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Ode to El Cinema

The only film database for Arab cinema makes it even easier to go to the movies
By Dominika Maslikowski

 

Egyptian movie buffs don’t always have it easy: It takes a bit of searching to find show times, movie reviews and biographies of famous actors, while scoring good seats at a movie theater requires planning and waiting in line. The website elCinema.com, the first and largest online Arabic movie database, is slowly changing that by offering reviews, online booking and some 35,000 celebrity profiles that include pictures, videos and filmographies. By cataloguing Egyptian cinema classics, the website’s co-founders also hope to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.

The website was launched in 2008 and now boasts 1.8 million unique visitors per month from around the Arab world who can easily browse some 15,000 movies in the database, including Egyptian classics as well as regional and international films. Users can also book movie tickets online for five Egyptian cinemas, read interviews or the latest celebrity gossip, watch trailers for upcoming releases or browse the TV guide. A rating system gives users a chance to review movies, plays and shows.

cinema2ElCinema.com’s co-founders Khaled Bassyouny and Bassem Hefny were inspired by the popular website IMDB when they launched the Arab world’s answer to the hugely popular online movie and TV database. They had often asked themselves why there was no Arabic equivalent of IMDB, which is only in English and has a scant selection of Egyptian movies.

“Before elCinema.com, it was very hard for movie fans to get accurate data. For example: how many movies did actor Mahmoud Abdel Aziz do? Who played this role in that movie? When was this actress born?” Bassyouny says. “That’s our core service. We were the first Arabic website targeting the majority of Egyptians who don’t browse the internet in English. Before elCinema.com, the non-English-speaking cinema fans — the majority of young people in Egypt and the Arab world — had no access to showtimes, a TV guide, reviews or ratings in the digital world. We filled this gap and today we are still very similar to IMDB.”

Bassyouny studied telecommunications engineering with Hefny at Cairo University and was a sales engineer at Ericsson before he went on to create elCinema.com. “Bassem and I always shared the dream of creating something that could have an impact. In 2008 we met again and decided it was time to use our experience and motivation to create a real impact,” Bassyouny says. “Bassem came with the idea of the Arabic movie database. His point was why is there only IMDB.com, and why does the Egyptian and Arabic movie industry have to depend on it?”

Hefny had insisted that engineers would fill the gap between technology and the cinema industry, and that nothing would get accomplished if they waited for the cinema industry to make the move. Hefny built a prototype of the website in late 2008, and Bassyouny was quick to see the opportunity. The pair quit their jobs to create the internet company DAMLAG and launch its first project, elCinema.com.

The pair entered the Information Technology Industry Development Agency (ITIDA) Business Plan Competition in 2009 in hopes of winning some funding for their website. They won 4th place, but the funding didn’t come through when the agency aborted its project after the January 25 Revolution.

elCinema.com co-founder Khaled Bassyouny

elCinema.com co-founder Khaled Bassyouny

“We had employees and we had to pay salaries. We couldn’t just let them go. We had some revenues and we used that with our funds borrowed from friends and family to keep paying salaries,” Bassyouny said. “We started looking for different business models than online advertising, like content licensing. We started licensing our content to other websites and content aggregators, and it worked.”

Over the years elCinema.com has built a team that collects, organizes and updates new content daily. Content is either user generated/uploaded and then moderated by the content team, or obtained by the team directly from the entity responsible for the content, whether the production company, film distributor or celebrities themselves.

ElCinema.com went on to launch a pilot project in October 2012 with IMAX & Plaza Cinemas to offer online booking. Now five movie complexes in Egypt are set up with the booking software, including Mall of Arabia and City Stars. Users can select a movie, pick the showtime, choose their seats and buy the ticket online at elCinema.com.

“Cinemas in Egypt had either no or very old booking software. We developed customized cinema booking software for Egyptian cinemas because the Egyptian market needs are different from the international ones,” Bassyouny says. “We helped them build the right IT infrastructure to be more efficient and connected. We had a huge success story with IMAX Cinema. Another five cinemas are in the pipeline.”

Because of the difficulties facing the cinema industry in Egypt, the website cannot rely solely on the Egyptian market and must be regional, Bassyouny says. The website already has movie listings and showtimes for Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. A new version to launch this summer will be more regional, Bassyouny says, with the addition of features that will transform the website into an online social community for cinema fans.

DAMLAG is currently launching its new product Tvdaleel (www.tvdaleel.com), a TV guide mobile app for the Middle East satellite channels. It is fed with showtimes and movie info, as well as TV programs playing on the public and subscription satellite channels. Users will be able to set automatic alerts for when their favorite movies or shows are playing. et

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