BEIRUT: Lebanon’s largest cinema opened Wednesday evening in Beirut Souks, bringing moviegoers back to Downtown for the first time since war razed the thriving picture scene in the heart of Beirut.
“Since the old age, this is where the theaters used to be. Then they spread to Hamra and to Kaslik,” Hammad Atassi, CEO of Prime Pictures and a partner in CinemaCity at the Souks, told The Daily Star.
The three-flour, 12,000 square meter complex houses 2,200 seats across 14 auditoriums – 12 regular cinemas and two Gold Plus VIP theaters. Two auditoriums house supersize screens 18.5 meters wide.
CinemaCity at the Souks was a $25 million joint project between Solidere, Atassi and Mario Haddad, owner of Empire.
The new cinema is the region’s largest, Atassi said.
The area around Downtown’s Martyrs’ Square used to house half-a-dozen movie theaters, including iconic buildings such as the Rivoli, located in what is now a dusty parking lot, and the Opera Cinema, a historic facade that today houses Virgin Megastore. A few skeletons still remain of Downtown’s entertainment hub, like the theater near Riad al-Solh and the Egg, the bullet-ridden, dome-shaped carcass of a modernist, 1,000-seat cinema built in the 1960s.
Solidere put considerable effort into the structure of the new theater and sought to make the complex an iconic addition to the Souks. The giant copper building is lined on two sides with LED screens that will play moving images. The electronic facade will act as decor rather than advertising space, Atassi assured.
“You won’t see soft drink advertisements,” he said.
For the interior, designers put an emphasis on transparency, with open lobbies and a glass internal structure, and another 256 LED screens line the upper-floor ceiling.
French architecture firm Valode et Pistre won a competition by Solidere to design the building. The company coordinated with local architect Annabel Kassar. Nabil Dada of Dada and Associates oversaw the cinema's interior design. Valode et Pistre explained the building concept as sculptural morphology made up of metal ribbons that form copper arabesque.
During Beirut’s reconstruction in the ’90s, cinemas reopened around the capital and its suburbs that were for the most part embedded in shopping malls. Today, there are around 16 cinemas across the country, less than half of them freestanding theaters.
During the heydays of Beirut’s theaters, matinees were popular fare as the venues drew in early foot traffic from Downtown and university students playing hooky.
Atassi said he expected CinemaCity to attract similar daytime traffic. Matinees start early, with showings for big blockbusters such as “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” as early as 11:30 a.m.
To complement the daytime presence, CinemaCity has latched on to a recent trend at local movie theaters, which are offering a wider variety of food and beverage services.
A 40-meter concession and ticketing booth greets patrons on the first floor, where they can buy cinema staples such as caramel and regular popcorn, hotdogs, nachos and soft drinks. The complex also houses pizza-by-the slice, sushi and sandwich outlets, and dessert stands are selling gelato, waffles and crepes.
Atassi said the theater’s square footage could have easily accommodated 6,000 seats, but he and his partners wanted to put the emphasis on providing extra food, beverage and lounge space.
The opening was long-awaited. Plans for a Souk theater and restaurant complex began in 2004, and it has been under construction since 2010. CinemaCity advertised its opening date earlier this month, but then postponed the soft opening until Thursday – though movies played Wednesday.
“We’re trying to catch the Christmas season,” Atassi said.
The imminent holiday season pushed the owners to get the theater up and running, as the period between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 is a boom time for cinemas, with schools closed and most people off work for the holidays.
CinemaCity is located in the North Souks and parking is along Allenby Street. VIP ticket costs LL45,000; regular ticket costs LL12,000.