For decades, people living in Saudi Arabia were deprived from watching movies in public theatres, but all that changed on April 18, 2018 when AMC opened the first one-screen cinema in Riyadh with the screening of Black Panther. Fast forward to January 2021, and today Saudi Arabia has 323 screens in 34 cinemas across 11 cities with more to open soon. In 2020, the Saudi market overtook the UAE as the biggest market in the Middle East. During the pandemic year when revenue from cinemas crashed everywhere by about 66%, the Saudi market grew by about 8% even though cinemas were closed from March to mid-June. And when they opened, they operated at half-capacity with Covid-19 precautions to ensure social distancing.
There are currently 5 different cinema chains in Saudi Arabia right now. So let's give you a quick crash course about what to expect from each of them.
1. Vox Cinemas
This giant chain from the UAE is the biggest cinema operator in the Middle East. They opened their first cinema in Saudi Arabia in Riyadh Park Mall with 4 screens in April 2018. Today they have 7 cinemas in Riyadh, 2 in Jeddah, 1 in Dammam, and 1 in Tabuk.
Cinema experiences in Vox: There are many cinema experiences that one would find at Vox cinemas, like IMAX screens which are in Jeddah and Riyadh. IMAX® 4K is the best way to see big blockbuster films especially if they are shot with IMAX® cameras. They offer MX4D screens for the thriller seeking audience where you actually "feel" the action on the screen from the built-in motion and effects in the seats and theatre around you. There are also The ICE IMMERSIVE® screens that have LED panels on either side of the auditorium that create a unique visual atmosphere through shifting shapes and complementary colors from the main screen. They also have “Kids Screens” which are aimed toward the younger viewers. Their "Gold Screens” are perfect for a dinner and a movie date night in a luxurious setting where one can order from a diverse menu that features a combination of popular Arabic flavors coupled with favorite cinema classics. Their standard screens are also good, but they are divided into standard lower rows and premium upper rows. Ticket prices start from 55 Riyals at the counter and 60 Riyals online.
The Good: For my money, their snacks are the best of all the chains. Not only that, but they offer a wide variety of food and beverages, and a few of their venues in Riyadh and Jeddah operate 24/7 which means that night owls and early risers can go watch a movie anytime they want.
Areas where they can improve: Compared to the other chains, their standard seats are considerably basic. They do not recline, and look plain. I for one, find them comfortable, but I have heard complaints from other patrons that they preferred the seats of their competitors. Vox Cinemas in the UAE have a fantastic loyalty program where you can collect points for each purchase you make which you can then convert into free tickets, but they have not started such a program in Saudi Arabia.
2. Muvi Cinemas
Muvi is the first home-grown brand. It opened its first cinema in August 2019 in Mall of Arabia, Jeddah. They currently have 4 cinemas in Riyadh (including the first Drive-in cinema in Saudi Arabia), 3 in Jeddah, and 1 in each of Dammam, Dhahran, Hofuf, and Jubail.
Cinema Experiences in Muvi: Their Xperience screen in Mall of Arabia is fantastic. It has a huge auditorium that can accommodate 400 people. It has reclining seats, Dolby-Atmos® sound system, and a 4K screen. They just opened their first Drive-in cinema in Riyadh which can accommodate up to 150 cars. They also have Screen-X® which offers an experience similar to ICE Immersive®, Samsung Onyx® screens, Junior screens for kids, and Suites luxury screens with seats that can recline up to 180 degrees into flat beds - they are so comfortable that you risk falling asleep while watching the movie. Their standard screens also have two tiers with standard lower rows and premium seats in the upper rows. Their prices start at 55 riyals at the counter and 60 riyals online.
The Good: their snacks are pretty decent. While I do not think they are as good as Vox’s when it comes to popcorn and nachos, they are good enough. They also have Skinny Pizza (pretty good) and Black Tap burgers (which are delicious too).
Areas where they can improve: I really don’t like their app and website. They crash frequently, and they don’t recognize your reservations across platforms (for example if you make a reservation through the website, you may not find it in the app after you sign-in). They also promised a loyalty program that never materialized.
