This piece was published in Arabic in al Shorouk newspaper.
As the Egyptian Revolution rolls into the challenging months of reconstructing a society, everyone is working on their areas of expertise, trying to do their bit.
I’m currently in Palestine, preparing to shoot a short fiction film. But my thoughts are always on Egypt, and the work we can be doing to strengthen the film industry there. So I thought maybe it would be useful if I started writing some of them out.
I'm thinking about Egypt specifically, but the challenges that the mass culture that has dominated the last century poses to film-makers are the same across the world. Basically: how do you make new and relevant cinema when the means of production are tied up in a globalized industry that is almost entirely bent to Hollywood’s will?
I'm going to try and keep these blog posts short and focussed - it's a massive question.
Think of a film as having four phases: conception, production, distribution and consumption. They are all part of an interconnected cycle - you make better films, you sell more tickets, you spend more on the next one, your films get better, even more people buy tickets etc.
But we need to start somewhere, so let's start with consumption.
Assuming we're not going to break the global capitalist model this year, there are numbers to be crunched.
General wisdom among Hollywood studios is that an American film that gets a broad international release can expect 50% of its total gross to be earned domestically. The entire ‘Middle East’ usually pulls in 2%. For a region with 380 million people in it, that equates to a write-off. And that’s for a Hollywood film, with a distribution company with a significant marketing and advertising budget.
Official Egyptian numbers are hard to get hold of. There are around 200 cinemas in Egypt, domestic production hit 25 films last year. 103 foreign films were released, grossing a combined total of around $13m. For a country that likes to claim it has the third largest industry behind America and India (it isn't) these are pitiful figures. And that's before we look at the quality of the films.
In recent years, the Egyptian film industry has become little more than a production line of sentimental comedies and overwrought dramas. Symptomatic of Egypt's rapid embrace of neoliberal policies, production and distribution were controlled by a handful of major players who made a comfortable profit churning out crap. And though Egypt was apparently 'open for business' the administrative quagmire (closely linked to corruption) of doing anything in the country drove away foreign productions (only 36% of films with scenes set in Egypt actually shot them there). The result is a film industry that wholly embraced the idiocy of mass entertainment, while driving away it's two traditional temptations: technical skills and employment. A piece of mass entertainment stripped of even any technical value really is a sorry product. When Hollywood is selling you crap, they at least pay for it to look good. Not so in Egypt.
And so to rebuilding. We need to rebuild the infrastructure of exhibition and consumption. We need more cinemas, we need cheaper tickets, we need some independent cinemas. There are clear ways in which businesspeople and artists can work together on this. But the government also has a key part to play (as long as we're on course for a glorious new one).
The French film industry is probably the strongest in the world. There are several reasons, but a key one is government protectionism and redistribution of a percentage of ticket sales to production. The government regulates what percentage of screens have to be reserved for French films. It also doesn't allow for any films to be advertized on television - which levels the playing field tremendously. The result – 31 of the top grossing films in France of 2010 were French productions and brought in over $300m to the national economy.
The UK has no such regulation and in 2010 only six fully domestic productions squeezed in to the year’s top 100, grossing a miserable $38m from a total public outlay of $1.68b on cinema tickets. A truly lousy situation for British film.
So the good news, for Egypt, for the Arab world, is that Hollywood just isn't interested in us. At 2% of potential gross we are not worth the hassle and distribution of most major American films is run through one Lebanese company. So, unlike in so many other spheres of economic life in Egypt, we are relatively autonomous when it comes to cinema. As a start point, this is a great advantage.
There are various things we can be doing, but let's start with the government.
Regulation and redistribution are one aspect of what's needed to give the industry the window it needs to start producing relevant, accomplished and technically sophisticated films. It was starting before the revolution, with a new independent film scene on the rise. If it was decreed that 50% of films shown must to be Egyptian productions, and 10% of those films must be independent, that would be a good start. And if 10% of the ticket price was recycled back into the national infrastructure, then you could start rehabilitating the rotting national archive, rejuvenating the cinema school, setting up a film commission, getting people trained with the necessary technical skills.
Similarly, we should consider how advertising can be controlled. A tiered structure, with foreign films with large budgets either paying more of having their airtime limited should be considered.
And so with a few very simple pieces of regulation the government can take concrete steps to ensuring there is a protected space in which a new industry can be built. A new industry that not only makes films that sell well, but is given the time and space to develop the confidence to produce films that are really Egyptian, films that find new forms and speak to a national aesthetic.
Japan, for example, doesn’t have such government regulation, but still produces and consumes a lot of it’s own cinema. 55 of 2010’s top films in Japan were Japanese, contributing over $1.1b to the economy. While the American share of the market is still enormous, the rise of anime has been at the forefront of a cinematic resurgence that is is new and exciting and attuned to cultural aesthetics and, therefore, finds strong domestic audiences.
A healthy film industry obviously doesn't hinge entirely on government regulation. But, as we push forward into our new future, regulation is necessary. The artistic and the economic challenges go hand in hand, and if we're to stand a chance of developing cinematic forms that are truly the product of the aesthetics, forms and philosophies of the country then we need to take on both at the same time.
Otherwise this will continue to be the best thing on television: