After his first 12 months at the helm of the Moroccan Cinema Center (CCM), Sarim Fassi Fihri provided an exclusive interview to Variety in which he took stock of his achievements to date and outlined his plans for the coming months, including tax schemes designed to attract foreign productions.
57-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.”
From 2005 he presided the Moroccan film producers association, AMPAC, and had a major role in terms of discussing national film policy, including organization of the industry meetings, Assises Nationales du Cinéma, in 2007 and 2012.
During his first 12 months in the post, he has had to handle a series of complex situations, including negotiations with the government for new tax schemes aimed at boosting the domestic exhibition sector and attracting more foreign productions to Morocco.
He also had to negotiate the complex and delicate situation generated by the government ban on Nabil Ayouch’s prostitution drama, “Much Loved.”
His first observation when looking back at his first year in the job is the major difference between working in the public and private sector, especially in terms of the amount of time it takes to change procedures.
One of his first moves was to draw up a new organizational statute for the CCM, given that the existing statute was created 38 years ago and is no longer suited to a modern film institute. It took three months to prepare the first draft of the new law but since then very little has changed.
By contrast, he has been able to draft new legislation that will introduce tax breaks for small theaters and for foreign productions, which he hopes to be approved at any moment.
One of the main challenges facing Moroccan cinema is the shortage of screens – 31 theaters for a population of 30 million – and the continuing loss of spectators in the older picture palaces, which continue to serve as important venues for screening Moroccan films.
Fassi Fihri has been in negotiations with existing exhibition chain, Megarama, and other chains, such as Pathé, to set up more multiplexes in Morocco and has also lobbied for elimination of the 20% sales tax for all theaters with turnover under $300,000 per year.
Over the last two years, the two public television channels, SNRT and 2M have effectively ceased investing in Moroccan films, but Fassi Fihri states that a new agreement has been ready since July, which he hopes to sign during the Marrakech Film Festival. The agreement foresees support for around 12-15 films per year that have been greenlit by the CCM within the framework of an Advance on Receipts subsidy system.
Negotiations have also been underway with Dubai-based VOD platform Icflix, that has offices in Morocco and has begun co-producing and acquiring Moroccan films, which Fassi Fihri sees as a major new development: “Icflix have become very active since the start of 2015. They are very interested in Moroccan cinema and I encourage them. It’s an important platform to reach other countries in the North Africa and Middle East, and at home it can help combat piracy, since for around $5 a month, subscribers have access to premium content.”
In terms of the domestic subsidy support system, the CCM topper has also encouraged innovations, but admits that this also takes time.
One of his main goals is to ensure that subsidies granted to films that have already entered into production are comparable to those applying prior to production, via the Advance on Receipts subsidy system, but to date he hasn’t been successful.
For example, this year’s two biggest local hits – Abdellah Toukona Ferkous’ “Le Coq” (The Cock) and Said Naciri’s “Les Transporteurs” (The Transporters) – were both privately funded and only received a $130,000 subsidy compared to support of between $300,000 and $600,000 for other films.
Fassi Fihri has also campaigned for juries to vary the amount of the subsidy in function of the ambition of the film and in certain cases attribute the maximum amount permitted by law – $1 million – for example in the case of a major historical drama.
He believes that this is very important in order to raise production values and improve access to international festivals and markets.
“We must find a solution to increase the quality of our films, some are excellent but others are weak. 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,” he confides.
2015 has been relatively weak in terms of participation of Moroccan films in major international festivals. The main example, ironically, has been Nabil Ayouch’s banned pic, “Much Loved,” which screened at Cannes and Toronto.
Even at the Marrakech Film Festival – where six Moroccan films screened in 2014 – there are only three Moroccan films at this year’s fest.
Fassi Fihri considers that this is purely the result of the timing of productions, since many of the country’s best-known auteurs have their shoots scheduled for early 2016.
He believes that by late 2016 and above all in 2017 Moroccan cinema will achieve a much stronger international presence.
The final element in Fassi Fihri’s strategic plan for the sector is to introduce a tax break system for foreign productions, that has been drafted and was discussed in the Moroccan parliament in the week leading up to Marrakech.
He believes that it’s possible to triple production expenditure in Morocco, but believes that it’s essential to be competitive in terms of tax breaks, given that the introduction of schemes in countries such as France and Belgium decimated the number of shoots from these countries in Morocco.
The first step to achieving this goal has been to introduce a more reliable control of production expenditure in Morocco, based on controlling bank accounts associated to each shoot.
The draft legislation currently being discussed in parliament is based on a cash back scheme similar to the 15% cash rebate scheme in force in South Africa.
If approved the Moroccan scheme will offer a 20% cash rebate on all eligible expenses in Morocco, provided that there is at least a $1 million spend in Morocco and at least three weeks work – including set-building and/or shooting.
Confirmation of the new scheme is pending.
Looking ahead, Fassi Fihri is confident that 2016 will deliver stronger results in terms of cinema admissions and domestic and foreign productions and he forecasts that by late 2016 there will be a strong crop of Moroccan films for the international festival circuit.