CAIRO: “80% of Egyptian cinema’s heritage was sold in cold blood,” said Egyptian filmmaker and producer Hala Lotfy.
Most of the rights of Egyptian cinema heritage are currently owned by non-Egyptian sources, but filmmakers and producers in Egypt have been trying to sell their films to Egyptian State TV, however many say they face difficulties in doing so.
The Arabia Production Company sold the rights for 80% of then-existing Egyptian cinema to Waleed Bin Talal’s Rotana Company, based in Saudi Arabia, in 2000.
At the time, the studio said it planned to restore the films and preserve them, but many local filmmakers criticize the sale, saying that the films are wasting away in vaults with foreign owners.
Before Rotana purchased the rights of those films from Isaad Younis’ Arabiya, Sheikh Saleh Kamel’s ART owned some of the films’ rights as well. Younis’ Arabiya bought the rights initially from The Holding Company for Tourism and Cinema, which at the time was part of the ministry of Public Enterprise, now known as the ministry of Investment.
According to Lotfy, only a few film makers never agreed to sell their work, like Youssef Chahine, whose films are still owned by Misr International Films production company, the heirs of Farid Shawky , around 16 films, and all the films that were produced by filmmaker Raafat El Meihy.
Regaining lost rights
“Unfortunately Egyptian state TV is in debt to many producers, and their primary concern is to pay salaries,” said Egyptian Producer Mohamed Hefzy, adding that State TV has become a kind of social security for thousands, “who spend very few hours working in State TV and are all employed by private channels,” which is a burden on the budget of national television. After these responsibilities, they are unable to pay for rights.
“If we all managed to be able to put pressure through refusing to sell our films’ assets to channels and production companies, we can make a difference.” Lotfy stated, adding that filmmakers needed a platform to meet with figures of authority in media, “like the head of censorship bureau or minister of culture’s consultant, even if there are disagreements.”
Lotfy argued that the Nile Cinema Channel that specializes in films, that also claims to be the only middle eastern channel that does, should have the means to support Egyptian cinema. Instead of buying films from other channels like Rotana, he suggested they buy them from film producers at a “suitable price.”
“It might even be cheaper rate, so I do not understand why that does not happen” Lotfy said.
Egyptian cinema classics now screened on television are often edited for content, to especially to remove intimate or romantic scenes; for films that have never been digitized, Lotfy said he worried the originals of the films may be damaged.
“Do we have a guarantee that those scenes are not entirely, permanently cut out of the actual copies?” Lotfy asked.
Working with Egyptian State TV
“We have tried constantly to offer the films to Egyptian State TV, even with several installments not but what happened is that they never replied,” said producer and screenwriter Farouk Sabry, who is also the deputy president of the Cinema Industry Chamber.
“They just leave us [Egyptian satellite channels] hanging, and later we realize they buy rights of films from other indirect sources,” he added.
Hefzy said due to the “poor management” of state-owned television there are not many chances for private channels to enter the market.
“Unfortunately, the few channels that have tried to enter the market of buying and airing first run films have all failed due to the high cost of films, especially the star-driven films,” Hefzy said.
Independent cinema and lower-budget films are difficult to market to a television audience, he said, fuelling the demand for star-driven higher budget films to be able to market the program-lineup of a channel.
Lotfy said filmmakers have discussed issues including the need for Egyptian films to be categorized in terms of production; low budget films that are made almost independently with no well-known actors, “cannot possibly be treated financially like commercial high-budget films,” he said. Rights holders often will charge the same licensing fees for smaller productions as larger studio films to screen them on television.
Lotfy’s debut feature “Coming Forth By Day” has participated in numerous international film festivals and won several awards, yet it has only been screened commercially in special events like the Panorama of European Film in November 2013.
“It has not been sold yet to any channels. We decided to sell the rights to broadcast the film to channels, but will never sell the rights of the entire film to be used by a certain channel or production company,” Lotfy said, explaining that if the film’s entire rights were to be sold to a certain channel/company, she would no longer have control of the film in the future.
Hefzy believes there are two solutions for independent cinema; to either make films with stars that share in the profit of the film but not take a high fee, as in the U.S. system, or set up a co-production with a European country in order to penetrate European markets and offset some of the costs.
“Naturally, co-production is very difficult and a certain quality of script has to be achieved and few subjects/directors will be able to succeed in this route.” Hefzy added.
“There are various issues we face as part of Egyptian cinema crisis; this is part of it, in addition to things like how in order to make a film in the first place a lot of financial and bureaucratic obstacles are faced,” Sabry said adding if filmmakers and government authoritative figures cannot unite to find solutions there may be “disastrous consequences.”