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Business monthly July 06





The most anticipated movie of the year has opened to brisk box offices sales. Is Emaret Ya’qoubian (The Yacoubian Building) an upturn in the film industry’s decades-old slump, or has the trend for better quality cinema been there all along?

Emaret Ya’qoubian (The Yacoubian Building), like Egyptian society itself, is infinitely complex in its simplicity. The fictional story of the intertwined lives of the tenants of a real downtown apartment block, it touches on some of the most sensitive topics in Egyptian society: sexuality, perversity, corruption, Islamism and the widening gap between rich and poor.

The film is a screen adaptation of the best-selling novel by dentist-turned-writer Alaa Al Aswany. And while many expected the book’s taboo subject matter and subtle nuances would never translate to the screen – whether due to poor production quality or censorship – critics are hailing the movie’s accomplishments, both technical and artistic.

Marwan Hamed, the film’s 29-year old director, believes Emaret Ya’qoubian is an indication of the possibilities that exist in the industry if all the players are willing to do their part. “This is one of those rare movies where all the necessary components for success were present, from the budget for a clean production, to the box office stars that will get people to the cinema, to a great story and – I would even dare to say – good directing.”

But Hamed is wary of enamored critics, who have been prophesizing that the £E 22 million production – the biggest budgeted film in Egyptian history – will usher in a new era for the Egyptian movie industry. Instead, he argues, the industry has been taking baby steps in the right direction over the last five years. Emaret Ya’qoubian is only one of several steps in rebuilding an ailing industry, but if it suceeds, it could secure the future of big-budget, high-quality cinema.

“I think we’re just beginning to find the way again after the industry was ignored for two decades,” he says. “Emaret Ya’qoubian might turn some things around, but then again, it might be a fluke. We’ve had those even when the industry was at its lowest. It’s still too early to tell. What I can say is that it’s a positive indication that we might, if everyone really works hard, be able to once again place Egyptian cinema on the world map.”

Egypt’s film industry dates back nearly a century. The first Egyptian film, Dans les Rues d’Alexandrie (On the Streets of Alexandria), was produced in 1912 by Abdel Rahman Salheya with the help of foreign technicians. It was 11 minutes long. In 1927, Egypt released its first full-length silent movie, Layla, with Awlad Al Zawat (High Class Society), which followed in 1932, the country’s first full-length speaking movie.

“Egypt’s cinema industry is considered the fifth oldest in the world, on par with that of the US and France,” explains screenplay writer Tamer Habib, whose latest work, ‘An Al Eshq Wel Hawa (About Love and Passion), opened last January. “The quality of the movies we produced [in these early days] was exactly like those produced in other countries because at that time everyone used the same technology. Even if you look at the acting techniques, the directing, the hair styles and the makeup, they were almost identical.”

It was economist and businessman Talaat Harb who first recognized the movie industry’s revenue-generating potential. He established Studio Misr in 1935, the largest studio and film school in the Arab world, with hundreds of classic films to its credit.

Harb was able to see the motion picture industry as a form of entertainment for the masses rather than just the elite. He was also among the first to recognize that if he spent money on the production of the movies, and took chances with new writers, actors and directors, he could produce higher quality films that would sell more tickets. And if he increased the number of movies produced every year, he could cover more genres to suit the tastes of Egyptian society. More importantly, he saw great potential in generating revenue by exporting Arabic-language films to other Arabic-speaking countries in the region.

Sadly, Harb never got to fully implement the plan. He died in 1941. But his vision lived on and was adopted by generations of moviemakers who led Egyptian cinema into its golden era during the 1950s, 60s and early 70s.

“Egypt’s cinema industry grew and diversified from just a handful of movies to a full-fledged industry that addressed everything from the political trends and thoughts of the day, to musicals, to romantic comedies to social drama,” explains actor Khaled El Sawy, best known for his starring role in the 1989 bio-drama Gamal Abdel Nasser. “At that time, the industry was a true reflection of society, which is the true function of cinema – as a forum to address the masses.”

