In Early December, Majid Al Futtaim unveiled Dreamscape Immersive, a new story-based, full-roam virtual reality (VR) experience at Mall of the Emirates. Dreamscape Immersive is one of the two US-based startups that the Dubai giant started investing in by end-2017, alongside the likes of IMAX and Steven Spielberg, and this Mall of the Emirates’ expansion is its first beyond the US borders. Khaled El Chidiac, Acting Chief Executive Officer at Majid Al Futtaim Ventures, explains the thinking behind this move.
How did this partnership with Dreamscape Immersive come about in the first place?
We’ve been operating in leisure for years. We have built and are operating Ski Dubai, we have the family entertainment center Magic Planet, we have a water park in Bahrain… The leisure business is an established business [for us]. We are always looking for opportunities to bring up new concepts, new ideas, because we know that the consumer preferences are changing.
What we liked about Dreamscape is that it combines a cinematographic experience with a theme park-like experience; it’s enabled by great technology. It ticks many boxes.
What is Majid Al Futtaim’s strategy when it comes to investing in content creation or content-centric companies?
The leisure concepts that we have are our own. These are things that we invested in from day one. And recently, we started doing movies. We announced it in Cannes this year. It’s a partnership between us, MBC and Image Nation, focusing on promoting local Arabic content. We’re actually about to finish producing the first movie that will launch early next year. It’s an ecosystem.
Why did you start investing in movies as well?
We’ve been operating cinemas for years. We are the number one exhibitors in the region. We also have been distributing a lot of movies, whether independent movies or 20th Century Fox movies whom we represent here. We’ve noticed that there is a big demand for local Arabic-speaking movies in our region. In France, for example, French movies are maybe seven to 10% of the box office; in Turkey, it’s probably the same. Here, it’s like barely 1%, and there’s a big demand for it. So, it’s an opportunity for us to promote talent, to promote directors, to promote all the people that work in the movie industry, because we have countries in this region that have a very strong history in cinemas – Egypt, Lebanon and many others.
Content, and especially cinema production, is a very different field from what Majid Al Futtaim is known for. What does this mean for the group?
Majid Al Futtaim is about retail, of course, but it’s also about cinema. Vox Cinemas is part of Majid Al Futtaim. We just celebrated 20 years of Vox Cinemas. So, we have a deep experience in the cinema industry, across our countries. We have been distributing movies for many years. So, production is an addition, but it’s not completely new. We will succeed in it because we will be able to leverage our strength, which is exhibition and distribution. Imagine, you produce the movie, you distribute it, you exhibit it.
Why make this move now?
Sometimes, you need to wait for the right time for things to happen. The two partners that we’re working with are great partners, whether it’s Image Nation that has been promoting the cinema industry in the UAE and beyond for years; or MBC which is the biggest and first free-to-air satellite station in the region. We believe that each partner has strengths that they can leverage to make this work.
Dreamscape just launched in Dubai, but Majid al Futtaim is already looking at creating region-centric Dreamscape content. Why the urgency?
It’s partially done already. In one of the attractions that are here today, you can see the Earth at the end. When it was done in the US, you would see Northern America from space. When they brought it here, they customized it and now you see the Arabian Peninsula and Dubai. That’s a small customization to show the local touch. But of course, you want to go beyond that. You want to create content that people in the region could resonate and identify with. It is urgent but there’s a process. First, we need to make sure that what we have works, that it’s stable, that it’s successful; then, we will bring a new concept. Dreamscape is a startup, they need to manage their capabilities, because we will never sacrifice quality. We want something that is good, that works, that is flawless.
Talking about capabilities, how are you managing the need for specific skills that comes with these new projects?
99% of the people leading Dreamscape here are Majid Al Futtaim employees that were trained and re-skilled, which is great. If we can do it with our team, why wouldn’t we? We give the opportunity to people to grow, to experience something new, and to learn.
How important is it for companies to engage in storytelling and content production today?
What you are referring to as content we see as customer experience. We want our customers to have the same great customer experience whether they come to a shopping mall, to a Carrefour or to a Vox Cinema. We want them to have the Majid Al Futtaim feeling and the Majid Al Futtaim experience, because this is the one thing that can unite all of us.
In today’s context of ‘retail apocalypse,’ how important is it to offer this different customer experience?
It’s very important because malls are turning into experience centers. You come here to meet people. You come here to have a memory, something that will leave a mark; you’re not here just to buy. This is the philosophy we apply to everything we have, for example, when you come to our cinemas. All the cinemas show the same movies, right? What makes people come to our cinema versus someone else is the experience, the great food and beverage, the way they’re greeted, the quality of the seats. The combination of all this creates an experience.
Similarly, having Dreamscape in our shopping mall is something unique, something you will remember for life. That is way stronger and way more powerful than buying a shirt from a store. Coming to Mall of the Emirates because there is Ski Dubai, because you can go and touch and play with the penguins, because you have the great cinema or because you have Dreamscape, makes it a destination and a memory for you. It’s a competitive edge. It’s what makes you win over your competition.