Egyptian Drama Suffers From a Shrinking Creative Space and Freedoms

12 December 2023

Monopoly And Security Control Sucks Oxygen Out of Film And Sitcoms Production Once Famous Across the Arab World.
The narrowing of creative space and freedom through “monopoly and security control”

The narrowing of creative space and freedom through “monopoly and security control”

Cinema and drama industry in Egypt

By Mohamed Helal

The Lumiere brothers, when they invented the cinema projector in 1895, could not have guessed that their creation would spawn an industry that today is worth over a hundred billion US dollars a year. And they could not have imagined that when they presented the first ever cinema show in the Arab region and Africa – at “The Café Zawani” in Alexandria in November 1896, less than a year after the first film screening in Paris – that this new industry would take root in Egypt, and that it would play a prominent role in its modern history, as one of the most significant forms of its soft power.

The Egyptian actor, the late Nour El-Sherif quoted an example of this soft power from a visit to Morocco made by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. A Moroccan called out saying: “President Nasser, say hello to Ismail Yassine!” (a famous Egyptian comedy film star). The message got through to Abdel Nasser,” Nour El-Sherif added “and he realised that, despite his position, he was regarded by the Moroccan citizen, as merely the postman for Ismail Yassine.” When Nasser got back to Egypt, he set up the programme “City Lights” and ordered film stars to accompany singers when they made trips to other Arab countries, so as to introduce them to Egyptian art. Nour El-Sherif believes that a large part of the legend of Gamal Abdel Nasser rests on the fact that he realised the “role of art” in creating the image, the power and the glory of Egypt.

The first cinema opened in Egypt in 1897. In 1926, which saw the end of the silent films era, there were 86 cinemas in Egypt, and by 1958 their number had increased to 359. But in 1995 that number had fallen to 141, while in 2020, the total number of public and private cinemas numbered only 53, according to the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

Egypt produced its first films in 1907, and made its first television broadcast in 1960. Half a century on from the first TV programme and a full century after the establishment of its film industry, Egypt produces on average 50 drama series and 36 full-length feature films a year. Hollywood makes over 700 films annually, while Turkish cinema crossed the 100 film a year mark nine years ago. Iran also makes over a hundred films a year.

The number of full-length feature films produced in Egypt and shown in cinemas has been falling since 2008, when 48 films were made. In 2011, the total was 30, increasing to 44 in 2017, only to decline again to 26 and 28 during the two years of the pandemic.

Film and TV director Mohamed Ali believes that the average of 36 films is much lower a total than filmmakers could produce: “In the past, we made over a hundred films or even 150. There is plenty of capacity left in Egypt, but we need a clear system of production in which to work.”

“When it first began, cinema relied on individual producers. But the emergence of large companies, particularly in the early 2000s, eliminated many small producers because they were unable to spend as much as these companies could.” Ali adds. He describes the current situation as similar to the nationalization of the industry.

Art critic Amir Emary believes that Egypt could produce a hundred films annually across all genres, if the state were to support production without interfering in the choice of the subject matter, or imposing its own vision – which tends to favour propaganda, rejects freedom of expression, and imposes a strict religious, political and moral censorship on chosen subjects.

But producer Mohamed Hefzy, founder of Film Clinic, believes that 35 or 40 films a year is not a bad number and that what is more important is the production quality. Hefzy expects that more films will be produced with the boom in the number of cinemas introduced in Saudi Arabia, which has become one of the most important market for Egyptian films.

In terms of drama, Egypt produces an average of 50 TV series annually. There was a boom in 2009 when 72 TV series were produced, but this fell back to 34 in 2011. The number of series produced then fluctuated before stabilising at below 60 for the last three years.

Based on data for the period 2011-2022, cinema revenue from Egyptian films averaged an equivalent of 22.5 million US dollars. The lowest figure was US$7.2 million for 2020, while 2019 recorded the highest level of revenue at US$37.7 million.

Globally, the box office is one of the most important indicators of the state of the film industry, but the situation in Egypt differs from many other countries. The average price of a cinema ticket in the US is $10.5, less than the minimum hourly wage in New York state. In Egypt, the average price of a ticket is 100 Egyptian pounds ($3.25), equivalent to the minimum daily wage in Egypt.

Producer Mohamed Hefzy points to several factors behind the decline in box office receipts. These include the weak purchasing power of the average Egyptian as a result of the current economic circumstances, and the poor production quality of many of the films in the market. Filmmaker Basel Ramsis also points to the drop in the number of cinemas, and the fact that they are now mostly sited in shopping malls, and housing compounds, rather than in local neighbourhoods where the middle class and less well to do people live.

