Pundit of the silver screen, Mario Haddad Sr, CEO of Empire International, has dedicated his life and career to bringing cinema to the Middle East. Since taking over his father’s business in 1956, Haddad’s zeal to share his passion for film with the Arab world has persisted despite economic and political turmoil.

A testimony to his determination, Haddad built Lebanon’s first multiplex during the country’s devastating civil war, after it had destroyed the family’s downtown Beirut cinemas. Since then, his sons, Mario Jr and Gino Haddad, have joined the family business, Empire International, which has capitalised on the region’s growth market appetite for entertainment and American culture, internationalising to serve their Levantine neighbours, the GCC and beyond.

Diversification has played a significant role in Empire’s sustained success. Not only does Empire own and operate an extensive network of movie theatres, but the family business also acts as the exclusive licensees for 20th Century Fox in the Levant and Sony/Columbia Pictures in the entire Arab world. If that weren’t enough, the Haddads have bought into an eclectic range of ventures over the years in an effort to stay relevant. Their activities as Empire International exemplify their preparedness for the future.

Recently, Tharawat Magazine spoke with Mario Sr and his son Mario Jr, President of Distribution, about disruption, diversification and their love for cinema.

Empire International
Mario Haddad Sr, courtesy of Empire International.

How did Empire International begin and how did the business navigate the turbulence of the Lebanese Civil War?

Mario Sr: In 1919, Empire was founded by my father and a partner. My brother and I took over in 1956, and when my father died, we split from his partner and divided the assets, retaining the legacy name, Empire. In 1956, cinema was the height of mass media and public entertainment. Video streaming was unimaginable. Television had come to Lebanon, but there was only one Lebanese station, and programming was mediocre at best. Until 1975, Lebanese people preferred to go to the cinema for their entertainment.

Mario Jr: In 1994, I began my work with the family business. Four years later, my brother, Gino, joined too, and this year we are celebrating our centenary.

When I was growing up, Lebanon was at war, but I don’t necessarily consider our ability to sustain success through the conflict a measure of our resiliency – escapism is a necessity in dark times – cinema always has a place in society. Finding solutions to problems, however, is part of the game. The war has ended, but the Lebanese economy is still perhaps more unpredictable than markets elsewhere. Empire’s continued profitability despite consistent struggle is a sign of our strength.

The Lebanese Civil War is a dark stain on our history. The conflict began in 1975 and ended in 1990 – 15 years of disaster. Beirut was divided and burned. Empire’s downtown theatres were razed to the ground. The war destroyed everything in its path. To reinvigorate the business, we built Espace, which was the first multiplex in Lebanon.

Empire International
Mario Haddad Jr, courtesy of Empire International.

Mario Sr: That’s right, the Lebanese Civil War is a dark stain on our history. The conflict began in 1975 and ended in 1990 – 15 years of disaster.

Beirut was divided and burned. Empire’s downtown theatres were razed to the ground. The war destroyed everything in its path.

To reinvigorate the business, we built Espace, which was the first multiplex in Lebanon. Initially, Espace had two theatres. Almost immediately after opening, however, we decided to add another three. Despite the unrest, this period marked the first opportunity for five screens under one roof in Lebanon.

We followed that up in 1981 with Empires two and three, their naming a continuation of my father’s legacy.

Empire International

Empire International
The First Empire Cinemas pre and post-war (opened in 1943), courtesy of Empire International.

How important has diversification been to Empire’s enduring success?

Mario Jr: Diversification is a significant factor in our sustainability. We currently handle two aspects of cinema: exhibition and distribution. In the US, this would violate antitrust legislation. However, in this part of the world, there are no such restrictions in place.

As such, we provide our cinemas and other cinemas with movies, and we take movies from ourselves as distributors. My brother handles the exhibition aspect of the business, operating the cinemas, and I handle distribution. My father oversees both aspects.

At one time, our distribution was limited to Lebanon because neighbouring countries didn’t have any cinemas. We branched out to Syria and Jordan in a small way, but the infrastructure wasn’t in place – theatres had only one or two screens.

In those days, there were almost no cinemas in the Gulf – Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which now account for a significant portion of our revenue, were a clean slate.

Our expansion to the Arabian Peninsula began in 1965 when my father sold nine films outright to Kuwait at US$1000 per film. The country only had one cinema at the time. To give some perspective on how much the industry has grown since then, the average film would easily gross a million dollars in today’s market.

Still, when I joined in 1994, in terms of distribution, 98 per cent of our business was domestic.

Since then, however, we’ve significantly broadened our horizons; we couldn’t rely solely on income based in Lebanon. Today, when Empire releases a picture, only 6 or 7 per cent of the profits come from Lebanon, and the remaining balance comes from across the rest of the Arab world. So, with respect to internationalisation, our model has entirely changed over the last 25 years.

Empire International
Gino Haddad, courtesy of Empire International.