In the 1990s, Morocco had over 250 screens and close to 20 million admissions but has suffered a dramatic slide since then.
The number of screens was 151 in 2004 and now stands at a mere 65 screens, with 2 million annual admissions.
“The Moroccan market is plagued by problems of DVD piracy, without any serious government measures to combat this problem” claims Megarama’s CEO Jean-Pierre Lemoine.
Bootleg DVDs are released simultaneously with theatrical releases and are sold at cut-rate prices of around $0.6 per film.
By contrast, average cinema ticket prices have more than doubled since 2004 – from $1.7 to $4, meaning that the vast majority of the population stays at home to watch bootleg DVDs or satellite TV channels.
The cinemas that have been closed were essentially dilapidated picture palaces, whose business primarily depended upon Bollywood – Indian films represented 37% of admissions in 2004 and now only represent 5%.
Moroccan films have been a savior for some of the remaining picture palaces – such as the Colisée in Marrakesh – and the global market share for national films has risen from 12% to 34% over this period.
“The cinema owners wanted a short term payback with no risk” explains Noureddine Sail, prexy of the Moroccan cinematographic centre. “Morocco failed to transform its cinemas into multiplexes, unlike the strategy adopted in European countries.”
Admissions are now concentrated in a handful of multiplexes, above all the two venues operated by Megarama in Casablanca and Marrakech – that generate 50% of the country’s total admissions and 63% of annual box office.
In February Megarama will open an 11-screen complex (1400 seats) in Rabat – Morocco’s capital – and in September an 8-screen venue (1000 seats) will open in the international port city, Tangiers.
The opening date of the 12-screen multiplex in the tourism resort of Agadir is not yet confirmed.
Noureddine Sail is preparing draft legislation for a government guarantee system for investments in the exhibition sector and states that in addition to Megarama, other potential investors include French, Portuguese and Chinese groups and young Moroccan entrepreneurs.
However Megarama’s Lemoine is skeptical unless such measures are backed by significant anti-piracy legislation. “It’s extremely frustrating because the quality of Moroccan films is increasingly high. New talents emerge but the market isn’t large enough to guarantee profitability.”
Megarama’s three new multiplexes due to open in 2014 will provide a major boost to the domestic box office, but there’s still a long way to go before the country will come close to the admissions levels attained only 10 years ago.