining experience then they should just go to a restaurant.
Yes, and no 4D and laser gimmicks. Just a good quality regular cinema, and by making it nice and easy for the cinemagoers. We also train our staff to know about movies we are screening as they need to know what they are selling. I always check if they watched the movies we are screening and insist they watch them. It’s their job so that they can advice people. I am surprised at the number of people who come to us and don't know what to see, so our staff should be able to guide them.
Do you have a favourite cinema brand?
I like what the Alamo Drafthouse does, its programming, festivals and the cultural aspects of their events that they create around their screenings. They recently ran a Planet of the Apes marathon where they recreated the posters, sold t-shirts. It is commercial but it is also fun.
Yes, cinemas like this attracts the cinephile community, and people of all ages who are interested in film. Even if they screen old films, it is an opportunity to introduce them to a new audience.
I always wonder why is there a good turnout at screenings during the Dubai International Film Festival for instance, but not when we have individual screenings of critically acclaimed and/or 'smaller' films. But when the same films are screening for free at cultural venues or pop-up screenings, there’s a full house, and I wonder where was this audience when they are needed to support the film at the cinemas and contribute to its box office numbers and to show there is interest in these films.
There seems to be a weird prestige or coolness factor associated with film screenings in pop-ups and non-cinema spaces, deemed more cultural compared to watching it at a cinema where the cineplex experience is looked down upon. I personally struggle to engage with a film in these spaces and am hoping your cinema will help attract this crowd, it is important to promote a proper cinema experience.
When I read that Roxy Cinemas wants to be "a hub for everything related to movies in the UAE", I am hoping it will attract the cinephile community here.
There is an appetite for what we want to do, and things are moving slowly in the right direction, step by step. I am quite happy with what we have achieved since we opened. We had Barry Henley here for the The Scene's screening of Paterson. We have invited other people from the film industry to talk about their work. We are creating a discussion with the community. We are going to continue what we are doing.