“The Egyptian cinema used to depend on the middle and poorer classes. But now, going to the cinema is no longer a traditional outing for Egyptians because of the high cost to families,” says Ramsis. 

Film makers and artists

The data shows that almost 300 companies have been active in cinema production between 2008 and today, 218 of whom have produced or have had a share in producing one film over this period. Thirty-nine companies have produced only two films, while the El Sobky family alone has produced over 90 films and Synergy, which entered the film production market in 2018, has made 20 films.

According to producer Mohamed Hefzy, the reason why three quarters of companies stopped producing films after making just one, is because most of them found their initial experience was not easy, and that it did not bring them the expected return.

Filmmaker Basel Ramsis sees several factors at play, including the difficulties inherent in production and finding the necessary finance; and the mental and physical stress of making your first film. But for him the most important is the absence of proper legal regulatory framework overseeing the industry. “The Censorship Authority for Artistic Works has so far issued no clear decision on whether to ban the screening of director Tamer El Said’s film “The Last Days of the City”. All discussions and dialogue have been verbal with the head of censorship, through personal interviews or intermediaries between the Censorship Authority and the film makers,” he says.

“This is not a state that is run in adherence to the laws, but a state controlled by the security services none of which clearly admit to Egyptians that they are in control and what is the basis of their control,” Ramsis adds. 

Ramsis had an unsuccessful experience in trying to show his film “Sokkar Barra” in Egypt. “After what I went through then, I have no intention to repeat the experience in Egypt,” he says.

In the sphere of TV drama, data shows that over 210 companies produced or had a hand in producing dramas between 2008 and 2023, 122 of which made only one series. Twenty-nine stopped after making two series, while one company, Synergy, made more than 110 TV series. 

Art critic Hossam Fahmy thinks the reason half of the companies stopped making TV dramas after producing their first one is because they had unrealistic perceptions of the production process, and that many tried to enter the artistic field via the production sector, but without having sufficient industry experience. Then, after suffering heavy losses, they didn’t try again.

Synergy, currently owned by United Media Services(UMS), began TV production in 2009, making or participating in making one or two series a year.  The company experienced its first boom in production in 2016 – the year Synergy joined the Egyptian Media Group, then owned by Eagle Capital (a private equity fund owned by a sovereign entity) – producing seven series. The company’s second boom was in 2019, when it produced 17 series, and in 2020, when it made 25.

Data also shows that the number of series produced between 2016 and 2023 by government companies – Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC), the various sectors of Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), and the audiovisual company Sono Cairo – dropped to five.

From 2008 to 2015, government companies produced 130 series, with a market share of one-third of production in that period. But between 2016 and 2023, Synergy has produced about 100 series, accounting for a quarter of market share. What distinguished government companies during the period they dominated the film production market was that, most of the time, they cooperated with private sector companies in joint productions. But Synergy, which now enjoys a dominant position in the television production market, is distinguished by producing most of its work itself.

Filmmaker Basel Ramsis denies that there is any “monopoly”, in the conventional meaning of the term, over the cinema and drama industry in Egypt. A monopoly, by definition, requires the existence of an open, free, capitalist market, over which one or more companies exert control over the means of production, from raw materials to distribution, i.e. these companies control every stage of the production chain, which is not the case in Egypt. “There is no monopoly in Egypt, but there is a security state that controls all forms of expression from A to Z. This is a dictatorial practice to control any audio or visual product outside the context of the law.”

Art critic Hossam Fahmy thinks the reason why public sector companies stopped production, and the consequent boom in production by Synergy – which critics say is owned by a government sovereign entity – is due to the different attitude towards production within state institutions. Consequently, production has been made more available through United Media Services (UMS), the owner of Synergy, which resolved to take over the official system of production in Egypt, in cooperation with a group of producers and private production companies.

Filmmaker Basel Ramsis agrees and at the same time argues, that the profits made by public sector companies ultimately went to the national treasury. But Synergy, legally classified as a private company, operates with funds from a sovereign entity, i.e. “money that belongs to citizens”. And this money or the profit does not go back into the national budget, and is not subject to any form of financial oversight.

“In the early days there was a form of monopoly,” says Fahmy. “But it was noticeable that, during the latest Ramadan season, more series appeared from other production houses. This eased the pressure on Synergy, so that it was able to concentrate more on the type of work it wanted to do.” Fahmy argues that the work that Synergy produced in the years before its ramp up in production was of a higher artistic standard.