While many argue that nationalization of the motion picture industry led to its downfall, El Sawy argues that the industry went into decline after the industry’s players lost sight of the art and simply began chasing money. “The government dominated the sector for a short period of time under Nasser but this didn’t lead to the industry’s deterioration. By contrast, some of our best movies were made in the 1960s and 1970s,” he says. “The fault is that... following the [Infitah] economic policies of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, we had the rise of what we call contractor movies, where there is no story, no acting and no production quality of any kind. Instead, these were basic formula movies that aimed at making a quick buck.”

El Sawy says the absence of any medium- or long-term industry strategy doomed Egyptian cinema to what he describes as its “complete collapse.” While the government may have been fully to blame for the deterioration of technical elements such as studio facilities, editing machinery and sound editing facilities, which it monopolized, El Sawy says the profit-before-art mentality of the industry’s players was the real culprit.

Habib shares his sentiment, explaining that by the 1980s and 90s, producers had gotten so near-sighted that actors who had made their acting debuts in the 1970s were routinely being cast as 20-something characters simply because producers were too afraid to take a chance with untested talent. “People got tired of seeing 40-year olds acting the role of first-year university students,” he says. “Audiences simply couldn’t relate to the characters or see themselves in the storylines, which seemed to get weirder and weirder.”

Meanwhile, he says, the cinematography techniques of Egypt’s golden era were lost as moviemakers cut corners on everything from set design to editing and sound quality. “The quality of the sound went from bad to worse; there are movies with entire scenes where until today, I can’t make out what they are trying to say,” he admits. “Too often, people walked out of the movies having missed half the dialogue.”

To make matters even worse, the nation’s cinemas – most having fallen under negligent public sector ownership – were literally falling apart. Even when the film’s video or audio quality was good – which in most cases it was not – the equipment was in such poor shape that it ruined the experience for the movie-going audience. Once an evening outing for the whole family, regardless of socioeconomic class, going to the cinema became the pastime of the unemployed, make-out couples and unruly teens.

By the 1990s, the film industry had hit rock bottom. Not only was the quality a fraction of its former level, so was the quantity – having gone from nearly 90 films per year at its zenith in the 1960s and 70s to barely a dozen in 1995.

The industry appeared destined for oblivion until 1998, when a pair of smash comedy hits, Ismailiya Rayeh Gai (Ismailiya Back and Forth) then Sa’idi fil Gama’a Al-Amrikiya (An Upper Egyptian at the American University), for reasons still not entirely clear, resonated with young audiences. The two films, both low-budget productions with plot holes, clumsy camera work and poor-quality sound, pulled in £E 25 million and £E 27 million respectively – remaining to this day the two highest revenue-generating Egyptian films in history.

The films gave the industry its first push in almost a decade. Overnight, producers were scouring their contact lists for comedy writers and actors. While none of the tireless string of me-too comedies that followed were particularly memorable, they did succeed in attracting young audiences back to the cinemas. And generating money.

“There was a moment of enlightenment,” Hamed says with obvious sarcasm. “Producers came to the realization that what they really needed to do was to increase the number of movie-goers in order to make revenue.”

But to do that they would need to improve the sorry state of the nation’s dilapidated cinemas. “Businessmen began to invest in upgrading movie theaters. So in the late 1990s and early 2000s, brand new movie theaters began to appear throughout the main cities in the country with the latest equipment and technology,” explains Hamed. “This addressed part of the problem in that it made the movie experience a bit more pleasant for moviegoers.” But it also developed the industry’s potential, as rising box office sales generated the revenue to cover the production of new movies.

The problem, asserts El Sawy, is that the players were almost entirely disinterested in developing the art; everyone involved – producers, screenplay writers, actors and directors – were only after money regardless of whether their actions were detrimental to the industry as whole. “It was a naïve form of capitalist thought that failed to replicate the capitalism in Hollywood,” he says. “In Hollywood, every movie producer is after making revenue, but they adopt a long-term approach where making movies is viewed with the same level of strategy as a factory that will continue to make more products in the future.”

So the behind-the-scenes people are paid well, receive insurance and give some thought to their craft and how to do it well. Most of all, their efforts are recognized, he says. “Here, movies are seen as a temporary workshop that will be torn apart the moment the shooting is completed. People are not encouraged, or even given the opportunity, to give their opinion, nor is it appreciated when given. So they don’t care anymore.”

