Over the past 10 years, cinema has occupied center stage in Moroccan culture, both as a result of major international events, such as the Marrakech International Film Festival, and also the local popularity of Moroccan films, which over recent years have consistently occupied at least half of the top 10 films at the domestic box office. But this success hasn’t occurred in a void.
With significant patronage from King Mohammed VI, who ascended to the throne in 1999, and is known to be a film-lover, public resources allocated to film production have increased tenfold since 2001.
The country’s film institute, the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), has played a key role in orchestrating the national film policy.
Over the last 11 years this role was overseen by Nour-Eddine Sail, who previously served as the head of Canal Plus Horizon in France and of Moroccan public broadcaster 2M, and was viewed by many as a key architect of the new Moroccan cinema.
However, in early 2014 the government announced a competition to select a new president of the CCM. Some speculated that this was a result of divergences between the 66-year-old Sail and the Minister of Communication, while others considered that it was simply the result of the fact that Sail had attained retirement age.
Interviewed by Variety, Sail, who remains vice-president of the Marrakech film festival, emphasized that such renovation is perfectly normal. “I think it’s extremely healthy to change the management team after a period of 11 years, which is probably the maximum period one can expect in such a position. I think that we achieved some extremely important goals over these past years but I also believe that change is highly important.”
The new CCM prexy, 56-year-old Sarim Fassi Fihri, has a long track record as a film producer and has worked on an extensive number of important foreign and domestic productions, including Nabil Ayouch’s first film “Mektoub” and Alain Chabat’s “Asterix and Obelix – Mission Cleopatra.”
Since 2005, he has presided the Moroccan film producers association, AMPAC, and has also taught at Marrakech’s prestigious ESAV film school since 2009.
He has had a major role in terms of discussing national film policy, and in 2007 and 2012 organized the industry meetings, Assises Nationales du Cinéma.
On the occasion of the Marrakech film festival Fassi Fihri provided an exclusive interview to Variety outlining his strategy.
He began by emphasizing the important legacy handed to him by his predecessor, Nour-Eddine Sail.
“It’s an extraordinary achievement to be producing 20-25 feature films per year, which is comparable to the production level in many smaller European countries and which makes Morocco one of the main film-producing countries in Africa and the Arab world.”
Fassi Fihri is keen to emphasize the high level tremendous diversity of Moroccan films which also demonstrates the high level of freedom of expression.
“People have to make an investment when they watch a film. It’s not like television programs that are broadcast into our homes at a low marginal cost. Moroccan cinema is viewed extensively by the Moroccan people — at the box office, on TV, via DVD and also of course even via piracy, including illegal DVDs and Internet downloads, which we aim to crack down on. But the popularity of our cinema is undeniable.”
One of Fassi Fihri’s immediate goals is to complement the strong policy for production with a reinforced policy for exhibition, which was also one of the main objectives of his predecessor, Nour-Eddine Sail.
“The geography of the Moroccan population has changed a lot over recent years,” he suggests. “In many cities people no longer live in the city center — such as cities like Rabat and Casablanca. The old cinemas in these zones are closing. New shopping centers are being built in new urban developments and they need cinema multiplexes to go alongside the shops and restaurants. If we can create screens in smaller cities there is an audience there, which at present simply isn’t served.”
The erosion of the number of screens in Morocco has been dramatic over recent years and will require significant public investment in order to reverse the slide. However Fassi Fihri believes that with the new set of laws that were enacted in 2012, there is a basis for persuading the government to step up its investment in this field.
“Cinema in Morocco has a 25-year-old tradition and most politicians understand its importance,” he suggests.
Alongside his objective to access greater public funding for the exhibition sector, the new CCM prexy also believes that it’s important to improve production. This goal was already identified in the 2012 Assises Nationales du Cinéma, inclusively in a Royal Letter sent by the King in which he stated the need to pass from quantity to quality.
“We must find a solution to increase the quality of our films, some are excellent but others are weak,” suggests Fassi Fihri.
“We’re now attending over 80 festivals in all parts of the world, but we’re not yet in Official selection at Cannes, Berlin or Venice. Perhaps at most our films play in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes.”
He cites the example of Romanian cinema, which has a similar sized economy, but the Romanian film “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” won the Palme d’Or in 2007.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the pic’s director is also attending this year’s Marrakech film festival as jury member.
Fassi Fihri believes that the CCM’s selection committees should pay greater attention to scripts, the experience of the director, and evaluate budgets in greater depth.
He also aims to step up script development where he will launch script workshops.
He also aims to help producers seek co-producers abroad, rather than rushing straight into production as soon as they have received a funding grant from the CCM.
“I’m going to create a department to help funded productions establish co-productions and access other funds,” he explains. “There are 15-20 funds to which we can apply, such as Cinemas du Monde, the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and the Swiss fund Visions Sud Est.”
His main objective is to foster greater circulation of Moroccan films abroad. He recognizes that getting films screened theatrically is extremely difficult but believes that there are ways of increasing sales of Moroccan films to TV channels in the Arab world, Africa and Europe, which will create new opportunities. He believes that penetrating the Egyptian market is particularly important.
“At the CCM I will create a department that can work a bit like Unifrance. The State can help Moroccan producers circulate their films more effectively, including the creation of market connections.”
Fassi Fihri also believes that it is also necessary to increase the level of funding support for certain projects, given that by the law the CCM can give up to 10 million Moroccan dirhams ($1.1 million) per film but in practice normally give less than half that amount.
He also aims to reward producers who have taken an investment risk, whereas at present, he considers that films that have already started production tend to be penalized.
He cites the example of one of Morocco’s most popular recent films, “Road to Kabul”, which had a budget of $700,000 and the producer took all the risk but only received a $110,000 grant.
The other area where Fassi Fihri believes that there’s room for a major increase in investment is international productions in Morocco, that registered an exceptional year in 2014, with total spend of around $120 million
He believes that it’s possible to triple production expenditure in Morocco, pushing closer towards $300 million a year.
“We can do much more,” he states. “I often cite the example of French-speaking Belgium that has revolutionized its industry through the introduction of tax breaks. I would like to create tax incentives in Morocco. In 1997 I lobbied for the exemption on VAT for productions budgeted above 5 million DH ($570,000), which was passed, But since then nothing else has changed.”
He emphasizes how the tremendous level of international competition in terms of tax incentives has damaged certain fields of incoming investment into Morocco.
“Since France introduced its tax rebate scheme we’ve had virtually no French productions in Morocco,” he states.
“For large-scale productions I will try to get a tax benefit scheme introduced. I think it will take about 2-3 years.”
Moroccan directors interviewed by Variety, such as Nabil Ayouch and Nour-Eddine Lakhmari, expressed their satisfaction with the nomination of Fassi Fihri as CCM prexy.
Time will tell whether he can implement his ambitious agenda.