Egyptian biz sees hot summer

Hollywood pics take backseat to local fare

CAIRO — The crowds scream for autographs as a throng of photographers and cameramen frantically climb over each other to get a soundbite from film stars at a Cairo opening night. The Egyptian capital, just as in Hollywood, plays host to a clutch of preems every week throughout the hectic summer blockbuster season.

The films being rolled out aren’t studio tentpoles like “Hancock” and “The Dark Knight,” however, but Egyptian films with local celebrities each clamoring to get a chunk of an increasingly crowded season.

Over the course of the summer, almost a third of the Egyptian film industry’s annual productions get released. With production up in the country to more than 50 features this year, that means more than a dozen major local pic will hit Egyptian screens over the course of a few weeks.

While U.S. pics remain popular with Egyptian auds, for a few weeks every year they take a backseat to dueling local productions, which have begun tackling ever more racy subject matters in an effort to stand out.

And the white-hot competition will get even more intense as the summer window shortens with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts two weeks earlier every year, this year it’s Sept. 1.

Pics such as current helmer-de-jour Khaled Youssef’s “Al rayess omar harb,” (The Boss Omar Harb) a drama set in a casino starring Egyptian heartthrob Hani Salama; pop singer Tamer Hosny starrer “Captain Hima,” Sameh Abdel Aziz’s multi-character nightclub-set “Cabaret,” and Adel Adeeb’s “The Baby Doll Night,” which attempts to cover everything from the Arab-Israeli conflict to 9/11 and the war in Iraq, all rolled out in June.

Even bigger hitters are skedded in July.

The eagerly awaited teaming of Egypt’s biggest box office draw Adel Imam and its greatest living thesp, Omar Sharif, for the first time in “Hassan and Morcoss” has already meant boffo box office for production shingle the Good News Group. Pic opened to a three-day gross of over $500,000 and is on course to be one of the year’s biggest hits.

Also bowing are popular Egyptian comedian Ahmed Helmi’s “Asef lel ezag,” (Sorry to Bother You), Pepsi-financed musical “Sea of Stars,” not to mention a host of other local contenders in addition to more familiar studio fare such as “Kung-Fu Panda” and “Iron Man,” which are limited by Egyptian law to a maximum eight-print release to protect the local film biz.

The bottleneck has created a headache for the country’s film execs, many of whom serve multiple roles as distribs, exhibs and producers.

“Everyone in the world is chasing to release ‘The Dark Knight’ but I’m telling the sub-distributor to leave me alone because I have no space,” says Gabriel Khoury, topper at shingle Misr Intl. who, in addition to producing legendary Egyptian helmer Youssef Chahine’s films, operates 45 screens in Egypt and also sometimes co-distributes.

Long the center of the Arab film industry — in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s Egypt ranked behind only Hollywood and Bollywood in number of productions — the Egyptian film biz is experiencing something of a renaissance. Production is up, budgets are increasing, theatrical revenues are growing and the number of screens being built is mushrooming.

Egypt has around 300 screens servicing a population of 70 million people. That paltry number has long been a source of frustration for domestic film execs. With recent economic growth of about 7% a year and the country’s population rising, a slew of construction projects are in the pipelines that could see 200 screens built within the next three years bringing the peak number close to 500.

A hit film in Egypt grosses between $3 million and $5 million theatrically, with mega-hits occasionally nearing the $10 million mark, although that is still rare.

The distribution and exhibition sector is dominated by two companies: former actress turned producer Isaad Younes’ Al-Arabiya and United Artistic Group, a conglomerate of three shingles: Oscar, Al-Nasr and Al-Massa.

These two groups, who own theaters, produce features and also distribute them, effectively control the market, leading to the somewhat unique situation — reminiscent of the studios in Hollywood’s pre-war days — whereby they can dictate, in their role as a film’s producer or distributor, how long a title stays on a particular screen.

“If I have budgeted that one of my films needs to gross a certain amount then I will keep it in my cinemas until it has,” says the formidable Isaad Younes, between puffs on a cigarette while sitting in her office towering over one of downtown Cairo’s busiest thoroughfares

If that situation appears a tad anachronistic, then welcome to Cairo.

A far cry from the glimmering, newly built towers of the Gulf, Cairo is a bustling metropolis heaving with people, culture and history where the best-laid plans often take a backseat to the irresistibly chaotic rhythm of the city and its calendar. The Ramadan dilemma could result in a more rounded theatrical calendar, with greater emphasis to round the year big releases, as well as more international co-productions allowing producers to be less dependent on local revenues.

For some, that trend has already started.

The three biggest hits in recent months — Youssef Chahine’s “Heya fawda” (Chaos), Khaled Youssef’s “Heena maysara” (Until Things Get Better”) and Sharif Arafa’s “Al-Gezira” (“The Island”) — were all released outside the summer window between the two Muslim feasts of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha which took place in October and December.

“It marks a big challenge for the film industry over the coming few years,” says Hadeel Kamel, a senior exec at pan-Arab pay TV platform and film producer ART, who co-produced Chahine’s “Chaos” and also “Caramel,” last year’s international breakout Arab hit. Kamel says her longterm planning isn’t based solely on the Egyptian box office, but on international and TV sales as well, “We want to elevate the level of international interest and sales in Arab cinema.”

WATCH LIKE THE EGYPTIANS:

Doing business in Egypt comes with its own set of challenges.

TRAFFIC WOES: How long does it takes to get to a meeting across town? Anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours depending on the traffic.

SMOKEY SALLES: Smoking is ubiquitous in all cinemas and even at gala premieres at the Cairo Opera House.

SHAKY SKEDS: Release dates are often delayed for without clear reasons, throwing the box office calendar into disarray. Publicity materials such as trailers sometimes arrive only three days before a film’s release.

ROVING RAMADAN: Muslim holy month Ramadan will begin mid-August in 2009, and even earlier in August in 2010. Summer B.O. will be curtailed for the next few years as families congregate every evening to watch TV together as they break their fast.

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