Expat Exhibitor: Cinepax CEO Mariam El Bacha on Her Global Cinema Journey

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by Ayşegül Algan

Mariam El Bacha’s career may have started in her native Argentina, where she opened multiplexes for Village Cines, but her story since has been a globe-trotting journey. The executive’s career has taken her to multiple international markets, including the United Kingdom (Vue Cinemas), Australia (Village Cinemas), Vietnam (MegaStar Cineplexes, later acquired by CJ CGV), and Malaysia (MBO Cinemas). 

In short, El Bacha has pursued one of the most intensive and promising international careers in exhibition today. That journey will now continue in Pakistan, where she has been appointed the chief executive officer of Cinepax, the top cinema circuit in the country. Boxoffice spoke with El Bacha at the Emerging Cinema Markers Conference in Istanbul, where she shared her dedication and inspiration to “build a family entertainment solution for Pakistani families belonging to all classes.”

A Global Vision of Entertainment

Today, Cinepax has 13 cinemas, 45 screens, and 7,400 seats across Pakistan. Those figures don’t include the 100 new screens Cinepax expects to introduce into the market within the next five years. Presenting state-of-the art cinemas and top-of-the-line customer service to Pakistan’s moviegoers is only part of Mariam El Bacha’s vision for Cinepax. The Cinepax group covers various aspects of the national film industry, including distribution, production, construction, and, as of September 2018, an SVOD division providing flexible subscription plans. 

“We founded Excellency Films because we understood the importance of the local industry in order to sustain the business in the long run,” explains El Bacha. “We cannot keep on launching locally produced movies which are not well promoted and distributed. With such a volatile Pakistan-India relationship, we cannot rely on Bollywood either, its titles being here one day and not the other.” These market conditions were behind Cinepax’s decision to tap into Pakistan’s long-standing cinema legacy, which counted approximately 1,150 screens (119 in Karachi alone) before being disrupted by the 1977 military coup. Today, there are only 146 screens operating in the country; roughly one screen per 1.37 million in a country with a population of 200 million. 

From “Male” to “Family” Entertainment

Cinepax was founded by Arif Baigmohamed and Pir Saad Ahsanuddin, a duo who returned to Pakistan after having studied in the United States, where they had enjoyed an American lifestyle. “They had totally engaged with cinema and wanted to bring that entertainment experience to their country,” says El Bacha.“But you should imagine what cinemas looked like in Pakistan just 10 years ago: There were a lot of beautiful abandoned one-screeners, and most cinemas weren’t welcoming families. Not one rightful man would have sent his daughter or his wife to those locations. So we needed to start moving things around, building new locations and refreshing the concept.” Nevertheless, there are some areas in Pakistan where it remains culturally unacceptable for women to work or be seen in cinemas. “For a child of Argentina like me, who has been going to the movies since I was 5 years old, cinema has always been about family entertainment,” she says. “There is a lot of work to be done in terms of breaking cultural barriers to go back to that idea.” Today, Pakistan represents a sizable and expanding market, with entertainment needs that are ripe for expansion “Pakistan offers both opportunity and ability to scale,” she continues. “Building new locations is our main aim.”

Regulatory Challenges

While cinema attendance in an emerging market like Pakistan continues to grow, steadily redefining the cultural barriers of old, local authorities have simultaneously begun to level their interventionism. Whereas ticket prices had been regulated in the 1980s, today pricing is left to the exhibitor’s discretion. Heavy entertainment taxes have been lifted, with only a single agency tasked with collecting them. “There used to be a three-shows-a-day limitation per screen; today, the only restriction we have is to open after Friday’s prayer,” states El Bacha. “Of course, there is still a lot of work to do on piracy, and a lot of censorship on movies, but with over 160 movie releases a year in Pakistan, we have plenty to work on.”

Growing Together

With its presence in eight of Pakistan’s cities, among them Pakistan’s biggest screen at approximately 79 feet (24 meters) wide, Cinepax is the uncontested market leader. Yet Mariam El Bacha believes in the value of healthy competition and the need for exhibition to grow. She says, “There is so much potential in Pakistan that the more cinemas we have, it doesn’t matter whether they’re ours or another’s, it will allow us to grow together.” Because Pakistan is a country with few landlords ready to invest in shopping malls, Cinepax decided to grow by developing family entertainment centers. These complexes include floors dedicated to cinema, children’s play areas, and food courts.

While Indian releases generate a lot of customer excitement, Pakistani productions have begun to perform better and have emerged as the real beneficiaries of the new market. In 2007, Bollywood films accounted for nearly 70 percent of admissions in Pakistan; between January 2015 and October 2015, they represented only 44 percent. During the same span, films produced in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, increased from 1 to 29 titles a year. “The potential of Pakistani movies in the country is huge,” admits El Bacha. “In the last six months, the top 5 movies at the box office were Pakistani, the number 6 [title] being a Bollywood film. People are hungry for local content. And that makes us understand that there is no healthy exhibition industry without a very prominent and healthy local cinema industry.”