“I don’t like popcorn very much,” John Ramia laughs as settles into his cinema seat at the Grand Megaplex in Dubai’s Ibn Battuta mall. Liking popcorn might seem like a prerequisite for the CEO of a cinema operator but it certainly hasn’t stopped Ramia growing his family-owned business, Grand Cinemas, into the largest chain of cinemas in the Middle East.
Ramia, who heads up the chain of cinemas across the region as well as its movie distribution arm Gulf Film, plans to double the number of Grand Cinema’s screens in the GCC as part of a $30m expansion plan. The firm will open new cinemas in the UAE and Qatar as well as launch its first movie theatre in Georgia as it looks to grow its business outside of its home market amid a slowdown in new mall openings.
“At the moment we have 108 screens in total….in about two years time with the confirmation of the signed projects and others in the pipeline, we are going to reach 201-207 screens,” he tells CEO Middle East.
Planned new cinema complexes include Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, The Emporium at Central Market, Abu Dhabi, The Pearl, Doha and the extension of Dubai’s Dragon Mart. “The Dragon Mart will be targeting different demographics. We will be showing the same movies but adding different movies, such as ones from China, to target the nationalities that surround International City,” says Ramia.
“There are another two planned outside of the GCC in Georgia,” he adds, without adding further details.
The ambitious plans will boost the firm’s audience by up to 60 percent, says Ramia. “There are other countries we are introducing our first multiplexes. I would say not double but I would say at least 50-60 percent more [from our current capacity of] around 6.5 million a year.”
Plans are also underway to open a cinema on Nakheel’s flagship development, The Palm Jumeirah, which were stalled in the wake of the downturn and the firm’s multimillion dollar restructuring. “The Palm project was delayed and it was resized,” says Ramia. “There are still plans to do a shopping mall there but of course it will be on a different scale. It is still going ahead but I don’t know the date. Eventually [we’ll open on the Palm]; we are partners of Nakheel, who are the owners of Ibn Battuta Mall, so definitely we’ll be working with them,” he adds.
The Yas Marina Mall cinema will also see the introduction of the UAE’s first in-dining cinema experience. “In our new cinemas in Yas Marina Mall [Abu Dhabi] we are doing the first in-dining concept in the cinemas. [We will offer] a proper seated dinner in the cinema for the balconies,” says Ramia.
In the past, Grand Cinemas would finance its own expansion but the firm’s ambitious growth plans will see it opt for a mix of cash and debt, explains Ramia. “We always used to fund expansion within the company because the projects were one year after another but as this is at the same time it’s a matter of cash flow management.
“We’re not going to double our admission so definitely it’s going to be partially financed and the others self-financed. The average cost of a 12-screen [cinema] is $8-12m depending on how luxurious the seats are, and so on,” he says.
He adds that Grand Cinemas sister company in Lebanon, which manages cinemas in the Levant, will also see significant expansion in the next few years. “At Grand Cinemas we are very aggressive in our expansion plan. Our sister company in Lebanon operates 35 screens but we aim to be 94 screens within two years. If you combine both [companies’ expansion], we will be the leaders for the next three decades, I believe.”
The ambitious expansion plans are not the only changes afoot at Grand Cinemas. Regular cinema-goers in the UAE will have already seen the brand’s new $800,000 corporate identity, which includes a new marketing strategy, new food counters and interactive kiosks as well as the renovation of several key sites.
“We want people to say ‘we are going to Grand Cinemas at Ibn Battuta’ and not ‘we’re going to Ibn Battuta Mall to watch a movie’” Ramia explains of the reason behind the rebrand.
“We’ve been in the business for the last twelve years and when we started the cinema business there wasn’t much competition,” he adds. “Now you have a mix of operators, operators that launched the brand a few years ago who got the luxury of being in a good shopping mall, getting a [more modern] look and feel of the cinema.”
Much of the competition that Ramia refers to is actually from Dubai-based mall operators, who in recent years have turned their attentions to running their own cinemas chains. Both Emaar Properties and Majid Al Futtaim Holding, operators of Mall of the Emirates, Deira City Centre and Mirdiff City Centre, have launched cinema chains in recent years.
Emaar launched its Reel Cinemas, which operates in Dubai Marina Mall and Dubai Mall, in 2009 while Majid Al Futtaim Holding acquired CineStar Cinemas - now known as Vox Cinemas - in 2010.
Rather than fear the increasing competition in the UAE, Ramia welcomes it. “Competition is always healthy; if you don’t have the right competitors it’s not exciting anymore…The reason you need cinemas in every shopping mall is because they are an anchor tenant and they drive traffic,” he points out.
He adds that the firm’s sister company, Gulf Film, which distributes films throughout the Gulf, continues to earn money even when the cinema isn’t branded as Grand Cinemas. “If we are not going to get the cinemas we are going to give them movies as distributors so it’s a win-win situation,” he smiles.
One area of business that Ramia is hoping will benefit from the new rebranding and expansion is advertising, which has remained stagnant since the onset of the global economic downturn.
“In terms of value it hasn’t grown,” he says. “I believe the telecom sector, anything to do with technology and cars that are linked to the movies [will continue to boost advertising revenues,” he says, adding the market should grow by around 10-15 percent in the next twelve months.
Who even has time for popcorn?
Top five all time favourite movies
1. Meet Joe Black (1998) - money, fame, power, happiness will all come to an end eventually hence we should know how to enjoy life with whatever we are gifted to achieve and accomplish.
2. Family Man (2000) - money can buy anything except happiness, which I strongly agree.
3. Big Blue (1988) - for great escapism.
4. The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990) – needs to explanation.
5. 7 Pounds (2008) - it gives a great meaning to life.
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