CAIRO, April 22 -- Hollywood on the Nile, which produced up to 100 feature films a year in its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, appears to be in a nosedive. As late as 1993, the Arab world's pioneering film industry in Cairo turned out 76 features -- putting Egypt among the world's top 10 producers. But the production figure dropped to only 22 in 1994, the Film Producers' Association says, and prospects look equally dismal for 1995, the 100th anniversary of the start of the Egyptian film industry. Heavy taxes, censorship, satellite dishes and video piracy are cited as the major causes of the decline, including a large problem with video piracy in the United States. Producer Youssef Francis claims the Egyptian government levies no less than 36 fees and taxes on filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors, and says many producers are simply throwing in the towel. 'The government has got to get off our backs,' Francis says. 'It is driving us out of business.' 'It would be unfortunate if in the same year we are celebrating 100 years of cinema, we should also be burying our own film industry,' says veteran Egyptian director Youssef Shahine. Taxes range from 35 percent on theater tickets for the Ministry of Finance down to such nuisance fees as 3 cents per ticket for the Ministry of Social Affairs and another 3 cents for the Police Benevolent Society. Sometimes capricious censors offer further discouragement. The state censor's office, which is attached to the Ministry of Culture, has set up a three-stage obstacle course for movies seeking approval -- with yet more taxes and fees along the way.
First, a film's story synopsis must be approved. After that, the censor scrutinizes the finished script. Finally, the completed film goes back to the censor for release approval. Where dialogue or scenes have been altered from the original script -- not an unusual occurrence in the film production process -- the producer runs the risk of seeing his investment go down the drain if the finished product is ultimately banned. Heavy scissor work is sometimes required to secure a film's release. 'The censor may make many cuts which can completely distort the film,' says leading Cairo film critic Mustafa Darwish. Producers also complain that the Ministry of Tourism charges $75 an hour to use such sites as the Great Pyramids of Giza or Pharaonic temples as film backdrops -- even though their presence in a film might encourage tourism. Egypt's state-run television network pays producers only $2,500 to air previously released feature films in their entirety, but at the same time charges up to $1,000 a minute to advertise new films. (more)
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Widespread video piracy is a major problem, industry sources say. Paradoxically, the United States is cited by the producers' association as a major culprit despite Washington's recent war of words with Beijing over Chinese thefts of U.S. films and other intellectual property. Industry reports say U.S. piracy of Arabic-language films centers on major cities like New York and Los Angeles, which are home to large Arab immigrant communities. Francis, the producer, says he found all eight of the films he had produced for sale or rent in Arabic-language video outlets in Los Angeles during a recent trip to the United States. 'They were all stolen and I'm not getting a dime in royalty,' he complains. Producers charge the U.S. government with failing to help combat the problem. 'The United States is keen to protect its own interests, but nobody else seems to count with the Americans,' says producer Yussri Ashamwi of Karnak International Film. Egypt started producing silent features as early as 1923. Its first large production facility, Studio Misr, was founded in 1935 on the Hollywood model and three more studios followed. All are still operating, but these days directors are more apt to be yelling 'action' on TV soap operas than feature films. Television is also driving nails into the Egyptian film industry's coffin -- especially satellite stations watched by increasing numbers of Egyptians and other Arabs. Uncensored foreign movies and other entertainment from satellite sources keep many traditional filmgoers at home. Film critics point out, however, that at least some of the blame for the Egyptian cinema's decline rests with the producers themselves. 'You won't fill the cinemas if you just feed the public trash,' says the critic Darwish, adding that many recent films are pot-boilers or heavy-handed slapstick comedies mixed with belly-dancing and mildly suggestive songs. Many have flopped at the box office. Critics maintain there is a largely untapped market for thoughtful Arabic-language films, a theory proven by the two biggest financial successes in Egypt in 1994. Both were essentially serious films -- 'The Terrorist,' starring actor Adel Imam, the Arab world's leading box office draw, and Youssef Shahine's 'The Emigrant.' 'The Terrorist' was the first Egyptian film to address the issue of religious extremism. It ran for over four months in major Egyptian cinemas and reportedly did spectacular business in other Arab countries.