While cinemas in the Gulf region have been growing for several years, the announcement that Saudi Arabia is opening up its market to multiplexes has led to a surge in interest, with everyone from AMC and Cinepolis to Carnival and Vue clamouring for a piece of the local cinema action. This month’s Emerging Cinema Markets Conference November 20-22 at the five-star luxury Swissôtel The Bosphorus (above) in Istanbul throws a light not just on the Gulf, but the equally important neighbouring cinema markets: Turkey, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia. Celluloid Junkie (which is a media partner of the conference) talked to Rob Arthur (The Big Picture), who together with Julie and Dan Harriss founded and organised the event, about launching at an exciting and challenging time for the region.
There has been a great deal of interest in the cinema sector in the Middle East recently. What makes this conference about it unique?
Rob Arthur: There’s been an enormous amount of interest in the Middle East, and primarily the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the last year, and while those markets are of significant focus at the Emerging Cinema Markets Conference, when we were developing the research we found so many markets had limited box office data available but had large populations and strong under-lying economic growth potential including Central Asia, the Balkans, Turkey and the African continent.
As an industry we shouldn’t just focus on one new market, when there are several out there which are equally as compelling and could grow into larger opportunities.
There’s been a “Gold Rush” mentality or frenzy around the industry over the last 12 months and that could lead to mistakes, which I have seen happen in other new market openings. It’s better to get the best possible advice and then proceed – that’s what we’re aiming to deliver.
Over 650 million people live in the target markets but there are only 170 million cinema ticket sales officially recorded. GDP in the area is USD $5.2 billion with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE and Egypt being the biggest markets.
With cinema admits per capita averaging less than 0.3 per anum, there is scope to grow capacity by over 10,000 screens; ticket sales by half a billion and gross box office by USD $2.5 billion at a modest average ticket price!
What we have found when listening to those we have connected with to speak or to attend as delegates is that they have never been given a forum to present or exchange views and ideas. They are generally asked to attend other events and listen to experts in other markets who may have limited knowledge or interest in their market.
DCS Events is a new company but you both have a long experience in this field. What prompted you to launch this venture?
Rob Arthur: When I first started to develop the concept for the Emerging Cinema Markets Conference, it was important to test the market and best understand what was possible. This all started before the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had issues any licences. From the feedback, I knew there was significant interest, and that it required a great deal of industry expertise and knowledge. I approached Julie and Dan Harriss to see if they would be interested in developing the event with me. We’ve all worked in the industry for many years and while we are small team, we all know what is required to put on a great event – speakers – programme – sponsorship – venue.
We all work well together as a team – Julie focuses on the sponsorship; Dan on the organisation and planning; myself on the programme and speakers.
The geographical coverage of this event is more than just the Gulf or Middle East. Was that always your plan and what has guided the geographical focus of the ECM Conference 2018?
Rob Arthur: The geography is important as we needed to find a location which meets the needs of all of the target markets and yet is fairly neutral and accepting of all cultures and nations within the target markets. The individual nations across the region do not have a large number of cinema operators at present and so it was important to spread the net wider to encourage more countries to attend, but also keep it relevant.
I travel and work in Kazakhstan and find the route via Turkey to be the easiest option. Many Turkish businesses trade into those markets, the Balkans, Middle East and Africa so it became more obvious as the location.
Can you tell us why you decided to hold it in Istanbul? Would someplace like Dubai not be a more logical choice?
Rob Arthur: Dubai is a great city, but Istanbul is a traditional and historic trading city reaching out to all of the target markets. It has an edge, colour and vitality which delegates and speakers will really enjoy if they haven’t been before.
The film market in Turkey is one of the most advanced that I have ever witnessed, and yet receives very little attention outside of the market. 40 million tickets were sold to local productions last year ands accounted for over 50% of all tickets old. Other markets can learn and develop so much from the expertise in Turkey.
We compared costs to develop a conference in Dubai – hotels, travel, set-up and sponsorship costs and compared them to Istanbul. Delegate and travel cost for Emerging Markets plus exclusions via visa controls from Africa and central Asia to Western Europe had an impact on our decision, as Turkey has a broad range of trading relationships and is accessible from all regions.
What can you tell us about the cinema scene in Istanbul itself and what the conference delegates can expect to see of it?
Rob Arthur: We have arranged a Shopping Centre tour along with CGV, the major operator in Turkey. The shopping centres are world class as are the cinemas which have IMAX, 4DX, Screen X, Tempur beds, Gold Class and Kids screens, as well as Marvel boutiques. The quality of the cinemas and shopping centres is very relevant to the Emerging Cinema markets because this world class standard is being delivered at a low average ticket price more reflective of what is possible in Emerging Markets with economic challenges.
What do you see as the major cinema themes, both for the region and the conference itself?
Rob Arthur: Africa, Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be key parts of the programme. All have different challenges, but all have aspirations to develop and grow. All stakeholders need to be able to work together to deliver the opportunities that are possible in Emerging Markets – from the vision of a shopping centre or real estate developer; to studios and film licencees aiming to grow the market; financiers supporting the investment; and operators of cinemas opening up in new markets. IT systems such as Vista and Movio as well as Comscore will play a vital part in the development as more accurate, transparent, trustworthy data and information is required to enable the opportunities to be fully realised.
