et’s resident film critic looks at the nation’s ailing film industry and ponders what can be done.
By Sherif Awad
Since the 2011 Revolution, Egyptian filmmakers and actors have been trying to overcome the problems of the local film industry, where a lack of funding has really crippled the producers. Besides the huge decline in the artistic quality of the few films that have been released over the past three years, audiences have stayed away from the box office for many other reasons, including periods of curfews and the availability of pirated copies of Egyptian films on the internet and some Middle Eastern satellite channels. Some players — including Al-Adl Group and Al-Adl Film companies and blockbuster stars Ahmed al-Sakka and Ahmed Helmy — have postponed their projects indefinitely until the country and the economy shows some signs of change.
The meeting drew out Gaby Khoury, head of Youssef Chahine’s company Aflam Misr al-Almeyah (Misr International Films), and Farouk Sabry, head of United Brothers, but in an indication of a lack of confidence, Al-Arabiya Cinema chief Isaad Younes and Al-Nasr Film head Mohamed Hassan Ramzy stayed away, noting that similar meetings with past governments have produced no effective results.
The key issue is finding the money to support new talents and promising scripts. Following the model found in many European countries, an Egyptian cinema fund should be created to produce high-quality artistic films with moderate budgets (LE 2 million per feature film, for instance). This fund would be the central source for talented new Egyptian filmmakers looking for their first chance to direct their own feature scripts.
Another initiative is to cultivate the notion of crowd-funding in Egypt. This new financing tool is becoming popular through websites like IndieGoGo.com and KickStarter.com. The idea is to let filmmakers promote their script and ideas across the internet to seek support from interested individuals or organizations. This support can range from LE 1 to zillions of pounds. According to the industry research organization Crowdsourcing.org, crowd funding has been very successful in the United States and Europe, with over $2.8 billion raised in 2012 across 450 different websites.
Another source of income for the local cinema industry is inviting films to shoot in Egypt. Compared to Morocco — which has hosted international productions such as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and the French film Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (2002) — Egypt’s laws are too cumbersome to attract foreign filmmakers. First, the customs on imported film equipment are too expensive. Second, licenses and shooting permissions in touristic and historic locations are too complicated to be obtained in a short period. Also, it is a very complicated process to get the Egyptian military to help with helicopters or extras if great battle scenes need to be filmed.
New laws can help resolve these constraints, but Egypt also needs a film commission, modeled after the ones in Morocco and Jordan. This commission would be the sole entity to deal with international filmmakers and would help them complete all the needed paperwork in one building.
Another source of income for Egyptian filmmakers are websites similar to the US-based Netflix and Amazon, which generate royalties through pay-per-view services. The UAE once again led the way with the 2011 launch of www.yallatv.me, a video-on-demand (VOD) platform for watching Arabic films legally online. Unfortunately, Yalla TV closed this past September after the dissolution of its parent organization TPI Middle East. The region needs more VOD sites with which producers can strike distribution deals; these new viewing channels could help resurrect Egyptian cinema.
Independent Egyptian film production — whether it is feature, short or documentary — is still making waves across the international festival circuits. Ahmad Abdalla’s Farsh We Ghattah (Rags and Tatters), his follow-up to Heliopolis (2009) and Microphone (2010), was warmly received in Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Ayten Amin’s feature debut Villa 69 also competed this year in ADFF’s New Horizons Competition, where it won a Special Jury award. Despite the critical acclaim, these art-house films do not have good marketing campaigns or enough prints to distribute to the Egyptian multiplexes, which diminishes their chances to recoup their production costs. Ibrahim El-Batout’s award-winning films, El Sheita Elli Fat (Winter of Discontent, 2012), Hawi (2010), and Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun 2008) all suffered from poor returns at the box office.
Egypt clearly has the talent to produce high quality films. Now all that is needed is the support from the government, entrepreneurs and even audiences to create an environment that nurtures that talent. et