Officials have reported no deaths, but at least 130 people are receiving medical treatment, mostly for smoke inhalation.
Nearly 1,000 people had to be evacuated from the facility, located in a shopping mall in Turkey’s biggest city.
Local celebrities and movie-goers who had flocked to watch the gala premiere of a much-touted Turkish horror film called ‘Buyu’ (The Spell) quickly became caught up in a very real nightmare of their own.
Live television broadcasts at the scene captured images of panic and mayhem when scores of people ran or were carried from the seven-screen theatre with faces blackened by soot.
Officials ruled out foul play as the cause of the blaze, saying that the fire started in the foyer after a cloth and cardboard display created for the film’s premiere caught fire from a nearby candle.
Many in the audience had initially thought the evacuation announcement made shortly after the film began was a joke relating to the movie.
In the darkness, the theatre’s fire alarms and sprinkler systems were soon triggered, prompting people to find the nearest exit.
“People were left in the dark and there was a lot of panic,” said Ali Akbaba.
Thick smoke also hindered visibility in the confines of the complex.
However, Istanbul’s police chief Celalettin Cerrah denied claims that the mall lacked emergency exits and said the audience made its way to safety through a fire escape at the back of the cinema.
Firefighters extinguished the flames as ambulances began ferrying the injured to hospital.
Mustafa Sarigul, the Mayor of Istanbul’s Sisli district where the centre is located, said authorities would launch an investigation into the incident which he blamed on “carelessness and negligence”.
“The candles should have been placed elsewhere,” Mr Sarigul said.