The cinemas of Empire employ the latest in theater perks and technology. Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” is currently playing in its Beirut Souks Cinemacity 14-screener in both 3D and Imax. Its Empire Premiere screening rooms boast reclining soft leather seats, tables and food and drink table service, and attracts crowds looking for specialized fare such as Bolshoi Ballet performing “La Bayadere,” streamed from Moscow.
“We take our role of having a complete circuit very seriously,” says Empire topper Mario Haddad Sr. Its well-rounded circuit also includes the Metropolis Empire Sofil, Lebanon’s only arthouse cinema, operated by Beirut’s Metropolis Assn.
In the case of that venue, “the financial aspect doesn’t matter for us,” he adds. “It’s part of our prestige.”
When Hania Mroué founded Metropolis in 2006, it was with the idea of “creating a place that would host local festivals, but also be a platform for Lebanese films,” at a time when commercial cinemas refused to screen them, “saying there just wasn’t enough of an audience,” she notes.
Initially, Metropolis — which today is a multi-pronged film organization — was in a single-screen theater in the central Hamra quarter. By 2008 it had gotten too small. So she contacted Empire and, after lengthy negotiation, struck a programming partnership allowing her to operate a two-screener in East Beirut that Empire had built after the civil war but was now languishing largely unused.
“It’s not part of a multiplex, which for us adds a lot of value,” she says.
The venue’s Salle 1 cinema now hosts about 25 events a year: film weeks, retros, concerts tied to cinema and festivals including Beirut’s Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival, touted as the only genre fest in the Arab world. The smaller Salle 2 is for arthouse film releases, primarily Lebanese and Arabic titles but international festival fare as well, and even more mainstream titles. Metropolis is also a distributor, and it has a film archives/restoration project and runs several film education programs.
Having a partnership with a commercial circuit is important for Metropolis because it offers access to some important indie films that Empire acquires.
“We don’t want to be too elitist and arty,” says Mroué.
Jean-Christophe Baubiat, an exec at France’s promotional body Unifrance, praises Metropolis as “an essential support to arthouse films in Lebanon” and notes that the Haddad family is key to the success of French cinema in the region, as
Empire has recently stepped up its purchases of Gallic pics.
“Empire has always been key to launching local films in the region, especially knowing how to reach the right audience,” says Ben Ross, chief creative officer of Image Nation Abu Dhabi, which partnered with Empire when it distributed its first Emirati feature “Sea Shadow,” and its pan-Arabic road movie “From A to B.”
“We’ve worked with them on so many varied projects, from docs and festival films to indie horrors. And, no matter what, they put their all into them and always go above and beyond,” Ross adds. “Their passion for film and filmmakers has always shone through.”