But there is no denying that the money was having an effect on quality. By the early 2000s, producers were spending more on their films, investing in promotion campaigns and taking more calculated risks in selecting scripts and casting.
“The private production houses began to employ proper research tactics to develop the market,” says Habib. “They began to realize that they needed to promote the movies both directly and indirectly. So we see money being invested on the quality of the posters of the movies, the trailer in the movie theaters, and even the interviews that the stars of the movie give before the release date.”

Sahar Al Layaly (Sleepless Nights), the sleeper hit of 2004, relied very heavily on these marketing tactics. A slick movie trailer piqued the public’s curiosity to explore an intelligent social drama with a cast of mostly unknowns instead of the usual mindless comedy. While it cost just £E 1.7 million to produce, the award-winning film reeled in an impressive £E 17 million in box office receipts.

Prior to its release, the industry could be characterized as cautious. While a few filmmakers were experimenting with new genres and more provocative topic matter, the majority were sticking to the tried-and-tested slapstick comedy and melodrama formats. After all, intelligent and well-scripted films such as Asrar Al Banat (Girls’ Secrets), Ma’aly Al Wazir (His Excellency the Minister) and Ayyam Al Sadat (Days of Sadat) won critical acclaim, but flopped at the box office.

The surprise success of Sahar Al Layaly, however, made an indelible impact on the industry’s profile. Habib, who wrote the screenplay for the film, says its winning formula demonstrated that studios “have to take calculated risks if they are to have a good payoff in terms of revenues.”

He says it also demonstrated that innovative movies can be a success with critics and box office alike. “This was another turning point for the industry,” he argues, “The movie, which had all the right components like good acting, production, sound, storyline and promotion, was a hit. Once again, producers realized that if they spend money, they will make money.”

They also realized they had been selling audiences short. While Egyptians love a good comedy, they also respond to more intelligent storylines, if packaged right. Accepting this fact opened the door for the release of other movies that ventured into alternative genres such as romantic comedy, social drama and political drama. Some were successful with critics and audiences, while others were popular with one or the other, and still others were panned by both.

Reel to real success
Habib sees positive indications that Egypt’s film industry is on the road to recovery. He points out that while many still lament the low quality of many productions, the fact that Egyptian studios are now producing over 30 titles a year is in itself a good sign. Revenues are also up, having tripled since the 1990s when box office receipts hit a record low £E 20 million a year.

But Hamed is more cautious in his assessment. He feels the industry has been depressed for so long that it will take a lot more than one solid movie, or even a dozen, to mark a recovery. “We are celebrating the fact that we make 30 movies a year, while Bollywood [India’s film industry] makes more than 800 movies a year, which generate close to $1 billion a year,” he says. “Our movie industry doesn’t even make £E 100 million per year. There are [individual] Bollywood movies out there that make a lot more.”

But there’s no denying that, from an actor’s perspective, the industry is improving. Intelligent movies such as Sahar Al Layaly, Damm Al Ghazal (Gazelle’s Blood), Malaky Iskindireya (Private Alexandria) and Emaret Ya’qoubian are giving actors a chance to step out of cookie-cut characters and bring new life to characters that more accurately reflect real world personalities.

“My role as an actor is to confront society with reality, but there was simply no one making these kinds of movies or writing these kinds of characters for a very long period of time,” says El Sawy. “So I had to compromise by accepting a variety of roles that would simply keep me in the minds of the audiences, even if I would not get that much personal satisfaction out of them. It’s part of the equation that I had to accept that the types of characters I wanted to play were simply not readily available.

El Sawy, who received critical acclaim for his supporting role as a closet gay newspaper editor in Emaret Ya’qoubian, recognizes a shift in the public’s taste. “The public is more vocal about their concerns in society and is becoming increasing politically active and demanding to know the truth, even if it’s ugly,” he says.

Hamed suggests the government, which traditionally stifled artistic creativity by censoring taboo or politically sensitive subject matter, is giving signals that it is taking a hands-off approach to the cinema industry and allowing it to grow. In fact, he argues, a socio-political film like Emaret Ya’qoubian could not have been produced just a few years ago. The censors wouldn’t have allowed it, and no private producer would have risked a £E 22 million budget to find out.

