From Café to Digital Platform

Cinemas Fight To Survive

By Ehab El-Turki
Translated by Humphrey Davies
The corona crisis has magnified the ever-growing competition that movie houses face from digital platforms. While movie-makers lament the decline in the number and size of cinemas and the shrinkage in the numbers of people up for an outing to see a film, the industry itself deals with the facts on the ground, seemingly viewing the movie house as no more than a distribution platform for the basic dramatic product: if it has outlived its usefulness, then that’s the way of the world, and our destiny is to move on to more modern platforms. Journalist and critic Ehab El-Turki reviews these challenges and their impact on the Egyptian and Arab cinema market.

At the end of the day, films will end up being shown on digital platforms but cinemas will continue to exist, like the theater, which is still here and has been since Shakespeare’s day. From a more practical perspective, I believe that the digital audience is many many times that of the cinema, not to mention that a film stays on a platform for a long time, making it immortal by comparison with its few weeks in a cinema. I hope that in future movie producers will think about investing the budgets currently devoted to Hollywood-clone action movies to make limited-budget dramas for digital platforms.

Ibrahim Eissa

The first venue for screening movies was the café. It was an intelligent promotional choice for the Lumière brothers: one winter’s evening in December 1895 they simply took their new invention to the customers of Paris’s Grand Café. Later, distribution companies adopted the theater format for the showing of their films on a large screen in the midst of a large audience. Today, the film goes direct to its audience wherever they may be via the internet and the numerous digital platforms, and film screening venues are witnessing a new generation of challenges, challenges whose external consequences are closure and social distancing due to the corona virus while their internal impact is sure to extend further than the current emergency.

“After months of isolation, the cinema-going public must surely be longing to leave their houses and go watch a movie in a cinema.”

Such was the assumption that governed the calculations of Egyptian and global production companies. Despite this, after a wave of successive Hollywood postponements, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet completely failed to revive the box office, and global cinema chains such as Regal closed their doors until further notice beginning in October.

In Egypt, the cinema industry was going through its own crisis. The makers of Egyptian movie Sahib el-Maqam (His Excellency), produced by Ahmad el-Subki and directed by Muhammad Gamal el-Adl, were torn between either screening in cinemas with no guarantee of success or on the Shahid digital platform in return for a large sum of money. In the end, the solution with the financial guarantee won, and the film was shown on Shahid at the Eid el-Adha, thus becoming the first Egyptian movie to be screened exclusively on a digital platform rather than, as planned, in movie houses. Over the first days of the eid, the film attracted 20 million viewers, a figure it would never have been able to approach in cinemas.

The Need for Imagination

“The Egyptian film industry lacks imagination.”

This is how Ibrahim Eissa, screenwriter for Sahib el-Maqam, sought to summarize his experience of showing the film on a digital platform, adding enthusiastically, however, “At the end of the day, films will end up being shown on digital platforms but cinemas will continue to exist, like the theater, which is still here and has been since Shakespeare’s day. From a more practical perspective, I believe that the digital audience is many many times that of the cinema, not to mention that a film stays on a platform for a long time, making it immortal by comparison with its few weeks in a cinema. I hope that in future movie producers will think about investing the budgets currently devoted to Hollywood-clone action movies to make limited-budget dramas for digital platforms.”

It is strange that “lack of imagination” should be a crisis for an industry whose very fuel is imagination. It may, however, surprise us with its ability to get through the crisis. In past decades, Egyptian cinemas have survived crises that threatened their existence in one way or another. They got through the fears of the sixties, which opened with the competition from then infant state-run television broadcasting, and withstood the years of cinema industry nationalization and the hiatus in film production after the defeat of 1967. In the eighties, they mounted a resistance to the shoddy, low-budget movies that were printed exclusively on videotape and the spread of multiple-film screening on one ticket, and, in the nineties, to the appearance of satellite channels, free and encrypted, with their receivers. Even now, venues struggle to resist income loss due to pirating of movies on internet peer-to-peer (P2P) sites, the appearance of well-organized and active piracy sites such as Egybest that offer the latest films and serials free for downloading or viewing, not to mention the neighborhood-based shared-dish connections that have spread anarchically throughout Egypt’s provinces, and, finally, the appearance of IPTV technology, which transmits the contents of encrypted satellite channels via the internet for a monthly subscription that is less than a third of the price of a cinema ticket (which has reached an average cost of Egyptian 75 pounds).