Apart from hearing from regional and international experts and industry figures, what else can delegates expect?
Rob Arthur: The Shopping Centre tours will be a great opportunity to meet new friends and see new places. A key aspect of this conference is to introduce a new network of colleagues to the cinema industry. I’ve met so many people on my travels to discuss speaker and programme opportunities and cannot wait for them all to be in one place and meet each other. I am sure that lifelong friendships will be developed and the opportunity to feel less alone and more connected to the global cinema community will be embraced by those in attendance. Being part of the network is a key part of our aims in developing this conference, as we know how important that is to all stakeholders.
What is Hollywood’s approach to the region been and how is that being balanced with local or other forms of content?
Rob Arthur: Hollywood is starting to wake up to the emerging markets, but slowly. “Black Panther’s” performance in Africa was outstanding, but on so few screens. Turkey being the 19th largest international market is somewhat overlooked, and Kazakhstan generally is not perceived to be a dynamic 21st century economy with some of the most amazing cinemas and shopping centres on the planet. One of the outputs from the conference will be to lobby Hollywood and provide the key outputs from this year, which will enable greater participation for the studios in future years.
Local content is essential to each of the markets – Arabic, Kazak, Turkish, Nigerian, French African – will be required to grow the market particularly in less cosmopolitan regions who will respond to local language content in larger numbers. I have been so impressed with the Kazakhstan industry approach to galvanising and growing the local film market from four productions to 54 in the space of three years! They are doing this based upon commercial success and creating a vibrant local market but not at the expense of Hollywood. It is highly complementary and supporting ever increasing visitation rates.
Saudi Arabia has obviously been a big focus for the cinema sector this past year. Putting aside the recent political issues, where do things stand in terms of the roll-out of cinema in the Kingdom?
Rob Arthur: The roll-out of cinemas in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is continuing at a pace with AMC and Vox already open. It is of no real surprise that Vue are not progressing, and it’s probably more important to note that others already operating in the region are better suited to the types of operation required in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Significantly more cinemas will open in 2019 as development plans come to fruition. We’ve engaged with the Middle East Council of Shopping Centres and Retail Leisure International for the conference, as the development needs to move on from the bureaucracy of government and industry policy to development of sites and schemes which deliver a cinema operator and new markets. There are very few cinema licences left so it will be interesting to see who grabs the last available. We’ve put an interesting session into the conference from Eikon to show how film classification and censorship issues can be overcome at a local level and this will be of particular interest to KSA, given their robust censorship of Hollywood films.
One of the regions that often gets overlooked is Central Asia, but you have spent a lot of time there recently. What is it that people should know about this market?
Rob Arthur: I work as a consultant to the European Bank of Reconstruction and development in Kazakhstan. Prior to arrival I had little idea of what to expect. It is genuinely moving to work with such amazing people – head office, management, staff on the ground in Almaty and Astana. I’ve had the opportunity to see all of the cinemas in both cities; sample the local food and drinks and be so well looked after. They really like me as their “Braveheart” connection (being Scottish seems to be a big plus!)
The business is developing well with local film production in Kazak (not Russian) being the favoured language amongst the younger generations flocking to new cinemas. They love social media and Korean culture, like most teens, and have devised Q-Pop as the local variant of K-Pop.
Restaurants and Brasseries are opening up at a apace and many I have been invited to are very high quality. Shopping Centres are world class as are the brands.
At one site – Mega Mall in Almaty – the cinema was closed earlier this year – seven screens, poorly designed and constructed seven years ago. Seems like a sad day, but the developer has signed up to build a 15-screen cinema with a PLF screen, kids halls and VIP lounges. This time they will get it right as the expertise is in place to deliver world class cinemas, but is a lesson for other emerging markets – make sure you get the best possible advice from industry experts.
What do you get asked the most about by people interested in going?
Rob Arthur: Beyond…’Why Istanbul?!’ The main question we get asked is who else is going and can they speak!!! There is a keen interest in learning how to engage with new markets and how to develop that network.
What have been some of the biggest issues in putting together an event of this scale that people might be surprised to hear.
Rob Arthur: A key part of putting on a great conference is to be seen and be available in the region – that’s a real challenge, but I think we’ve just about managed it this year!
Currency devaluations; politics between nations, religion are the big ones which we’ve manoeuvred through. The good thing about the industry and Istanbul is that it is engaging and inclusive so issues that could be greater elsewhere are overcome and manageable in this wonderful city. We’ve had some great advice from our local connections and also from the U.K. Department for International Trade / British Chamber of Commerce Turkey.
The other more practical part is trying to balance everyone’s expectations. We may be used to using email and WhatsApp, but I have had to write so many personal invitation letters to the conference which is the expectation in some markets!
We all have to think not how we do things but how we can adapt and support those ideas into how each of the markets can develop with our support and at a pace to suit.
Thank you for talking to us and see you in Istanbul.