El Sawy agrees. “Four years ago, there would have been no room for movies like [Emaret Ya’qoubian] in the Egyptian movie industry,” he says. “No one would have wanted to put the needed money to get the product we are watching in movies today. I’m not even sure if the audiences would have been ready to go to see movies like that.”

Even today, he adds, there aren’t many producers who would sink £E 22 million into a movie, which leads him to assume that the movie’s producer, media mogul Emad Adeeb’s Good News Group, is looking beyond Egypt to recover the costs. “The way this movie was marketed made it very clear that it was not just aimed at the domestic market,” he says. He points out that the film was released overseas at international film festivals before opening in Egyptian cinemas, adding that while it might break even in Egypt, its best chance to make profit is if it is released in cinemas around the world.

Hamed points out that the budget for the promotion of the film at international festivals is almost equal to the budget of the movie itself. For the first time in a long time, there was the realization that the propaganda that precedes and accompanies the release of the movie is just as important as the quality of the movie itself,” he says.

If Emaret Ya’qoubian proves a success overseas, chances are we’ll be seeing more movies of this caliber, remarks El Sawy. “If you think about it in terms of money, the entire Egyptian industry at the moment generates between £E 50 million and £E 70 million a year. If you have a producer who is willing to spend £E 20 million on just one movie, which is how much Emaret Ya’qoubian cost, then he knows that it is very unlikely that he will be able to recover his costs, let alone make profits, in Egypt alone. So, in essence, he has no option but to try to make money through international marketing.”

It’s a gamble, he admits, but one that could put the Egyptian film industry back on the world map. “If this experiment succeeds, then we might be able to finally achieve the vision that Talaat Harb had so many years ago.”

Khaled Hammad, a movie score composer best known for his work on Sa’idi Fil Gama’a Al Amrikeya (An Upper Egyptian at the American University) and Ma’aly Al Wazir (His Excellency the Minister), and most recently Emaret Ya’qoubian (The Yacoubian Building), says one of the positive trends that emerged in the late 1990s was that film producers, for the first time in decades, recognized that a good musical score has value in itself. Too bad it was for all the wrong reasons.

For Hammad, who has been composing since he was a teenager, a movie’s score is its soul. “It’s a different way of reflecting the emotions of the story... it connects the audience to the movie, even if they are oblivious to it,” he explains. “If you want to put it in an artistic perspective, the music tells a different dimension of the story and brings it to life in a very non-tangible way.”

But producers rarely look at it from such a philosophical perspective. Instead, he says, voicing his frustration, they tend to view the score and soundtrack purely as a marketing gimmick. “Producers see the music and songs that appear in the movie [simply] as a way of promoting the movie,” he says. “This is particularly true in light of the plethora of satellite channels that have appeared over the past three years. All producers have to do is come up with a montage of scenes from the movie and put in a piece of music or a song – even if it doesn’t fit within the dramatic flow of the movie – and they have an instant promotional [music video] for the movie that costs them absolutely nothing.”

And while movie audiences have become increasingly aware of the value of good music scores of films over the last decade, producers have not stepped up to the plate. “The good side is that people are paying some attention to the music that runs in a movie and especially the songs. There are singers whose careers were launched because of a song on a soundtrack,” he says. “But producers are not working to capitalize on this awareness by investing properly in movie scores. There has yet to be a producer who’s been willing to invest money to hire a proper orchestra to actually perform the music score properly. If it weren’t for the fact that we have access to decent editing equipment, our music scores would have been very hollow.”

In Hollywood and India, it is not uncommon for producers to spend a handsome sum on a score, knowing that a good score can bring a high return on investment. “There are soundtracks that have outshone and outlived the movies they came from, such as The Godfather and Love Story, both of which were released in the 1970s and are still selling CDs around the world today,” he says.

By contrast, in Egypt scores are an “afterthought.” Hammad says composers receive next to nothing for their work and often have to pay for professional editing out of their own pocket. “If my income came solely from score composition, then I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet. I do this for the love of [the art]. This is what the producer capitalizes on. They know I won’t cut corners.”

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