Toni El Massih, director of distribution and film content at pan-Arab exhibitor VOX Cinemas, talks to Melanie Goodfellow about programming screens in the region.

UAE-based VOX Cinemas is one of the fastest-growing exhibition chains in the region with 119 screens in the UAE, Lebanon and Oman.

The company is a subsidiary of the Majid Al Futtaim Group, which specialises in entertainment and retail, and also counts the regional Carrefour franchise, as well as leisure ventures such as the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai, in its portfolio.

VOX launched two new sites in Oman over the summer and recently opened a new 20-theatre venue in Abu Dhabi, with the UAE’s biggest screen to date.

Alongside releasing mainstream Hollywood and Bollywood fare, the company is also keen to grow the niche programming market for its ever-burgeoning circuit and to this end has started acquiring and distributing on its own behalf.

As part of this drive, VOX is participating in the Dubai Film Market’s new Dubai Distribution Programme, aimed at supporting the release of Arab cinema.

Under the initiative, five distributors have pledged to acquire at least one title from the DIFF line-up and release it in the region.

VOX has just announced the acquisition of Emirati filmmaker Waleed Al Shehhi’s debut feature Dolphins, which premiered at DIFF.

Toni El Massih, director of distribution and film content, talked about the company’s recent acquisitions and his plans for Dolphins.

Can you give a bit of background about VOX Cinemas?

We were created in 1999. Today we have 87 screens in the UAE in nine locations, 17 screens in Oman, in two locations, Muscat and Qurm, and one site with 15 screens in Beirut. We have access to all the films, whatever’s available in the market.

What are the challenges of programming screens in the UAE?

The turnover is very fast. We have up to ten to 12 releases a week. Keep in mind that we don’t just release Hollywood films. The audience is very diverse here. Next week alone we have five films out of India in a variety of different languages – Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu. Every now and again we have films in Tagalog out of the Philippines. Then there are the Egyptian films, and occasionally other Arab films, and of course the Hollywood titles.

Do you programme many European titles?

When I started with the company back in 1999, we tried releasing French films but even a title like Amélie, which broke records all over the world, hardly did anything. People here want action, comedy and Hollywood. Over the years, people have tried Italian films, Chinese films. None have really clicked, but that said, we’re going to try again. 

We hosted the first edition of the European Film Screenings this year and also support the Francofilm Festival, which is organised by the Alliance Francaise and brings in films from all over the French-speaking world.

We’re expanding our current circuit. Our Mall of the Emirates venue is growing from 14 to 24 screens. Once the work is completed in 2015 we plan to dedicate one screen to art-house films and world cinema. We want to grow the niche market. I go to Cannes, AFM and Berlin and I’ll be heading to the Unifrance Rendezvous in Paris in January for the first time.

VOX is attempting to break into distribution. What have you picked up so far? 

We went into distribution a year ago. We were handling the releases for Samy Khoury’s Jaguar Film all through this year. They work with Mister Smith, Lakeshore and Summit. So we released films like I, FrankensteinDivergent and Transcendence. We’ve got two more releases, The Good Lie and The Water Diviner, and that will be it. 

From January, we’ll be handling our own films. I picked up My Little Pony at the AFM and we’re finalising a couple of other titles.

We’re also handling the Gone With The Wind 75th anniversary re-release. We’re going to launch it on December 22. For one month we’ll run two shows a week in VOX cinemas. We’re pushing it hard and there’s a whole marketing plan behind it. It will be interesting to see if it works.

We also had the rights to the One Direction concert movie. It was very, very successful. We handled the whole region – the UAE, Lebanon, Palestine, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar, attracting some 10,000 spectators over two days. 

Why has VOX decided to expand into distribution? 

To complement our exhibition activities. We’re expanding our current circuit and we’re keen to develop the niche side of the business.

Have you picked up any Arab films as part of this move?

We’ve just acquired a Lebanese film called Ghadi produced by Lebanese company The Talkies. We’re planning to release it in February in the UAE. We’ve also just acquired the Emirati film Dolphins as part of the Dubai Distribution Programme. 

Is there much of a market for Arab films, at home or in the region?

There hasn’t been but it’s growing. We’ve always been supportive of Emirati films. Whenever someone has come to us with an Emirati film, we’ve always released it. A lot of them with disastrous results, but over the years I’ve seen a slow growth in people coming out and watching these films. 

The first successful film without a doubt was Ali Mostafa’s City Of Life. From there we saw people getting more and more into Emirati cinema. His new film From A To B is very, very commercial. It’s brilliant. It will be released on all the VOX screens across the UAE. It’s going to be a hit. It’s not just for Arabs, it’s for everyone. I think it will change again how people will view Emirati films.

And what are your plans for the Dolphins release?

It’s brilliant film-making, a great story, great acting. It’s going be challenging but we’re willing to take on that challenge. We can make it work. We’re going to target certain communities as well as schools and colleges. We also have a cinema in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, where the film was shot, so we’ll also be showing it there for sure.