3. AMC Cinemas
This American movie theatre chain (founded in 1920) is the biggest in the world with more than 10,000 screens worldwide. Their KAFD cinema in Riyadh was the first cinema to open in the country after the ban was lifted. Although their rollout across the country is slow, but their presence in Riyadh is strong with 5 locations, plus one location in Al-Majma'ah and 1 in Hafr Al-Batin.
Cinema Experiences in AMC: AMC provides a great deal of comfort in their different locations with Luxe Recliner seats, RealD® 3D screen, Dolby Atmos® sound, and Prime theatres. They also currently have one IMAX® screen in Al-Makan Mall in Riyadh. AMC is one of two chains in Saudi Arabia that offer discounted ticket on their weekday morning and afternoon shows with prices starting at 35 riyals at the counter. The primetime standard ticket is 55 SR for Plush Rockers (lower rows), and 65 riyals Luxe Recliner (back rows). These are the prices at the counter, and if you book online there is 9 riyals per ticket booking fee.
The Good: The Luxe Recliner seats are fantastic, and in my opinion, they are hands down the best of all the other chains. I think their dynamic pricing scheme is good because they offer cheaper tickets in low-demand timings. AMC is also the only chain that offers a loyalty program which gives members benefits and the more tickets you book, the higher tiers and more benefits you get. Their floor plan in general is easy on the eye and very welcoming. They adopt an open floor plan at their entrance with gives you an experience of shopping for food at their different vendors, plus their soda fountain comes with unlimited free refills. Their popcorn is very good I must say, and so is the nachos and hotdogs.
Areas where they can improve: First of all, paying 9 riyals booking fee is ridiculous and should be slashed or even eliminated. Their rollout outside Riyadh area is slow. For example, their Star Avenues branch in Jeddah was supposed to open in 2019/2020 winter, and we are already in 2021 and it has not opened yet.
4. Empire Cinemas
Empire cinemas is one of the oldest chains in the Middle East. Established in Lebanon in 1919, they now have venues in Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Empire adopted a different approach with opening in Saudi Arabia, focusing first on smaller cities instead of Riyadh and Jeddah. They started their rollout with their Jizan branch which opened in December 2019, then Abha in December 2020. After that they opened their 18 screens multiplex in Al-Andalus mall in Jeddah, also in December 2020. Their next opening is expected to be in Al-Rashid Mall in AlKhobar - their biggest branch yet. Empire also adopts a dynamic pricing scheme. Their prices differ between location, timing, and popularity of the film. Their prices start from 45 riyals for the standard seats, 50 riyals for premium, and 110 riyals for VIP upper seats.
Cinema Experiences in Empire: Empire, like the other chains, offers their patrons multiple cinematic experiences. Their flagship screen is called Sphera and it offers premium and luxurious stadium seating with Dolby Atmos® sound system and 4k projection. Their other experiences are 4XD, Empire Premiere, plus ScreenX and IMAX®in their Abha branch.
The Good: The first thing that distinguishes Empire from their competitors is their futuristic neon design with its bold and bright colors with emphasis on red and gold. The waiting areas between screens are hands down my favorite of all the chains I visited in Saudi Arabia, with comfortable seats and creative displays. The waiting area outside the kids themed screens is designed as a playground with soft play area for kids to enjoy before they watch their movie. The cinemas were designed by DNA; one of the leading architectural house in the Middle East, and it is obvious they were conceived to stand out amongst their peers. Visiting their cinemas, I was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful and luxurious it looked, not to mention the comfort I got during the screening from the luxurious reclining seats. The staff members I encountered are immensely helpful and hospitable, and the variety of available snacks is commendable.
Areas where they can improve: I only tried it once, but their popcorn didn't taste good at all. It tasted stale and damp, which is the opposite of what popcorn is supposed to be. The other snacks that I tried were alright, but nothing really stood out to me. Aside from their Sphera screen, their screens use 2K Xenon projectors, which means the resolution in most of their screens is half as good as the 4K adopted by most of their competitors. I attended one 3D screening in their cinema in Jeddah, and the difference between my viewing there and the one I attended one week later in VOX is like night and day. They also don't have a loyalty program in place as of yet, and they don't open for morning shows in Jizan and Abha branches.
