"The movie business is a gambling business,” says Salim Ramia, chief executive of Grand Cinemas. “When you buy a movie for a million dollars before it is even filmed, isn’t that a gamble?”
Indeed, Ramia himself placed big bets by selling his successful company in the United Arab Emirates to start up the same business in Lebanon and the Levant. Yet, he has faith his lucky star will shine through.
Beirut to Dubai and back
Ramia is no stranger to the film business in Lebanon, he had a film distribution office called Phoenix Film Distribution in Hamra during the civil war back in the 1980s. “In 1986, the office was occupied by one of the warring political factions, and it was then that I took the decision to move back to Dubai, as Lebanon was in a state of war and there was no room for professional growth, ” says Ramia.
In 1989, Ramia and an Iranian partner established “Gulf Film” for film distribution. Three years later, they entered the theater operation business and established their first cinema in Dubai. He recalls “Unforgiven” was the first movie he brought to Dubai. “In Dubai back then, the film industry was dominated by Bollywood movies and my partner kept telling me that I was dreaming because I believed American movies could be a success in the UAE, but I wasn’t dreaming and they did succeed,” says Ramia.
Gulf Film’s venture into movie theaters kept expanding and they set up two cinemas in the Hyatt Regency in Dubai in 1994, as well as theaters in Sharjah. “The big boom was in 2000 when we established the first multiplex cinema Al Maria in Abu Dhabi,” says Ramia. “The year 2000 was also when we launched the brand name Grand Cinemas, inspired by the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which faced the Dubai Cineplex.”
“In 2005 we saw the most rapid growth for Grand Cinemas, as we expanded from having 38 screens to having 94 screens” he says. They acquired these screens by buying Century Cinemas in Dubai, an African-owned company that was closing down, and also buying Al Massa cinemas. “It is relatively easy to take over cinemas, as the theaters and employees are already there. You just have to trim the excess and reshape where needed,” explains Ramia. Finally, in 2007, Grand Cinemas opened their last multiplex in Dubai, called the Grand Festival Cineplex, to have a total of 106 screens in the UAE.
After having ventured into the Levant market in 2007, Ramia and his partner took the decision last year to sell the Grand Cinemas operations in the UAE and Qatar. “While the Grand Cinemas name is 100 percent the property of Salim Ramia and Sons, I sold Gulf Films Distribution and all the Grand Cinemas theaters already in operation in the UAE [which were owned by Gulf Films]. I also sold the rights of operation in Qatar, so as not to create any competition with the new owners for whom we are still consultants,” says Ramia. In explaining his decision, Ramia says he has reached his peak in the business, a good time to bank in on his success and relax. “It was easy to sell because of our successful name and also because the cinema business is a lucrative business where you can begin cashing in the next day after operation,” explains Ramia.
Building the family business
“My business in Lebanon is different because it is a family one. My wife and my children work with me here and I will never sell it.” Ramia’s wife is the general manager during his absence on travels, and his daughter Carly is the marketing manager.
Relaxing, however, does not seem to be in Ramia’s cards: “I have built a successful business in the UAE, and I will do it again here,” he says.
Grand Cinemas’ expansion to Lebanon began in 2007 with a phone call from mall operator ABC Ashrafieh’s management team. They wanted Grand Cinemas to manage their cineplex, which at that time was run by Circuit Empire, so Ramia came to Beirut and “closed the deal”. That year, Ramia and a Lebanese partner of his also bought Concorde Cinema in Verdun and Las Salinas Cinema in Anfeh, North Lebanon. In 2007 Ramia also expanded into Jordan with cinemas in Amman’s City Mall.
Speaking about his start in Lebanon, Ramia says they had to improvise and deal with things as they are since they acquired theaters which were already in operation — albeit theaters that were not doing so well, thus he had to turn them around, revamp them physically and introduce more efficiencies, such as electronic ticketing booths and online services.
Grand Cinemas in ABC Dbayeh Mall was their first “from scratch” cineplex in Lebanon and Ramia says the reviews have been great. Of the Grand Class cinema, Lebanon’s first luxury cinema which includes champagne and caviar canapés as part of the viewing pleasure, Ramia says the 20 seater theater is full for at least two shows per day. “The Lebanese love to show off and so will encourage each other to try out our theater,” says Ramia, adding that while the champagne and caviar are not cheap, they are a marketing gimmick which is working in attracting viewers.
With its latest cineplex in ABC Dbayeh, and the Grand Cinemas in Saida Mall, Grand Cinemas now has 32 screens in operation in Lebanon — including the country’s first 3D theaters — and plans to open a cineplex in the Landmark on Riad El Solh. The company’s headcount totals 136 employees in Lebanon between management and theater staff.
The movie market
Today Grand Cinemas has 41 percent of the movie market share in Lebanon, Circuit Empire has 46 percent and the rest is distributed among Planete Cinemas and others. Ramia explains that since Circuit Empire owns the largest cineplex in Lebanon in City Mall, which has 2,200 seats, it dominates by sheer numbers — by comparison, ABC Ashrafieh has 1,039 seats. He believes this will change with the introduction of ABC Dbayeh’s theaters, which opened in July (a notoriously slow movie season as would-be customers flock to beaches instead).
After Empire’s Cinema City, the next three theaters topping market share belong to Grand Cinemas (ABC Ashrafieh, Concorde and Saida Mall). While Ramia declined to go into revenue details he did say that three of his theaters were losing money, but added that this is something he can afford, and one has to be a good loser to be a successful businessman.
In the rest of the Middle East, Grand Cinemas has nine screens in operation in Kuwait and 10 in Jordan with a new partnership for 16 theaters. The company also has a deal for 14 screens in Erbil, which will make for a total of 100 screens for including their Lebanese operations. Comparing his other businesses to Lebanon, Ramia says people in the Gulf go to the movies more. “In Lebanon, they have bars, rooftops and theater as entertainment options. In Kuwait, what else is there to do besides watch a movie and eat out?” says Ramia. He also speaks of censorship, which is much harsher in the Gulf and vetoes nudity, religion and politics. In Lebanon, according to Ramia, censorship is limited to issues of religion. Besides being a movie theater operator, Ramia still deals with film distribution and says the Lebanese market is now open, where any theater can run any movie, though with a certain percentage paid to the distributor. “Distribution rights to a movie could cost between $100,000 and up to $1.5 million depending on what you are getting. It is a gamble because you are buying a movie based on the script, and on the name of the actors,” he says, adding that to be a successful distributor, you need to have the right contacts.
“In short, the movie business is an entertaining and glamorous one where you get to meet people,” concludes Ramia. “But it is also one with a lot of risks.”