The television screen provides competition for cinemas because all former alternatives arrived via TV screens or, to a lesser degree, computer, iPad, and smart phone screens. The construction of new, massive, independent, cinemas for the public is now rare, while the number of older cinemas dwindles every day. Nevertheless, the building of luxury venues, albeit with limited seating, continues in shopping malls, the aim being to reach the audience as the Lumière brothers did with the Parisian café. 

Among the more curious Egyptian solutions to the creation of an alternative venue was the idea, thought up by a young Egyptian man, of the creation of a “Cinema on the Nile” in the area of the embankment wall at Maadi in Cairo in 2018. The idea was to seat the audience in small fishing boats so that they could watch the film projected onto the embankment wall; the price of a ticket was set at EGP150. The idea did not catch on at the time but surfaced again during the Corona curfew period, as an economical alternative to the closing of the cinemas. Away from the Nile, the drive-in cinema has appeared as a suitable alternative to the cinemas during the curfew. Such cinemas first appeared in Egypt in the nineties. However, conservative voices were opposed to the notion of young people of both sexes being together in a closed vehicle in a dark place and the idea vanished, only to be revived recently by certain Egyptian shopping malls as a safe alternative to ordinary cinemas.

IMax Cinema

Globally, new ideas for cinemas are more complex and more costly than the “Cinema on the Nile” and strive to change the culture of both the making and viewing of films. Canada’s IMAX company has introduced cinema venues that show films made using special cameras at a higher resolution than the equivalent 350 mm movie and on giant screens. There is one IMAX space in Egypt, in the shopping mall at Sheikh Zayed City in Giza. The governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, and Giza have the lion’s share of advanced cinemas in Egypt and some of these show films using 3-D or D-BOX technology, the latter being available in two cinemas, one in Cairo and one in Alexandria. This technology provides an experience that encompasses the imitation of smells, mist, smoke, lightning, and rain, plus chair movement. Ticket prices at cinemas of this kind are at least 40% higher than at ordinary cinemas; however, they provide an experience that cannot be mimicked on either the television screen or the digital platform.

Cinema Revenues

Egyptian cinemas took in approximately a billion Egyptian pounds in revenue in 2019, an unprecedented figure that does not include profits from films shown outside Egypt or profits on sales to television channels, digital platforms, and numerous other media. This figure reveals a further aspect of the crisis of the cinema—the lack of a clear economic strategy, since by far the greater part of these revenues is dependent on short seasons, such as those of the two eids and the mid-year school break. And, on delving deeper into the preceding figure, we find that almost half of these revenues depended on the success of just five out of a total of thirty-three films produced in Egypt in 2019. Finally, during those limited performance seasons, this small number of films plays musical chairs to book the small number of cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria, while the rest of Egypt’s governorates are left out of the picture completely.

The number of cinemas in the villages and governorates of Upper Egypt is extremely small, and the few that exist are old and do not receive recent films. A 2016 report by the Central Apparatus for Mobilization and Statistics notes the demolition of approximately 75.8 percent of Egyptian cinemas, with numbers dwindling from two hundred and sixty-nine in 2013 to sixty-five in 2016. It reports too that eight cities in the Upper Egyptian governorates, as well as those of Matrouh and North Sinai, are without a single cinema, while nine other governorates possess only one cinema each. It may be surmised that this market that the cinema has failed to reach only watches movies pirated on internet sites and will become an important part of the viewing market for digital platforms when Egypt’s internet infrastructure is developed.

Netflix and the Long Term Strategy

The ease of being in a garden in Australia and watching a documentary about Egypt. Photo by: Dina Tawfik

Improvement of internet speed has contributed to the success of Netflix in Egypt, as has its reasonably priced monthly subscription (around 200EGP, which may be less than the cost of a single outing to the cinema for two people). At a time when the market shares of studio films and cinemas are falling worldwide because of Corona, the number of new Netflix subscriptions jumped to 15.8 million during the first quarter of 2020, or twice the figure expected before the epidemic. However, Netflix realizes that it needs a long-term strategy for growth, even if there is nothing wrong with some unexpected profit as a result of the onslaught of home viewers watching movies and serials during the curfew and social-distancing period. Netflix seeks to reach a large and varied base of Egyptian and Arab viewers and has added many recent Egyptian films to its Middle Eastern viewers’ library, including a package of the most important films of Youssef Chahine, recently restored, which the new generation of cinema lovers had formerly been able to watch at only one semi-commercial venue, Cinema Zawya, in Cairo. It has also added a number of commercial plays, such as Madraset el-mushaghebin (The School for Vandals) and el-Iyal kibrit (The Kids Have Grown Up), beloved of a large portion of the masses. Netflix is trying to take the place of the television in Egyptian life.

