News Column

Bringing back the silver screen, a silver lining in Hamra

July 16, 2013


July 16--BEIRUT -- Forty years ago, marquees on the streets of Beirut's Hamra district displayed the latest Hollywood films. In those days, before video games and even before the prevalence of television sets, groups of families and friends would go out on the town together to see the biggest form of entertainment of the day: the movies. Today, some of the vestiges of the once-proud movie theaters can be seen in the faded signs on the old buildings: the Montreal, the Strand, the Saroulla, the Cinema Hamra and the Piccadilly.

Ali Bazzi looks into the distance as he names the venues one by one -- around 12 in one small area -- recalling his childhood when he would go to the cinema with his friends and family.

"When I watched the movies, I dreamed that I was the hero," Bazzi says, sitting on a couch at the Prime on Bliss, which opened two weeks ago -- the first cinema in the neighborhood since the 1980s.

Now, as the operator of the newly opened cinema on Bliss Street, across from the American University of Beirut, he hopes students will be able to experience the same magic of the movies that he did decades ago.

Indeed, even though the cinema has yet to complete its finishing touches or host an official grand opening, local students were trickling in on a Friday afternoon to the area's first cinema for their generation.

Although the managers are well aware that many people these days watch their movies on pirated DVDs, they believe film enthusiasts won't be able to pass up the chance to experience high-quality digital picture and surround sound as well as a variety of sushi dishes on offer in addition to the standard popcorn and sodas.

So far, their sister company Cinema City has done well with its concept at its branches in Beirut's Dora district, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Syria (although its 3-year-old Damascus venue had to finally close three months ago due to the unrest).

"Real cinemagoers -- cinephiles -- don't watch pirated DVDs," manager Elie el-Helou says as he leans forward and excitedly describes the Prime on Bliss' silver screens, which are higher quality than the white screens that are used at many cinemas. As he boasts about their state-of-the-art film technology, he pauses for a second and concedes, "Movie watching was a lot better in the old days when people were really interested in the story. Today they're more interested in the technology."

They are banking on their prime location -- on a bustling street full of restaurants -- as well as discounts to loyal customers who see every 10th movie for free. They also hope to tap into the local youth market, offering students 40 percent off regular tickets at LL12,000 and 3-D screenings at LL15,000.

Of course they won't be giving the same sort of bargains the plethora of old Hamra cinemas did back in their brief heyday when fierce competition meant steep discounts and moviegoers could buy one ticket and spend the rest of the day watching films -- after all, they do need to somehow pay for their high-tech equipment. But they do want it to be an accessible venue for the public to enjoy.

With all the planning to open a new cinema branch, the management of Prime on Bliss admit that they lucked out in finding the right space for their movie house. A building erected 15 years ago that had been sitting empty ever since turned out to be the perfect size and spot for their venue.

It certainly has a different look and feel from other cinemas across Lebanon, most of which are now at shopping malls. Instead of coming early by car to look for a parking spot, this cinema's patrons seem to be drawn from the Bliss Street pedestrian traffic. As people walk by, they look at the week's listings and then step in to buy tickets or pick up a schedule of what's showing.

Hamra's last cinemas closed in the late 1980s, after many Beirutis stopped going out to the movies in the midst of Lebanon's 15-year Civil War that ended in 1990. As the city began to rebuild, the old cinemas continued to sit derelict, as the mall became the all-in-one place to drive to for shopping, food and entertainment. Until now, the nearest cinemas to Hamra have been Dunes at the Holiday Inn complex and the Concorde shopping facility -- both in Verdun.

By far the biggest cinema casualty of Lebanon's war was in Downtown Beirut, home to the capital's once grandest cinema, called Theatre Kabir when it opened in 1965 and later nicknamed the "egg" because of its round shape. The new age structure has been abandoned and derelict since the war.

Although the managers at Prime on Bliss have no illusion of returning to the glory days of the short-lived golden era of going out to the movies in Lebanon when films were the main source of entertainment, they are hopeful about bringing back the simple pleasure of getting lost in a story in Beirut's historic student district.

Local moviegoers appear to be cautiously optimistic about the new cinema -- wary about the potential for more traffic on the already crowded Bliss Street as well as another form of distraction for students -- but they also welcome a nearby place to watch movies.

"I think it will create more traffic and congestion honestly. The street is small and already too crowded with different establishments and customers going through the area," says Marwan Jaffal-Haidar, a movie buff who spends much of his time in Hamra. "It's a nice idea for a cinema to open in the Hamra area again, but is Bliss an optimal location considering that Hamra has loads of closed cinemas in need of renovation? I think renovating all those cinemas would be cheaper."

Still, he believes the new cinema could be a good place to screen cultural films.

"My hope is that it will be a venue for independent movies -- both local and international. I think it'll stimulate the local moviemaking scene that way," he says.

Similarly, Ali Chehade-Farhat, who works in Hamra, is concerned about more traffic congestion on Bliss Street, but he does hope the new venue will be used as an educational opportunity. "I hope they will adopt a strategy of showing student films," he says.

For now, the plan for Prime on Bliss is for American commercial movies -- similar to what was shown in the 1970s and 1980s, albeit with the added treat of sushi and digital surround sound.

But there was one Lebanese film that Bazzi does remember from his movie days in Hamra. Shown in 1987, in the midst of the Civil War, around the time the cinemas began closing shop, was "Aoudet al-Balad" (Return of the Country), a film about the war ending. He says, "I wish we could go back to that."


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