Hardtop renaissance

Egypt outfit pegs 100 new screens for country

CAIRO — An ambitious plan to help overcome Egypt’s severe shortage of cinemas has been unveiled by a recently formed private sector company called Egypt-Renaissance.

The company, which is capitalized at $65 million, plans to open as many as 100 new screens countrywide over the next five years. Its flagship venue, the 419-seat state-of-the-art Renaissance Cinema, recently opened at the World Trade Center in Cairo.

The next few months are expected to see Renaissance opening Egypt’s first four-screen multiplex in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City, and a triplex in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.

Egypt has long been in dire need of a major cinema expansion program. The country, with a population of 61 million, currently has only about 150 operating cinemas — down from triple that number in the 1950s, when the population was less than half its current size. Countrywide, more than 200 cinemas are standing idle because owners can’t afford the cost of needed renovations, high bills for utilities and hefty taxes.

Many of the older cinemas –especially in provincial capitals outside Cairo and Alexandria — are in appalling condition, with out-of-date sound and screening equipment and rickety seating. They often cater mainly to rowdy young men and teenagers. In short, hardly places where respectable people would wish to be seen.

Movie screenings in Egypt frequently begin with a cartoon — often an old Tom and Jerry toon. In some of the dilapidated old hardtops, the aud is apt to be treated to a real life Tom and Jerry show, with the house cat chasing a mouse down the aisles or among the seats. Egypt-Renaissance plans to buy and renovate some of these old houses and build new ones in the provinces.

“We want to get people back into the habit of going to movies once again,” said Tarek Sabri, president of the theatrical and distribution division of Renaissance, “and at the same time make tickets affordable to the middle class.”

The shortage of cinemas is frequently cited as one of the main reasons for the heavy production fall off in Egypt’s 70-year-old film industry, the largest and oldest in the Middle East. Feature film production in 1997 hit an all-time low of 15 titles — a far cry from the halcyon days of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when Egypt regularly turned out as many as 100 titles a year.

Thus, in addition to making Egypt a more attractive market for U.S. and other film import product, the massive cinema-building scheme also is seen as a fillip for Egypt’s own foundering film industry.

Indeed, Renaissance also has plans to enter the film production business eventually.

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