History and the Future

Egyptian television began in 1960, and its relationship with the cinema was always reserved. The television was a national project of the state’s and a political propaganda tool as well as being free entertainment, and it succeeded in attracting a large audience to the small screen. Despite this, the cinema remained the more prestigious venue and the one more appropriate for watching movies. Even when television began producing its own films, these had no impact on the cinema, and the major stars, directors, and writers were just guests on television, their true home remaining the cinema, where the audience went to them and not vice versa. This notion dominates the thinking of the enemies of digital platforms within the cinema industry to this day. The first dramas, during the early days of Egyptian television, were compelling and progressive, presented as short serials filmed using movie cameras, and they concentrated on genres outside the norm. These included, for example, the horror/thriller drama el-Qutt el-iswid (The Black Cat) (1964), the psychological drama el-Asal el-murr (Bitter Molasses) (1966), and the serial el-Ankabut (The Spider) (1973), adapted from Mustafa Mahmud’s novel, which tells the story of a doctor who lives numerous lives at different historical periods. This particular dramatic structure resembles somewhat that chosen by Netflix for the first original Egyptian serial to be shown on its platform—Ma waraa al-tabi’a (Paranormal), from the series of novels by Ahmad Khaled Tawfiq concerning the adventures of a doctor named Refaat Esmail in various fantasy worlds, set to be shown starting 5 November. In 1996, the production sector of the Egyptian Broadcasting and Television Union succeeded in contracting with a major film star, Ahmad Zaki, for the lead role in the political drama Nasir 56 (Nasser ʼ56), and the film was shown in cinemas before being shown on television, a mechanism closely resembling that now used by Netflix, the objective being to give its films a chance of being nominated for festivals, most of which make it a condition that the films in competition have been screened at a “cinematic venue,” if only for a few days. Despite this, the state television sector, though capable of thinking outside the box on occasion, has failed to compete with the private channels. Recently, the pay-tv platform Watchit has acquired the rights to the most important serials and films of the free-to-air channel Masbiru zaman (Old-time Maspero), which shows television classics. This channel, which belongs to Egyptian Television, attracts a large audience, and the development indicates that the free viewing initiated by television in 1960 as a socialist concept faces extinction in the era of digital platforms and the free-market economy.

Netflix’s Paranormal official poster

“[Netflix], and [Netflix] alone, allowed us to make ‘The Irishman’ the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful,” wrote Martin Scorsese in an article in the New York Times at the end of last year, expressing his gratitude to the platform that gave him 159 million dollars to produce the film. Nor has the platform been stingy in its production of the first Egyptian serial, as witnessed by the statement of producer Muhammad Hifzi who partnered with Netflix in making Paranormal and believes that the serial is an opportunity to present an Egyptian drama with global specifications including the use of advanced special effects for scenes depicting paranormal events. Amr Salama, the serial’s director and executive producer, shares his enthusiasm and hopes to transform Paranormal’s stories into a global serial viewed by audiences in one hundred and ninety countries around the world, and this of a serial that might never have hoped to be seen outside the local market had not Netflix, Hifzi, and Salama broken the limits of local drama serial production. At the same time, we have not reached the stage of making an original movie for Netflix or any other digital platform: production and distribution companies resist the attempts of the digital platforms to pull the rug from under their feet. The situation is very different, however, with serials: even before Netflix, Arabic digital platforms such as Shahid and Watchit had produced original serials. Who wins will be up to the audience. 

Screenwriter Maryam Naoum believes that “producing movies exclusively for digital platforms is a two-edged sword: it may lead to a reduction in the number of movies shown in cinemas, which is something no filmmaker wants, for sure.” She adds, “Our generation grew up with television movies, including some written by the great screenwriters. It follows that if we consider the digital platform as a technical development of the TV channel, there is nothing here either new or surprising.” Then she emends her statement by saying, “Practically speaking, it may be essential that certain movies be shown on platforms if the film industry is to continue.”

The film industry will recover from the Corona virus and the production cycle will return in months, or years. However, I doubt that the same can be said for cinemas, and, given that it is in the nature of modern screening alternatives to develop rapidly and given that television serials are seeing a major boom, the digital platforms will take a large measure of control over the screening space currently occupied by cinemas. This in turn will increase the stagnation and shrinkage of cinema chains. More creative promotional thinking is required if movies are to return to movie houses in large numbers. Until that happens, and for the foreseeable future, digital platforms will lead.