Director Mohamed Hefzy thinks the success of both the Sobky family and Synergy in cinema production boils down to the choices they made, and their special links and relationships with film stars, which meant they were able to acquire a significant proportion of the films in which those stars had the leading parts. This, their most important competitive advantage, along with their ability to financing, enabled them to acquire a large percentage of the film industry market.

But Hefzy does not think these companies should control cinemas, which are owned by various groups and companies. “In my opinion, the role of the state and state companies is to support the private sector, not become involved in production. Their role is providing a firm basis, financing and purchase of broadcasting rights, and not necessarily to become directly involved in production.”

The holding company United Media Services (UMS) – which grew out of the 2016 merger of the Egyptian Media Group and D-Media and which currently owns 40 companies, including Synergy and 17 TV channels, in addition to ten digital news platforms – announced in May 2021 that MediaHub Saadi-Gohar had joined UMS. The following year, MediaHub acquired nearly half of all TV advertising during the Ramadan season.

MediaHub was established in 1990 as an advertising company, and organized the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade celebration, which received both presidential and wider global attention. The company began in TV production in 2021, producing one series and two the following year. In 2023, it made five series for the Ramadan season. This shows that UMS intends to have several of its branches active in the production field and not be limited to Synergy as its sole player.

The technical and artistic aspect of Egyptian production

The crisis in the Egyptian film industry is not confined to low production numbers and the lack of government support for the private sector, but extends to the absence of many artistic genres. 

Analysis of the data shows that the comedy category is dominant, accounting for over 40% of production, with action films taking 25%. Other categories, such as horror films and music and review shows, are rare. The situation is no different in the drama sector, where social drama dominates with more than 40% of production, and crime and comedy each account for 25%.

Screenwriter Tamer Habib thinks that investment capital is risk averse and that this reliance on “templates” that will guarantee success means investors will opt for the same model repeatedly. Over and above this, production difficulties themselves limit the imagination of the artistic creator, who is forced into a narrow creative space. “We cannot afford to work on a series, for example, without quoting certain names or subjects. Also, the control by one group over production imposes certain conditions and obliges the use of particular artists’ names. This limits what was previously open competition,” Habib says.

But Habib also believes that there is the opportunity now to experiment with different artistic genres, thanks to the emergence of competing digital streaming platforms like Shahid and Netflix, and that this could allow artists to try out new genres like music, which has re-emerged lately.

Filmmaker Basel Ramsis, however, does not think these are the “themes” the public wants to see. Nor does he thinks Egypt is short of talent, but he believes that the problem is the all-pervasive security control. “The system is under the control of a group of people who have no connection to cinema or drama. So, any scriptwriter or director working in Egypt must defer to them. A few try to get around them, with varying degrees of success,” says Ramsis.

Art critic Hossam Fahmy points to the indirect role of the Censorship Authority for Artistic Works in promoting these guaranteed “themes” or subjects, since it is easier to submit a comedy or action film devoid of any social criticism or political topics, to ensure its approval. He also notes the changing nature of the cinema audience, which is limited to the upper middle classes, who want to go with family and friends to watch a family film, either a comedy or an action movie.

In recent years, Synergy has shown interests in producing drama output, in which many first-rank stars participate, e.g. The Choice 1, 2, and 3 and Battalion 101 (up to the publication date of this report).

These and other works, which reinforce the state’s national narrative of political events of the previous ten years, serve to reinforce a stereotyped image of the police hero. Intelligence dramas too, like Kalabsh and Counterattack, which in no way resemble similar works from the Mubarak era, that were nevertheless produced with dramatic craftsmanship, like the famous series Raafat Al-Hagan.

Fahmy believes that these works are designed to venerate the police and the army, but he contrasts the audience reaction to the first instalment of the series The Choice, in 2020, with that of Battalion 101. There were positive audience reactions to the former, but the Battalion 101 series was not widely watched. “When things go too far, they produce the opposite effect,” says Fahmy. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true.”

Basel Ramsis disagrees. He thinks the state realises that everyone watches TV rather than going to the cinema, and therefore has focused its effort on using TV drama to create political propaganda. This may not have an impact on some elites, but it certainly does in the Delta, Upper Egypt, and in the smaller cities, for whose residents the only entertainment is watching TV. “I have no problem with political propaganda films and series, but my problem is the extent to which what is presented is true and sincere,” says Ramsis.

