Egypt was the first Arab nation to pursue media production and has a rich history in the film business. Digital Studio looks at how the country is faring today in an increasingly competitive regional marketplace.
The first full-length movie produced in Egypt - according to some sources - was a silent film called Layla released in 1927. Since then, Egypt has enjoyed a long, practically unchallenged run as the centre of Middle East production.
Although rivals from North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf have emerged over the years, the country remains a consistent choice for shoots of all scales, and not all are there purely looking for the famous pyramid backdrop.
So what does the country have to offer beyond the dramatic archaeological locations?
"Heritage would come on top of our list," says Hani Osama, executive producer with production company, The Producers. "Egypt was the second country in the world to enter the movie industry. Our cinema history has developed many established schools that have left us with a lot of opportunities for learning."
Osama also points out that the pan-Arab nature of broadcasting in the region has helped protect the country's position in the industry even as its rivals have developed. The regional nature of satellite broadcasting has also ensured that the early gems of Egyptian production were treasured right across the Middle East.
"All the regional stars take it by tradition that their careers at one point or the other have to intersect with Egypt. As a result, our production crews are the most experienced in the region and not only that, we are the cheapest compared to the following two leading markets; Lebanon and Dubai," claims Osama.
This long heritage has also gifted the Egyptian industry with the infrastructure and technology that it needs in order to function well including the cinemas themselves for the public to view the fruits of the domestic industry.
According to Osama, the Egyptian production business has always embraced new technology, with the confidence that there would always be work available in the future to guarantee a return on investment.
"Egypt has often taken the lead in the region when acquiring equipment. There has also been a business mentality within the industry of calculated risk," says Osama. "So for example, if a specific film requires a specific piece of equipment, which is not already available, the makers of this film would take the decision to buy it themselves in the belief that the kit would always have a market after the initial project was finished."
Despite this, Osama recognises that the Egyptian market has come to the end of a growth period.
"We have seen the number of projects we work on rise to around 60 commercials a year, which is an exceptionally high rate in our industry. We are currently producing our first TV series and will begin our debut feature film by 2009," says Osama.
"However, as an industry, we are in a stagnant phase, which we are currently trying to overcome. The result of this period has been immense in some areas, specifically in education. For example, there are scholarships available in every field you can think of, but almost none for the entertainment industry. As a result, we lack schools for the basic technical skills, the exposure and the investment. "The production industry has survived since then, predominantly because it was relying too much on all the efforts and investments that were put in it at the time it started," he says.
Despite this, failing to continue to spend on the latest equipment would only leave the Egyptian production houses even further behind, according to him.
"Production technology has taken such a big leap in the past five years with many new technologies being introduced. The industry realises the importance of acquiring the latest technology in order to continue in the cinema market, following a very long period of stagnation," he says.
The Producers has backed up that claim by recently investing in two Red cameras that it intends to offer on a rental basis before the end of 2008.
Rob Bannochie, a director with A2Z Productions in Cairo, says that much of this technological investment is wasted if there is no crew trained to use it correctly.
"Film technology has developed but we are hindered by the lack of training. The ability for companies to sustain staff also complicates the process. Technicians dream of becoming a director without the proper grounding in their craft. The talent and the will to learn exists and the investment we need must be carefully considered. It is a business after all and you need to develop the way forward in the right areas."Bannochie recognises that the country benefits from its reputation and the infrastructure that is already in place as a result of this rich history.
However, there are other reasons, apart from this, that will spur future growth in his opinion.
"Egypt is a small market in comparison to Europe and the US and it is only recently with what is going on in the rest of the world, that a demand has been created for the product that this region can deliver to the international production market." (This is a reference to the recent swathe of big budget Hollywood movies filming in various stable parts of the region as substitutes for conflict zones.).
"There is great potential for growth," claims Bannochie adding that Egypt is a "fantastic place to produce" high-quality work domestically and with international partners.
"It is a market that needs to be understood by foreign and regional producers in order to get the best out of it. Choosing the right production partner is important - as with all businesses - you need to be on the same wavelength. We have crews who are able to work and work and work, and if managed correctly, they can produce magnificent footage," says Bannochie.
That is a claim backed up by other production houses working Egypt.
"The number one strength of Egypt's production industry is, without doubt, the talent," says Ahmed Abouzeid, director and partner at Cairo-based Collage Films. "It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that in the Middle East, only in Egypt can you find a full professional crew capable of shooting all kinds of projects, especially feature films. That means a production coming in from outside does not have to bring any of their own equipment or even any crew."
Although Abouzeid is satisfied with the available talent in Egypt, he says that maximising that potential can often be hindered by the bureaucracy and regulations that have been weaved over the long history of the industry.
"We have the talent, the equipment, the facilities and all the production entities necessary to support that system. That long history has also created a long set of working rules and untold regulations, which is not very helpful creative wise," says Abouzeid.
"You end up with a certain look and sense in all your films and it is very hard to break out of that. If you have a project that is a bit different, it can be hard to go through with it. This is not a matter of equipment or facilities, it is about finding someone with the courage to produce and finance the project."
Abouzeid says that investment is what the industry now needs to boost the volume of productions being made and with that the number alternative features that are produced.
"That would help a lot with the creative and artistic quality. Also, if you have the means to make a larger number of big budget productions, you can improve the technical quality and use more advanced equipment and of course, more expensive talent," says Abouzeid.
Despite any perceived downturn in Egyptian production, Collage Films and The Producers are both planning work on their full-length feature debuts next year. As destinations such as Jordan, Morocco and emerging rivals in the UAE take business away from Egypt, the overall growth in regional and international demand for Middle East production services means there is enough work for Egypt to continue to have a significant role.
If it is to reach the heights of its past glory, however, there are changes needed according to The Producers' Osama. "We need to improve our education, technology and investment, but more importantly, the makers need to recognise how important all of this is as a tool for Egypt to regain its former reputation."
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