MARRAKECH — One key challenge facing Moroccan cinema is screen shortage  – 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 Moroccan films.

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 situation will be partially relieved in 2016 with the opening of two new multiplexes by Megarama, which were initially scheduled for 2014, but have been successively postponed due to planning permission issues for the host shopping malls.

In Feb. 2016 Megarama hopes to open an 11-screen complex, with 1,400 seats, in Rabat – Morocco’s capital – followed by an eight-screen venue, with 1,000 seats, in the international port city of Tangiers.

This may seem like a small development, but a further 19 screens to Morocco’s screen park is expected to provide a major boost to domestic admissions, potentially increasing total box office by an astonishing 70%.

Megarama’s CEO, Jean-Pierre Lemoine, forecasts 300,000 admissions in Tangier and 400,000 admissions in Rabat, but believes that the market continues to be extremely fragile, due to the 20% sales tax on cinema tickets and rampant Internet piracy.

Prior to mass penetration of television in Moroccan households, cinema-going was a national pastime in the kingdom, with over 48 million admissions in 1980. By 1989 this figure had dropped to 31 million, then 12.5 million in 1999, and in 2015 will be little over 1 million, a 30% drop in comparison with 2014.

Cinema-going is now restricted to a tiny elite, given that over 99% of the population never go to the cinema.

Even with the launch of two new multiplexes the clientele in these sites will be primarily upper middle class Moroccans watching American films, given that the majority of the population are either unable, or unwilling, to pay $5 to watch a movie.

Moroccan films perform well at the local box office, consistently recording five out of the Top Ten films each year, but they are critically dependent on the surviving local cinemas, many of which are crumbling picture palaces, and which have lower average ticket prices – around $3.30.

The shortage of screens in Morocco and the fragile state of many of the cinemas is a major problem in terms of access for Moroccans to cinemas and also in terms of the capacity to generate significant box-office revenues in the kingdom.

The best-selling film in 2015 was “Mission Impossible 6: Rogue Nation” with box-office of $0.47 million and 92,786 admissions.

Only 15 films in the year generated more than $100,000 at the box office.

CCM prexy, Sarim Fassi Fihri has been in negotiations with other exhibition chains, including Pathé, to set up more multiplexes in Morocco, but progress is slow.

He has also lobbied for elimination of the 20% sales tax for all theaters with turnover under $300,000 per year.

In 2015 the number of theaters remained unchanged but many of the country’s former picture palaces – many with impressive art deco architecture – have closed over the last five years and in some cases are left to rot, since it can take 10-15 years before planning permission is approved for destruction or reconversion.

French photographer Stéphan Zaubitzer, took photos of these crumbling palaces, which he displayed in the exhibition, CinéMaroc, in Paris, in early 2015.

The association “Save Cinema in Morocco” is also attempting to preserve over 120 theaters that have closed in Morocco over recent years.

Producers and directors emphasize that a national policy is required to introduce further measures to secure existing screens and open new venues.

Fassi Fihri considers that this is a key priority for public film policy and hopes that 2016, with the opening of two new multiplexes and new measures to protect local theaters will mark a U-turn in the previous trend of a consistent year-on-year decline in admissions.

Jean-Pierre Lemoine sums up: “We must wait and see.”