CinemaONE ready for return of moviegoers


A couple’s snacks is brought to them at the IMAX Gemstone movie theatre, One Woodbrook Place, Port of Spain. – PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI

For Ingrid and Brian Jahra, co-founders of CinemaONE, parent company to IMAX, Gemstone and 4DX, one of their most memorable moments when they started dating was when they saw a documentary at an IMAX theatre in Southern California about the Serengeti.

Brian Jahra recalled fondly that they went to the theatre and, through the IMAX screen, they were instantly transported to Tanzania, where they could see up close where the elephants and buffalo roamed, and where the lions and leopards hunted.

After 27 years of marriage and three children they still share similar experiences, now with the entire family.

It is safe to say there are few people in the world who have not had a similar memorable experience – whether it is your first movie with a parent, or your first date with the girl or boy of your dreams, or a big lime with a group of friends – there is something about going to a movie theatre and being told an incredible story on a larger-than-life screen.

But in the past two years, with the world wrestling with one of its largest health crises since polio, the movie-going experience and those who provide that experience through cinemas face challenges like never before. With rampant lockdowns and restrictions, the cinema industry experienced severe blows.

Now, with restrictions slowly being lifted and the world learning how to not only fight against the virus but to live with it, cinema franchises like CinemaONE are expecting that people will once again come together and experience life through the silver screen.

‘The stuff that dreams are made of’ (The Maltese Falcon, 1941)

Brian told Business Day that for him, movies are a depiction of all our human interactions and imagination.

“When we experience a movie we get a sense of what the world could be. You could be a superhero, a sports star, a person who just fell in love or a deep-sea diver.”

CinemaONE co-founder Brian Jahra is looking forward to the completion of the Gulf City Gemstone theatre. – PHOTO BY ANGELO MARCELLE

Now with the world at people’s fingertips through mobile devices and access to movies expanded through streaming services, movie lovers, including those in Trinidad and Tobago, have become more sophisticated.

“Before the internet our choices were very limited on our island when it came to watching movies. Now you have a very sophisticated consumer that has multiple entertainment streams,” Ingrid Jahra said.

But Ingrid added that the appeal of going to the theatre has not changed.

“We still love going to the movies. We still love to come together and be in a dark room and have a shared experience,” Ingrid said. “So what we do is make that experience much more memorable.”

Brian said it was that desire which led him and his wife to establish CinemaONE in 2009. The immersive technology that came only with patented IMAX theatres – including laser projectors, 3D viewing, geometrical placing of seats and acoustics which included a 12,000 watt sound system – was also something that TT audiences had not yet experienced.

“We were driven to invest in IMAX technology mostly through product differentiation. We weren’t the first multiplex on the island so we wanted to come with something different. We were the first in the Caribbean in 2011 with IMAX and we are still part of an elite group of IMAX theatres.”

Brian said there are 1,500 IMAX theatres in the world as compared to an estimated 200,000 screens worldwide.

When CinemaONE added Gemstone to its franchise it was also with the desire to give moviegoers a new experience. They invested in recliner seats and seat-side service to make the movie-going experience special.

“Serving alcoholic beverages was not usually part of the movie-going experience. We were the first in the country to do that with Gemstone. It is really looking at the experience and making it unique.”

There was also a philanthropic side to the opening of IMAX, Brian said. He told Business Day he believed schoolchildren would also benefit from having the same immersion that the theatres provided for movies in learning.

“The same feeling that someone would have about seeing Iron Man, they could have about saving the coral reefs, or the rainforest. That level of immersion translates to a great memory about the experience. We wanted to have something that our own children and the wider national student body could learn from.”

‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night’ (All about Eve 1950)

A Gemstone employee checks a customer’s vaccination card on her cellphone before she enters the movie theatre which is a safe zone. – PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI

Before covid19 the movie industry was booming. The year 2019 saw the highest all-time revenue from the global box office at US$42.2 billion. Although alternative entertainment options such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus provided variety to consumers, movies like Avengers: Endgame, Spider-man: Far From Home and Joker led the charge on the silver screen, resulting in US$31.1 billion in international markets, marking the first time in history that the international markets crossed US$30 billion.