Ramsis divides the history of Egyptian cinema and drama into seven periods, each of which has its own distinctive features, which reflect the impact of the general policies of the Egyptian state and the image it wants to create of itself in the mind of the viewer through film or drama.

The films of the 1930s and 1940s – to which the Italian expression “Telefoni Bianchi”, or “white telephones” is applicable – for the most part portrayed a single social class, that of the rich, with their elegance, glamor and luxurious palaces. Ramsis argues that a false image of royal Egypt was being promoted, while the majority of Egyptians went “barefoot” in the streets.

The second era was that of Nasserism, during which cinema formed an important part of the regime’s propaganda. Ramsis describes Nasser’s state as one that was conscious of the importance of propaganda and culture, especially for implementing its project to build a new state. Such an undertaking required not just propaganda, but a whole new cultural mission. Cinema witnessed progressive themes, such as the importance of women working and participating in society, the need for sacrifice, perseverance, education, and devotion to the homeland. 

“Abdel Nasser was authoritarian, but he was convinced that the state should be built on secure economic, social, cultural, intellectual and educational foundations.” Ramsis argues that this allowed a certain amount of space for criticism of authority and society, as seen in “The Iron Door”, The Second Wife”, and “The Sin”.  

Ramsis argues that during the third era, that of “Sadatism,” the regime had no concern for culture or its importance and role in society. Cinema was neglected by the state. Ramsis describes the elements of that time as transitional cinema, a cinema of color with commercial films that included nudity and which, while appearing open and liberal, presented a society that did not exist, which matched the Sadat regime’s drive for economic openness and the dismantling of the Nasserist project.

The fourth period extended throughout the first decade of President Mubarak’s rule – from the 1980s to the mid-90s – during which President Mubarak sought to present his rule as open and democratic, and to show that a new society was taking shape, with an emphasis on rejecting corruption and tyranny and promoting integrity. This was the golden era in the history of Egyptian cinema, according to Ramsis, and one that witnessed the emergence of a new generation of directors in Egypt – the so-called neo-realist generation – such as Daoud Abdel-Sayyid, Mohamed Khan, Khairy Bishara, Atef El Tayyeb and others who made serious works dealing with societal issues.

From the mid-nineties until the January 2011 revolution – the fifth period – Mubarak’s regime realized after the Second Gulf War that it was facing real strong opposition, and that the image it has been trying, or tried to project during the eighties was a false one that people did not believe in. He therefore began to clamp down on the film industry, which focused afterward on producing “entertainment.”

Ramsis divides the period since the January revolution into two phases. The first, between January 25, 2011 and June 30, 2013, was not marked by any single presentable message, he believes. This was because the many forces within society were in conflict and because cinema requires both “institutionalization,” time and money. This period did not see, therefore, any artistic boom in response to the “political earthquake” taking place, while other arts such as poetry and graffiti were affected by it too.

During the second phase, post-2013, there has been total control of the film and drama industry, something that was not seen even during the days of nationalization in the 1960s. Works produced have been dominated by several themes, including that of the devoted and chivalrous officer who rescues people, set against the image of the thug. The poorer classes are meanwhile stigmatized as themselves thugs, set against the model of life on a compound in an Egypt of tourists, where a mere one percent of the population could afford to live.

Dramas present several messages, including that the poorer strata of society are a gang of thugs and a menace to society, and that we need the protection and safety provided by the gallant officer through his sacrifices. The often-repeated key message is: “Beware of revolution, beware of saying no to authority, and beware of rebellion,” according to Ramsis.

Ramsis believes that these messages, designed to deter people from any political action like that of 2011, stem from the fact that the current regime has no real social base like the one that underpinned the Nasserist regime. It therefore exercises greater control over audio-visual content by monopolizing the industry.

Art critic Amir Emary points to the impact of a monopoly on the industry: “A monopoly is destructive to any industry, especially if the company concerned is an arm of the authorities, because the authorities will seek to impose specific genres – either mere consumerist commercial entertainment, that distances the public from any thinking or criticism, or propaganda and promoting their own power.”  Emary argues that this is a situation Egypt has not known since the advent of cinema, even during the harshest periods of Nasserist control, and the nationalization of cinema and the public sector.

Emary summarizes the crisis in the film and drama industry in Egypt thus: “Creativity of any kind, cinema, theatre or whatever, needs a climate of freedom. Without freedom of expression, there can be no creativity.”