5. Cinépolis Cinemas
Cinépolis might be the newest player in the Saudi market, but it is a renowned international chain. Founded in Mexico in 1947, it is now the fourth largest chain in the world with more than 5000 screens in 18 countries. Cinépolis opened its first branch in December 2020 in Dammam, followed by Jeddah's first branch in January 2021. Their ticket price start from 49 riyals at the counter plus an additional fee of 5 riyals for online bookings.
Cinema Experiences in Cinépolis: Currently, audience have the option to choose between only two different experiences in Cinépolis - Premium screens which have only one tier of seating i.e. simple leather seats with cup holders and a slight seat recline. The second option is the Junior screens which are designed for maximum fun for kids and are the only ones that were conceived to offer playtime for the young ones. Each screen has an interactive play area that is opened 20 minutes before the movie begins and offers 15-min of intermission during each screening. In the future, they aim to offer a third option which is Macro XE theatre for larger, stadium experience with Dolby Atmos® sound and a 150 square meters screen that is 3 times larger than their standard screen
The Good: It seems that they are doing without the bells and whistles, so no grand openings, and instead focusing more on slow but assured rollout. Looking at the map of their future openings, they have smaller cities like Najran and Jizan in mind as well as Riyadh. I went there for an afternoon screening on a Friday and the place was quiet and accessible with helpful staff ready to help and answer your questions. Their popcorn was fresh and quite tasty, and their nachos was good too. Cinépolis has been open only a few weeks, but they already started rolling out promotions for cheaper tickets for families and friends, which so far can only be booked directly at the counter and not online.
Areas where they can improve: the projectors in both of their locations in Jeddah and Dammam are in 2K instead of 4K, which means that cinephiles might turn their back on them for better experiences at Vox, AMC, and Muvi where most of their screens are equipped with crisper and better 4K projectors. Cinépolis also need to have an edge in a more saturated and competitive market, and so far they offer none when it comes to pricing, location, or viewing experience. Speaking of pricing, even though their basic ticket is cheaper than the average ticket in most other chains (49 riyals as compared to 55 riyals in Vox and Muvi), they are not as competitive when it comes to food. While their individual items are not more expensive than their competitors', their combos are very expensive. For instance, a combo of nachos, popcorn, and soda at Vox starts from 55 riyals, while at Cinépolis, this would cut you back 78 riyals, which is a noticeably big difference. They also haven't yet declared any loyalty program.
3 years ago, when the demand was exceedingly high and the supply was extremely low, cinema chains had the upper hand and could have gotten away with sub-par services and higher prices. Nowadays that is not the case. As many screenings are being run but patrons are few especially in the middle of the week, having prices that are 20% higher than our neighboring countries is not going to be sustainable for a long time. I know exhibitors here needed to raise prices because they have to pay 25% of each ticket sold to the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GACM) in additional to the 15% VAT, which when combined means the ticket will inevitably be pricier here than other markets in the region. However, exhibitors need to figure out a way to compete by offering better deals to viewers especially because the conventional wisdom holds that cinemas make the bulk of their revenue not from the ticket price, but from the concession bar where they can charge you for overpriced popcorn and soda. They also need to adopt reward programs, drop the exorbitant booking fees, offer dynamic pricing schemes, make deals for cheaper tickets with banks, and so on. Cinemas also should be doing better to enforce the cinema etiquette. I really hate it when I go to the cinema and then have to endure people talking on the phone, taking photos, or talking to each other loudly through out the film, and it happens more often than you would think. Escaping to the movies is one of the best communal entertainments in the world. It is also relatively cheaper compared to live theatre, concerts, and sporting events. That is why I very much hope this sector (which is relatively new to many people here in this country) thrives and improves. Because when done right, there is nothing like sitting in the dark for 2 hours, enjoying a good movie with likeminded people, and forgetting about everything else, even if it is for a little while.
Photo credits - copyright @ Ezal/Abdullah Yahya