It was also a good year for CinemaONE. Its audited financial results for the year ended September 30, 2019, revealed gross revenue increased by 5.8 per cent to $19 million, $2 million higher than 2018 figures of $17.9 million. Its net profit was $900,000.

But then in 2020 covid19 hit the world hard, and restrictions put in place to mitigate the spread hit the box office even harder.

The US markets hit a 40-year-low with US$2.2 billion in box office revenue, an 80 per cent decline for revenues in 2019. Internationally box office revenue declined 67 per cent to US$10.2 billion.

The outlook was the same for the local box office and CinemaONE. Its financials for 2020 ending September 30 revealed gross revenue plummeted 67 per cent to $6.3 million and gross profit fell by 65 per cent to $3.8 million. For the first time in the franchise’s history it had an operating loss of $4.5 million. At the end of the fiscal year CinemaONE’s was $4.9 million in the red.

Brian said their strategy for surviving the pandemic had a lot to do with conserving liquid cash so they could manage a reopening as soon as it was allowed.

Brian thanked his employees for their support during the pandemic saying several had to bear with pay cuts – in some cases up to 70 per cent – and even temporary lay-offs.

“We took the biggest cuts of the entire team just to show that we were dedicated to the business’ survival,” Brian said.

The strategy worked, Brian said, as CinemaONE was able to open immediately when the reopening of theatres, bars and restaurants under safe-zone restrictions was announced in October last year.

CinemaONE juggled the reopening of its franchises with the construction and opening of another Gemstone branch in Gulf City.

The Gulf City Gemstone upon construction will have five screens. Brian said CinemaONE’s main focus for that cinema was on opening; it will initially open with two of the biggest screens, each of which will have a capacity of 100 seats.

‘With great power comes great responsibility’ (Spider-man 2021)

If the successes of last year’s blockbusters are any indication, the movie theatres are due for a comeback as things return to normal.

The movie Spider-man: No Way Home swung into the box office contributing US$1.8 billion to the global box-office revenue in 2021.

Spider-man led the box offices in 2021 to its final position of US$21.8 billion worldwide. The Marvel movie was the only one to cross the billion-dollar mark. The runners up were Asian films. Chinese war epic – The Battle At Lake Chanjin – grossed over US$902 million and Hi Mom! – a Chinese comedy, grossed US$822 million.

The latest addition to the James Bond franchise No Time To Die and the Fast and Furious franchise addition F9 also helped bring up numbers, earning over US$774 billion and US$726 billion respectively.

Overall, while cinemas were able to correct the nosedive that occurred in 2020, box-office revenues were still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels with a global revenue of US$21.1 billion.

CinemaONE was able to increase gross revenue by more than 200 per cent and triple gross profit but it was still unable to get out of the red. Operating expenses whittled gross profits down to a mere $4,118 in the first quarter of the financial year ending December 30, 2021. After taxes, CinemaONE posted $96,469 in losses, as compared to over $1 million in losses for the same period the year before.

Ingrid said anticipated blockbusters such as Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and The Batman are expected to see success similar to the wall-crawler’s latest movie.

CinemaONE co-founder Ingrid Jahra said people still to want to experience the enjoyment of watching movies in a cinema. – PHOTO BY ANGELO MARCELLE

Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg’s Uncharted – one of the first movies for the year – registered a US$44 million three-day opening at the box office and reached US$51 million over the President’s Day weekend ending on February 21.

Noting that most US movies are usually promoted around the holidays in the US, Ingrid said she expects these blockbusters would bring a turnaround for CinemaONE and TT cinemas in or around June or July, during the American summer.

Also as more restrictions are being lifted, such as children under the age of 12 now being allowed into safe zones, she said this will have a positive effect on their business and on children.

“Children don’t have many choices for safe family entertainment, and going to the movies is a safe activity,” she said. “We too have been missing a key segment of our audience and we look forward to serving them.”

Brian said the biggest concern for consumers is safety. He said CinemaONE assured the safety of patrons and employees by following Cinema SAFE protocols developed by the National Association of Theatre Owners in consultation with medical and industry experts.

The protocols include hand sanitisation, PPE, disinfection and maintenance and workplace policies like temperature checks and checks for any covid19 symptoms.

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