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Cairo President Mohamed Hefzy Drills Down on Festival Reboot

Prominent Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy in March was appointed president of the Cairo Film Festival by Egyptian Culture Minister Ines Abdel-Dayem with a mandate to revamp and relaunch the prominent Arab fest, which had been losing luster due to political turbulence. Hefzy, 43, is the youngest president in the event’s 40-edition history and the first chosen from within the country’s film industry ranks. He spoke to Variety about the challenges he’s faced in rebooting the oldest fest in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, strategically situated in the historic hub of the region’s film and TV industries.

What have you changed on the programming side?

The festival always struggled to get the best films…so we’ve had to think differently in terms of how we compete for them. It’s really about establishing a network of foreign correspondents and programmers and traveling to a lot of festivals and establishing relationships with sales agents and producers and filmmakers to try and get the films. But at the same time it’s been about changing around the sections and looking at how we can structure the program differently to attract a wider audience. We decided to scrap one of the main sections, which was the Festival of Festivals and slim down the number of films from about 200 to 150. And we now have more variety. We’ve introduced the midnight section for genre films; we introduced red carpet gala screenings every night to attract some major titles with talent involved and to try to compete for Middle East premieres…especially when it comes to the competition. I think this year we’ve managed to achieve that to a large extent, partly because there is no Dubai.

Yes, but there is the ambitious new El Gouna Film Festival, which launched recently on the banks of the Red Sea in a September slot.

One of our biggest challenges this year was competing with Gouna…and I think that Gouna had a really good lineup. We did lose films to Gouna, and they lost films to us…But at the end of the day the one advantage Cairo has is it comes at a later time, which I think makes it possible to attract some of the breakout films from Toronto, Venice, Telluride. Titles like “Roma,” “Manta Ray,” “Green Book,” “At Eternity’s Gate.” There are a bunch of awards contenders that are going to be playing in Cairo for their Middle East premieres. It’s a healthy competition and also a friendly cooperation. We really cooperate a lot in terms of exchange of information and also in terms of our teams, with some people who work with Cairo also working with Gouna and vice-versa. I think it’s a very healthy relationship.

The biggest novelty is probably your effort to launch a Cairo film market.

The Cairo Industry Days is a new section that is running parallel to the festival…and it’s actually quite similar to what the Dubai Film Market was except that it doesn’t have a physical market, where companies exhibit…. Part of it is the Cairo Film Connection, which is coming back with a really considerable prize wallet. It’s probably going to be like $120,000…The CFC is probably going to include about 120 guests, which is at least one-third of all the festival guests…A really big part of the festival’s budget is dedicated to making this component successful.

The market aspect is also key to making Cairo become more international again. How are going about doing that?

We have established partnerships with some international organizations such as Film Independent who are bringing several experts, high-profile writers, show-runners, producers, even marketing execs from some of the top U.S.-based companies. Companies like HBO and probably a small delegation from Netflix with some of the creators of shows like “Stranger Things.” A new aspect of the Cairo Industry Days is to start to get into the TV realm, which is a natural progression of industry-related activities that you see in a lot of festivals and was starting to emerge in Dubai.

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