They believe that, more than anything else, films made from the 1930s onward have contributed to spreading their country’s culture and its famous Arabic dialect across the region.
Still, it may not have the effect of Hollywood or Bollywood – the ever-growing Indian cinema industry. And its production capacity has gone down from an annual average of 80 movies in the 1980s to less than 20 a year.
But as movie critic Isam Zakaria points out, “Egyptian films have been an effective tool to promote our culture across the region.”
Although attempts to produce lengthy movies go back to 1920, the first silent movie, Layla, was produced in 1927.
Five years later, Awlad al-Zawat, or High-Class Society, came out as the country’s first talking film starring theatre moguls Yusuf Wahbi and Amina Rizk.
“Egyptian films have been an effective tool to promote our culture across the region”
Wahbi, dubbed Egypt’s Sir Lawrence Olivier, was one of several leading theatre actors who enriched the cinematic industry in its early years before the emergence of a new bright generation in the 1950s with names like Umar Sharif, Suad Husni and comedy giant Ismail Yasin.
Along with local stars, Egyptian cinema featured Pan-Arab figures who helped the industry to prosper.
The long list of names include Syrian idol Farid al-Atrash, Lebanese comedian Abd al-Salam al-Nabulsi and his compatriot Asia whose production house made box office hits like Rudd Qalby (Return My Heart).
However, after a recent move by a Saudi billionaire to buy the country’s cinematic heritage to air it on a new satellite movie channel, some Egyptians now fear that the day will come when ordinary citizens will not be able to watch classical movies and all-time favourite stars .
In March, Rotana, a company owned by Prince al-Walid bin Talal bought 70% of Egypt’s Arab Company for Production and Distribution.
The Egyptian company, also known as Fonoun, owned negatives of about 800 classic movies dating back to as early as 1935.
Fonoun, whose shares were owned by several investors including local brokerage house EGF-Hermes, stirred a huge controversy four years ago when it bought the movies from the Culture Ministry.
The press attacked the acquisition at that time, saying that trusting the private sector with such material would jeopardise the Egyptian cinematic heritage should Fonoun decide to sell the movies to foreign investors.
Egyptian actor Umar Sharif
This time around, the controversy was by no means less. “This deal aims at emptying Egypt [of its] cultural content,” prominent screenplay writer Yusuf Maati told Aljazeera.net. “Heritage cannot be put up for sale just like that.”
Ahmad Yusuf, a leading movie critic, echoed similar sentiments. “You can’t sell cultural heritage to a foreigner,” he said. “It is hard to imagine that a foreigner controls nearly one-third of Egyptian cinematic history.”
Muhammad Arafa, an EFG-Hermes official said his company sealed the deal “because everybody else [in Fonoun] was selling”.
“We would have been kidding ourselves had we not sold our shares,” he said.
Financial details of the deal have been shrouded in secrecy.
However, an EFG Hermes statement said the company sold its shares for LE 15 million (about $2.3 million) thus enduring a loss of LE 41 million (about $6.4 million) as it had bought the movies in 2001 for LE 56 million.
The sale came within the company’s strategy “of focusing on investment banking activities and reducing its direct investment”, said the statement.
“Any country should have copies of its own cinematic heritage. You can’t just sell the only copies you own for these movies”
Repeated attempts by Aljazeera.net to reach officials at Rotana in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah were unsuccessful.
An official at the Cairo-branch of the company said Rotana bought the movies, in addition to some 180 new releases, with a view of launching a free-to-air satellite movie channel in the summer.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the company also plans to sell airing rights of these movies to other channels.
But Yusuf said such assurances by Rotana did not eliminate the source of concern.
“When talking about business, such comments cannot be trusted,” he told Aljazeera.net. “At the end of the day, the power of money will rule. What guarantees us that al-Walid won’t sell these movies to another businessman who will pay him more money?”
Fears of Monopoly
Part of Yusuf’s concerns stems from the absence of anti-monopoly laws in Egypt.
And although a draft anti-monopoly law is reportedly set to be passed by parliament, critics fear that it will not feature an article covering arts nor, if it does, will it be retroactive.
Another source of concern is Rotana bought the only copies available of these movies.
This, Yusus argues, could prevent ordinary Egyptians who cannot afford access to satellite channels – about 80% of the population – “from watching Ismail Yasin again should Rotana decide to limit the airing of such movies to its own channel”.
“Any country should have copies of its own cinematic heritage,” he blasted. “You can’t just sell the only copies you own for these movies.”
Prince Walid Bin Talal bought
Culture Ministry officials were not available for comment.
But the ministry’s position when it sold the copies to Fonoun four years ago was that it relieved the government from the expensive costs of maintaining and restoring the movies.
Zakaria also played down fears that Rotana is going to monopolise Egypt’s cinema industry.
“This kind of attitude from us can scare investors off,” he said.
Actor and film producer Sami al-Adl said Rotana will not be able to control the market.
“We won’t allow anybody, whether Prince al-Walid or anyone else, to monopolise the market,” he said.
“We know that he came into the market as a distributor of our movies and that we welcomed him because the Egyptian cinema has been depending on foreign distributors for a long time,” al-Adl told Aljazeera.net.
It is not the first time that Rotana made headlines in Egypt.
During the past year, the Saudi company was busy signing more than 180 of Egypt’s and the Arab world’s leading singers, much to the worry of small-scale Egyptian production companies who find it hard to compete with Prince al-Walid’s billions.
“We won’t allow anybody, whether Prince al-Walid or anyone else, to monopolise the market”
“You can only aim to be second-best when you compete with a company of this size,” said an official at Mazzika music channel, owned by Egyptian production company Alam al-Fann.
Alam al-Fann, owned by music producer Muhsin Jabir, was one of the companies affected by Rotana’s aggressive approach to the market.
Until last year, Jabir boasted of a star-collection exclusively signed by his company, including Egypt’s undisputed king of pop music, Amr Diab.
But Rotana’s strategy of hoarding singers, that included Diab and almost all other leading stars formerly with Alam al-Fann and other Egyptian companies, have forced local distributors to change their revenue stream strategies.
“With Rotana exclusively producing albums for those singers and airing their video clips on its all-music channel, we started to depend mainly on new talents,” Amr al-Faqy, spokesman for Melody Television, an all-music satellite channel, told Aljazeera.net.
The results of this strategy, according to al-Faqy, have been financially encouraging despite criticism that the so-called “new talents” are virtually unknown and are producing low-quality songs and video clips.
But even new talent members are eager to have a share of the rapidly growing Rotana pie.
Walid Zain, a Lebanese singer who will have one of his songs included in a Rotana album this summer, told Aljazeera.net he would not mind signing exclusively with the Saudi company in the future.
“I will be great to have a company like this take care of one’s marketing and business-related issues while you just focus mainly on the creative side of the deal.”