'Binge-watching is in fashion': Egypt's filmmaker Amr Salama on screen arts in times of pandemic

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 18 Feb 2021

Film director Amr Salama shares his take on film and series making and a new launch of Omar Sharif and Roubi

Amr Salama
Amr Salama

When everyone was again forced into social distancing in the autumn of 2020, they got a chance to turn to one of lockdown’s best companions, Netflix, and watch six episodes of the very successful thriller Paranormal.

The first Egyptian series made by Netflix, Paranormal is based on a book by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik that carries the same title (Ma Wara’e Al-Tabiaa).

Amr Salama, whose name is more closely associated with the silver screen, attributes the grand success of this series to several factors, including the name of the author who is a favourite of most Egyptians born in the 1980s, and to the fact that it was produced for a streaming platform.

“This medium takes the creator of the drama to a world between films, which last for about an hour and a half maximum, and TV soap operas that usually range from 15 or 30 episodes — mostly the latter,” Salama said.

The new streaming platforms, Salama agreed, have been getting a lot more attention from viewers, especially during the past year. The quarantines that have been imposed on and off during the close to 18 months of the pandemic have been a factor, as movie theaters were closed and family gatherings were reduced to a minimum.

“But it is not just that; it is a lot more complex,” Salama argued. Creating films and series for a select audience, he reminded, has been a trend for a long time, with HBO being a prime example.

An American subsidiary service of Warner Media Studios, Home Box Office (HBO) has been on since the 1970s. It has been producing films and series and recently has been evolving to compete with Netflix.

According to Salama, what HBO did to the industry during its first couple of decades was really significant. To start with, it changed the financial dynamic of screen arts, whereby the success of the film depended on the box office while the success of a TV series or a soap opera depended on the commercial.

By bringing films and series to a selected audience, this cable service brought in the subscriber as a new factor of assessing the success of a production, Salama argued. And by being catered for those who wish to subscribe, it also allowed drama creators space to experiment and to push the lines, he added.

A few years down the road, IT advancements brought in the beginnings of the world of platforms that has again added to the space of creativity of production of films and series. “This is what got us to watch David Fincher’s House of Cards,” he said.

The series that lasted for five consecutive years, starting 2013, has certainly been a favourite of many Egyptian viewers who eventually got access to Netflix. With higher subscriptions in Egypt during the time of the pandemic, many viewers started to watch House of Cards, a mega success all over the world almost, around the same time they were being introduced to Paranormal.

“It is not just the pandemic; it is the style of binge-watching that is really in fashion now,” Salama said. “However, it is wrong to associate the production of platforms to binge-watching only; clearly the subscription-based production allowed for the creation of Roma,” he added.

A 2018 Mexican drama film written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Roma is not just a big success in its own right, It is also an impressive introduction of a Mexican production to a bigger audience all across the world.

“I think this is one of the advantages of platform productions really; the production comes with subtitling in several languages to give a prompt viewing access to audiences all over the world,” Salama argued. He certainly hopes that Paranormal benefited from this advantage.

That said, Salama argued that it is important to have Arab platforms that cater essentially and above all to Arab audiences who might not get along with a wide range of the films and series made available on international platforms. It is also, he argued, a space for more production and more creativity for Arab studios.

“In the beginning, this platform used to make the content of certain studios available for subscribers rather than just have it on YouTube for free, but now we are getting into the phase of platform-specific production and this is really good,” he said.

However, when all is said and done, Salama argued, there will still be space for cinema and TV production in the pre-platforms sense. “People would still love to go to the cinema all over the world, and in our part of the world people still like to come together, during Ramadan for example, to watch a soap opera,” he said.

According to Salama, the introduction of one screen art does not eliminate previous formats. He said that he himself is working on a film for cinema. “Out of the curricula; it is about a coming-of-age story — starring Ruby, Maged El-Kedwani, and a young boy whose name is Omar Sharif”. In parallel, he is preparing for a platform project.

“Ultimately, it is always about the quality of production — no matter how it is screened. Good productions get attention, and they live for long,” he said.

Indeed, this was how the 1950s to 1960s films of legendary director Kamal El-Cheikh and some of the classics of Italian cinema got a hold of Salama in the 1990s and put him on the road of making movies.

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