Over the past decade, Morocco suffered a dramatic slide in admissions; local producers and directors are quick to pinpoint the country’s plummeting screen count as the biggest problem facing the domestic film industry.

This is an endemic problem throughout Africa, as crumbling picture palaces have closed without being replaced by new screens or multiplexes. The only countries in Africa with significant local film markets are Morocco, Egypt and South Africa. Egypt has around 250 screens, over three times as many as Morocco. Other relatively rich African countries, such as Nigeria, have a minimal number of theaters.
The numbers in Morocco speak for themselves: 45 million spectators in 1979, 31 million in 1989, 12.5 million in 1999, 2.6 million in 2009 and 1.7 million forecast this year. Eleven Moroccan screens closed in 2014 alone.

The country has only two multiplexes, a 14-screener in Casablanca and a 9-plex in Marrakech, both run by the French-Moroccan group Megarama. Extraordinary but true: These two multiplexes generate two thirds of all box office revenues. Megarama also runs a duplex in Fez.

“The main problem in Morocco is the declining number of screens,” insisted local helmer Mohamed Karrat, whose “Un Pari Pimenté” plays in Marrakech’s Cinema at Heart sidebar. “Casablanca now represents 60% of the national box office. In many towns, Moroccans want to watch films but there are no cinemas available.”

The Moroccan government enacted new legislation in 2012 enabling public funding to be channeled to providing investment guarantees for building new multiplexes, but until now, the necessary funds haven’t been available.

The main public support provided to the exhibition sector under the new legislation has been to enable screens to convert to digital projection, a process that will be completed by mid-2015.

The Megarama group will open new multiplexes in 2015. By the beginning of 2015 it plans to open an 11-screen complex, with 1,400 seats, in Rabat – Morocco’s capital – and, in March 2015, an eight-screen venue, with 1,000 seats, in the international port city of Tangiers. These sites were originally planned to be opened in 2014, but due to issues related to planning permission and construction delays, have been pushed back to 2015.

Adding 19 screens to Morocco’s screen park, Megarama’s multiplex drive will be a major boost to domestic admissions, potentially increasing total box office by 50%.

Yet, despite this development, Megarama’s CEO, Jean-Pierre Lemoine, is pessimistic about the future of the market — primarily because of DVD and Internet piracy.

Bootleg DVDs are released simultaneously with theatrical releases and are sold at cut-rate prices of around 60 cents per film. By contrast, average cinema ticket prices have more than doubled since 2004 – from $1.70 to $4, meaning that the vast majority of the population stays at home to watch bootleg DVDs, films via Internet or satellite TV channels.

“Piracy is expanding, and nothing is being done against this widespread crime,” says Lemoine. “VAT sales tax on cinema tickets has also jumped and now stands at 20%, which places the sector in peril. In this context, we’re not currently contemplating any new projects, and the situation is getting even worse.”

Both the former head of the Moroccan Cinema Center, Nour-Eddine Sail, and the new prexy, Sarim Fassi Fihri, believe that increasing the number of screens in Morocco is the main priority for national film policy.

“We have just over 70 screens in Morocco, but we need 300-400 screens,” suggests Sail. “We need subsidies from the CCM and a state guarantee to match private investment, in order to stimulate the building of new sites.”

“It’s not just a question of piracy,” he suggests. “In France you have around 500,000 illegal film downloads every day but they still have a substantial box office.”

Morocco has many cities with a population of more than 500,000, such as Kenitra, Meknes and Fez that have no multiplexes at present. This is one of the main potential growth areas.

“The geography of the population has changed a lot over recent years,” notes Fassi Fihri. “There has been migration away from the city centers in places like Rabat and Casablanca. But new shopping malls are being built and they need multiplexes.”

Fassi Fihri believes that it will be possible to persuade the Moroccan government to channel funds toward the exhibition sector in the form of subsidies and investment guarantees. “Getting the money is a question of negotiation,” he suggests. “Cinema in Morocco has a 25- -year-old, and most politicians understand its importance.”

In addition to multiplexes, Fassi Fihri believes that another viable model is partnerships between local councils and private investors, in which councils purchase screens that are then refurbished and managed by private entities. He cites France as a prime example, and in November had an interview with the CNC in France to understand how their model works.

“In Tangier, the city council purchased two theaters – the Goya – one of the most beautiful screens in Morocco, and the Alcazar. These will then be refurbished and their programming strategy defined. I’m convinced that such initiatives can be extremely important in Morocco.”

Finally, Fassi Fihri also organized meetings at the Marrakech Film Festivals, with groups interested in investing in exhibition.

“We have strong policies for the production sector,” he concludes. “We also need to reinforce our policy for exhibition. I’m convinced that, if we can create screens in smaller cities and new urban areas, the audience will come.”