The Haddad family’s role as one of the founders of today’s global film business began shortly after the birth of cinema.
Empire Intl. was launched 100 years ago when a young pharmacist named Georges Haddad began projecting silent shorts in Beirut cafes, and in 1919 opened the city’s first movie theater, which he called the Cosmograph.
By 1935, in partnership with entrepreneur Nicolas Cattan, Haddad had built 36 cinemas across a swathe of the Middle East, “the smallest of which had 1,000 seats,” recalls his son Mario Haddad Sr. Their flagship venue was the Empire Cinema on
Beirut’s trendy Rue Gouraud, where Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie, “The Love Parade,” premiered locally in 1931. With 1,200 seats and two balconies, it was among the most luxurious hardtops in the Arab world.
Then, in 1956, having become the leading film company in the region, the Cattan and Haddad partnership was dissolved after Georges’ death and his sons Michel and Mario took the reins, ushering in a new phase.
In 1964, Empire became the exclusive distributor for Columbia Pictures, now Sony, in the region. It’s a relationship that still stands, as does Empire’s longstanding rapport with Fox.
Family-owned and operated to this day, this trailblazing company has had its ups and downs over the course of a century — the latter largely due to the devastating effect of the Lebanese civil war. But it has weathered war and also tectonic shifts in the global movie market, often managing to stay ahead of the curve.
“They have remained a family company driven by a passion for film passed from generation to generation. Love of film is in their DNA,” says Paul Higginson, exec VP of Europe, Middle East and Africa for 20th Century Fox. He notes, warmly, that the Haddads have been connected with Fox for nearly 50 years.
Over the decades they’ve had many lucrative offers to sell Empire, Mario points out in an interview in his office on Beirut’s Rue de Damas, which, during the civil war, was the symbolic dividing line between East and West Beirut. But he’s always felt a duty to stay on.
“I have a flame burning in me that started with my father,” he says, recounting the story of Georges on his death bed, telling him and Michel to “take the Empire!” in the split with Cattan, who got most of the other cinemas in exchange for the crown jewel “that represented the continuity of this company.”
Parting with Cattan — who ended up shuttering his business by 1960 — the Haddads initially lost their relationships with the U.S. majors. But they started working with United Artists, which grew on the success of pics such as Gina Lollobrigida-starrer “Trapeze” (1956) and later the “Pink Panther” and “Bond” franchises.
One of the UA honchos at the time was the legendary Mo “Moses” Rothman, known to his associates as “Mighty Mo,” who developed a tight friendship with the Haddad brothers and later became president of worldwide distribution at Columbia Pictures. In the 1970s when he left Columbia and purchased worldwide all-media rights to Charlie Chaplin’s entire library, Rothman and Michel Haddad travelled to Russia together to sell those rights. They were worth millions of dollars, “but the Russians paid in caviar,” which, Michel says, “was better than rubles.”
By 1963, nine years after Michel and Mario had rebuilt the company, Empire was representing United Artists and Columbia in the region, so they had enough product to start expanding the distribution side outside Lebanon.
In 1958, Mario, then 20, took its film lineup to Kuwait, the only nearby Arab country with a movie theater, and landed a contract with the Kuwait Cinema Co.: 20 titles for $1,000 each.
Meanwhile, by the mid-1960s, the Beirut cinema center shifted from the central Place des Canons, where the Cosmograph was, uptown to the Hamra district, then known as Beirut’s Champs Elysées.
“We smelled that,” Mario says. They built five theaters in Hamra, all with a big E topped by a crown that had become the symbol of their circuit. A golden decade ensued until Lebanon’s 1975-2000 civil war started.
But war didn’t stop moviegoing.
“All our cinemas were shut; there were no films, but people wanted to go to the movies,” Mario recalls. So at first they went to the Casinò du Liban on a cliff north of Beirut and asked to rent it. “They said: ‘You don’t have [fresh] movies.’ ”
To which the Haddads replied: “We have our old stock” and started screening pics no one had seen because the old government regime had banned them. “Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Cleopatra’… it was fantastic!”
Then they started building new cinemas wherever they could. In 1978, at the height of the civil war, the Haddads inaugurated the Middle East’s first multiplex, a five-screener in an underused area outside Beirut called Zouk.
Sony senior VP of distribution Mark Braddel recalls how in the late ’80s, when the Middle East came under his purview, he was looking at a Beirut daily box office report for Blake Edwards’ “Blind Date” and was struck by a “casual comment” noting that the previous day there had been “just one show because of an explosion.”
That was his introduction to the Haddad family and in particular Mario and his late brother, Michel.
“If there’s one thing you can say with certainty about Empire during that period it’s that I always spent longer on the phone than I anticipated, no matter what I had called to talk about,” he says. “The reason for that is the passion and emotion they have for the business.” It’s something that was apparent from the day he met them and “has been part of everything we have done together over the years.”
When they met, Braddel was struck by how Mario and Michel had set up their office. “They were each responsible for different things, but shared the same office, [with] desks facing each other,” he recalls. And every time he called them he could hear the other brother in the background providing a running commentary or an alternative viewpoint. “This to me was the embodiment of a family business,” he says.
In 1976, an entrepreneur who owned a movie theater in Dubai approached them in their Beirut offices, saying he needed an executive to run the theater. The Haddads offered a young manager in their record industry unit this opportunity to flee the war. He took it immediately.
Cut to 1997 and that executive, Selim Ramia, who now heads major Middle East player Grand Cinemas, had become a Dubai-based distributor. Ramia came to Beirut to buy three Fox titles, including “Titanic.” Mario Sr. asked him for $500,000, which in those days was unheard of. But Ramia didn’t bat an eye. He plunked down half a million and invited Mario and Fox’s then-international distribution chief Jorge Canizares to Dubai for the premiere of “Titanic,” which went on to gross $4 million in the UAE box office.
That prompted Canizares to tell Mario: “You want to continue with Fox? … You go and open an office there!”
So in 1998 Empire promptly set up its first office outside Lebanon under the banner Empire Intl. Gulf.
The UAE market was then about two-thirds as big as Empire’s home base. It has since grown exponentially to roughly 17 million admissions a year, and is the core of its business, whereas Lebanon now accounts for roughly 3.5 million admissions.
In 1995, when Lebanon and Egypt were the only significant territories, Sony’s original “Jumanji” grossed just $250,000 in the Middle East. In 2017, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” became Sony’s biggest film ever internationally with the Middle East contributing $22 million, via Empire of course.
In January, Empire launched into the video-game industry with Dubai-based Empire Play.
Besides Lebanon, Kuwait and the UAE, it now operates in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Syria, Jordan, Ethiopia and Egypt.
Coming soon: Saudi Arabia.
“We are proud of what we’ve done,” says Mario Sr. “We’ve gone down several times … and then started back again.”
They’ve been pioneers: the first movie theater; the first talkie; the first film in color; the first in Cinemascope; the first multiplex; the first Imax. They led the way in local distribution and now they’ve gone into games.
And how did they do it? “We never lost our faith.”