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Sunday, 18 March 2018

No screens on the Nile: The forgotten file of Egypt's local cinemas

On 29 January, Shebin Al-Kom, the capital of Menoufia, witnessed opening of a new movie theatre Rozadah, an important step in bringing cinema to the provinces.

Nahed Nasr, Monday 19 Feb 2018
(Photo: Al Ahram Weekly)
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Views: 1535

With two 120-seat halls equipped with industry-standard sound and screening technology as well as air conditioning and handsome furniture, the Rozadah Cinema – a new movie theatre in Shebin Al-Kom, the capital of Menoufia – opened on 29 January where an older cinema that closed down along with four others in the city two decades ago.

With a population of four million in 300 towns and villages, Menoufia has not had a cinema since the late 1980s. According to Ahmed Shousha, the Rozadah’s media spokesman — who was born and lived all his life in Shebin Al-Kom — the opening night was a kind of festival.

“We opened with two of the latest films on the market,” Shousha says: “Are We Done? and The Khawaga’s Dilemma. It was a full house and we had extra audience. People could not believe they had a cinema of the same standards as in Cairo. We have six film screenings a day at a reasonable ticket price of LE30-35 each. Many generations never saw this here.”

Locals who were not content with the weekly Cultural Palace screening had to go to Tanta (32.08 km away) if not Cairo (55.48 km far).

“The last time I went to the cinema in town was 25 years ago.”

Shousha, who also runs the social media campaign advertising the new cinema, believes the audience is very keen on the new film venue: “We cannot judge in one month but I can tell that the lowest attended screening is no less than 60 people. I can see also how many people are posting to our Facebook page every day. It takes a little time for the word to spread all over the governorate and not only in Shebin Al-Kom. People here are in dire need of an entertainment window outside the home and cinema is the best option.”

But Menoufia is no exception: due in part to the film industry recession, outside the big cities movie theatres have been practically non-existent; and numbers have been dropping (from 92 theatres all over the country in 2012 to 69 in 2015 according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics; production too has been low: 23 films in 2012, 30 and 41 in 2013 and 2014 but 34 in 2015).

According to the Specialised National Councils records, there were 244 movie theatres in Egypt in 1949, 360 in 1954; by 1966 the number had dropped to 255, and by 1992 to a staggering 62. Of the 69 theatres currently open, 46 (178 screens) are in Cairo and Alexandria, five are in Domiat, four in Ghabria, two in each of Port Said, Ismailia and Kafr Al-Sheikh, one in Suez, Daqahlia, Sharqia, Qalyoubia, Sohag, Qena, Aswan and the Red Sea and none in Beni Sweif, Fayoum, Minya, Assiut (which had four in 2012), Matrouh, South Sinai (which had two in 2012), Beheira (which had one in 2012) or North Sinai.

The Rozadah Cinema company established three Sea Cinema screens and an open-air theatre at the resort town of Gouna for the inaugural round of El Gouna Film Festival in 2017.

According to company chairman Mustafa Askalany, “What we did there inspired us to expand our activities to other governorates. We started with Menoufia, and soon we’ll start new cinemas in Tanta, Gharbiya, Banha, Qalyoubiya, Beni Sweif and Fayoum. By the end of 2018 I hope to have 10 new theatres in different governorates. Improving the film industry should start with world-class theatres everywhere in the country.”

Indeed the greatest challenge facing the 2017 National Film Festival director Samir Seif, who was determined to bring cinema to the provinces, was the lack of screening facilities.

At a recent Cairo International Film Festival seminar, producer Gabriel Khoury, the director of Misr International, described most movie theatres as “not suitable for human use”, while distributor Anton Zend said that it remains risky to start movie theatres if not enough movies are being produced: “The Chamber of Cinema Industry Protection only allows us ten copies of any foreign film.” But equally, Askalany insists, cinemas would provide distribution opportunities, promote higher budgets and improve quality.

Which, according to producer Tarek Al-Eryan (speaking at the same event), is a major concern. On the whole what films are produced in Egypt are not good enough to compete on the Arab market, where distributors used to make over 70 percent of their profits. The industry cannot survive, in other words, until film quality improves.

And indeed, according to the 2016 Yearbook on Culture and Information, out of 34 films produced in 2015, only seven went to the UAE, six to Kuwait, Morocco and Bahrain, five to Jordan and Lebanon, three to Britain and one to Qatar.

But Askalany says quality is not the only reason the regional market isn’t open to Egyptian films, and it is ultimately on opening up a new local market that the future of the industry depends: “More producers will make more films and step by step local tastes will be their priority, and so the Golden Age will return.” In the last two or three decades the audience in the governorates has changed, he says, with many more educated and Internet-connected young people who would love to go to the cinema. And this is important not just for the film industry but also for the cultural atmosphere and the economy.

Askalany believes there should be more help from the state in terms of facilitating licensing: three weeks after it opened, the Rozadah in Shebin Al-Kom is still officially under construction because the required licenses are not forthcoming; the state can at least cut the Kafkaesque red tape. Askalany also called on the Ministry of Culture to consider signing a protocol allowing the private sector to manage over 588, most defunct cultural palaces.

“It will be less expensive and time consuming if we can equip those venues with film theatres and halls to run them in cooperation with the ministry and so create cultural hubs all over the country.”  

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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