The local movie industry is in a major slump and it could be years before it gets back on its feet again. By Lamia Hassan
(Business Today Egypt Magazine, November 2010)
Every year during Eid El- Fitr, Ibrahim Said and his wife Hoda Kamal take their three children to the movies. For most of the last decade and a half, they have been going to the Miami theatre in downtown Cairo, where massive banners outside the theater entrance usually advertise scores of top-flight Arabic-language movies.
But this Eid was different. There were only four locally-made films playing, none of which were in the running to win any awards.
“This Eid […] none of the movies are a good value,” says Said. “It’s not like in the past when people waited for the holiday season to see good, new Arabic movies.”
Miami is not the only Cairo movie theatre to face a shortage of local films. At the Galaxy theatre in El Manial, eight of
the nine movies showing at the end of September were in English. This marked the first Eid in recent memory where Arabic films took second billing.
Producers, actors and other film industry insiders say this is emblematic of a larger decline in local movie making. They blame the falloff on increasingly close ties between major studios and theaters, which have edged out smaller production houses, the global economic crisis and a short summer season punctuated by the World Cup and Ramadan. Some believe it could be years before the industry is back on its feet.
“The movie production business has been declining recently, and will continue to decline going forward,” says producer Gamal Al-Adl of Al-Adl Group. “This past summer season witnessed the success of only a couple movies, while all the others were failures.”
For years, the summer and the two Eid seasons coincided with the release of new Arabic movies. Between 2006 and 2008, the Egyptian cinema industry was booming; in 2008, over 50 films were produced, 41 of which made it to theaters. But in 2009, that number dropped into the 30s before bottoming out in 2010 with just 16 Egyptian films released through Eid El-Fitr.
Al-Adl says the main reason behind the recent drop is a fundamental shift in the way movies are released. In the past, production companies, distributors and theaters were separate entities. But now, several large companies own and control all three layers, squeezing smaller filmmakers out of the game.
“The market is dropping because these production companies are monopolizing the market and giving their movies better distribution, leaving out the other movies,” says Al-Adl.
Meanwhile, producers planning to release their movies this summer held back out of fear that a season shortened by Ramadan and the World Cup would diminish their chances of success at the box office. Some have postponed releases until Eid Al-Adha, when people traditionally have more time to see movies. Those films include Ahmed El-Sakka’s Ebn El Qonsol (The Son of the Consul), Adel Emam’s Alzheimer and Karim Abdel Aziz’s Faswel Wa Nowasel (A Break and We Get Back).
Broader economic trends have also taken their toll on the country’s film industry.
“Right before the economic crisis, the cinema industry in Egypt was booming. The revenues of the movies were doubling as compared to years before that, but the crisis came and brought everything down,” says Adel Adeeb, CEO of Good News production company.
About 80% of a locally-produced film’s revenue comes from Gulf countries, which were hit especially hard by the downturn.
At the beginning of the 2009 summer season, revenues for the film industry were down 30% year-on-year. By the middle of the season they had dropped 50% and by the end they had plummeted 70%.
But while filmmakers blame things like piracy and the short seasons on the decline of the movie business, audiences place responsibility on studios which they say produce lackluster movies. “Most of the movies that I have seen at the movie
theatres recently are chick-flicks, and even those that are not have repeated plot lines and lack quality,” says Engy El- Etreby, a frequent moviegoer. “Out of 10 Arabic movies that I have seen recently, I can only say that maybe one or two were good.”
Throughout its history, the Egyptian cinema industry has had its share of peaks and valleys. It flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, a time known as the “Golden Age” of Arab film, sagged in the 1960s, entered a transitional period in the 1970s and eventually picked up again in the mid-90s.
But local cinema’s current stagnation doesn’t spell the final chapter of Egyptian filmmaking. Adeeb sees the industry recovering a few years down the line. While some filmmakers are looking towards Eid releases this month for signs of a slight improvement, El-Adl is skeptical that the few movies that do come out will make a difference.
“The three or four movies that will be released will not really make a difference and the market will still be left without good movies,” says El-Adl.
“But the producers who are monopolizing the business are like supermarket vendors. They will soon realize they are out of quality produce and they’ll have to start looking for solid products again.” bt