MENA’s Hollywood?

With nation’s first private studio, film company hopes to entice foreign movies makers back to Egypt By Lamia Hassan

Screenshot- Yacoubian Building

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, November 2009)

  The upcoming blockbuster about the builder of modern Egypt, Mohamed Ali, was originally scheduled to shoot both here and in Syria.

But with production costs at Egypt’s state-owned film lots running almost double those of Syria, the maker of the LE 50 million film, Good News Company, moved shooting out of Egypt.

The decision was perhaps the ultimate condemnation of Egypt’s bureaucratized state-run studios — and it was far from the only one. Since the golden era of Egypt’s film industry in the 1970s, foreign and domestic filmmakers alike have been steering  clear of the increasingly costly local scene.

It is a situation that Good News hopes to change through the creation of the country’s first private studio.

Good News, which was behind hits like the Yacoubian Building, Haleem and Ibrahim El-Abyad, is planning to build 14 studios in Sixth of October City, with the first phase of construction slated for January 2010.

The plan represents the culmination of a two-year struggle for Good News CEO Adel Adeeb. For decades, the Egyptian government had denied applications by private companies to build film lots. At the same time, rates at the country’s handful of state-run studios were steadily rising.

Adeeb discovered, though, that there was no legal basis for the rejections.

“I found out that this had been just a custom and not law. I kept after it daily for two whole years. [I was hoping to] to change the situation for the benefit of the cinema industry,” he says.

Good News eventually got the sign-off from Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni,

Baby Doll Night movie poster

Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid, Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin and Minister of Information Anas El-Fiqqi, allowing the company to begin the LE 35 million first phase of the studios.

With the ministerial go-aheads, as well as approval from the Egyptian Cinema Chamber, Good News got busy. In August, the company signed a deal with ARRI Group, the world’s largest camera manufacturer, during a press conference in Cairo.

ARRI will work as consultants for Good News, supplying camera equipment, training local staff, maintaining and upgrading gear and consulting on studio construction.

“I want our studios to provide better special effects, more space to be creative and technology that will save you time. This is the added value that we will be providing to the market,” says Adeeb.

Bringing Back Business

Once renowned as an international shooting location due to both its scenery and studios, Egypt as a filmmaking destination has been in decline since its peak in the mid 70s, when it was nicknamed the “Hollywood of the Middle East.”

Adeeb says his main goal for the new studios — which will be filled with digital equipment — is to lure international filmmakers back to Egypt. For years they have favored locations such as Malta and Syria.

“They will be saving almost 50% because the cost of using digital equipment is much cheaper than normal equipment,” says Adeeb. He also says that cheaper Egyptian currency will reduce costs for filmmakers.

Adeeb’s cost savings received a boost early this year with the government’s decision to exempt filming equipment from customs duties. The decision will ensure that international and domestic filmmakers can use the latest technology here.

But luring international films back to Egypt is not just about costs and technology; Egypt’s infamous bureaucracy represents another major hurdle.

When foreign companies shoot in Egypt, they have difficulty getting permission to film at historic locations, waste time waiting for the censorship bureau to approve scripts, and sometimes get harassed by police when filming on the streets, says Adeeb. “Even when the police cooperate with us while shooting on the streets, people keep on harassing us [wanting] to appear in the movie, or make noise to ruin the shot.”

According to Adeeb, local filmmakers pay LE 10,000 per hour to shoot at a site with antiquities, “and the hour does not start from the moment we start shooting, but it starts from the moment we enter the site.” Foreigners are charged around double, he says, claiming that prices in nearby Syria are around half of those here. “When I asked there [in Syria], while shooting Leilet El Baby Doll [Baby Dolly Night], for battle tanks, they charged me $20 per day for each, with ammunition. Can you believe that?” he asks incredulously.

During a series of March meetings between the Egyptian Cinema Chamber, producers and heads of artistic syndicates, Moneeb Shafie, head of the chamber, discussed ways to draw filmmakers here.Shafie listed three major steps that need to be taken: decrease custom charges, speed up censorship bureau script approval — it currently takes 30 days — and reduce prices at shooting locations.

Change is slowly taking place, as the decision to remove customs on equipment is showing results.

One notable success was the filming of sections of Transformers II — one of Hollywood’s biggest hits this year, earning $200 million in its first five days — at the Pyramids, in Luxor at the Valley of the Kings and at the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) studios.

“It was generally a very enjoyable experience but there are things that definitely could be improved,” says Ilt Jones, the film’s location manager, of shooting here.

European filmmakers, with lower budgets than their American counterparts, are also being encouraged to come back. “We shot part of a feature film in Egypt, mostly at EMPC last summer, and our experience was positive,” says producer Roy Anderson of the Norway’s Nordisk Film. “The production went smoothly because Egypt has a very talented crew regarding the film industry.”

He called the venture “cost effective” and the location convenient. “I would like to film in Egypt again if the possibility presents itself in the future.”

Good News hopes its cutting edge technology and professional expertise, along with state-backed legislative changes, will usher in a new golden era for the Egypt’s cinema industry.

Already, the reviews have been good.

“Good News provides great facilities, offering a great potential for the film industry,” says director Marwan Hamed, who worked with Good News on The Yacoubian Building. “It should make it easier for production companies around the world to come shoot here.” bt

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