Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1406, (16 - 29 August 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1406, (16 - 29 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

New life for Cairo’s cinemas

Plans are afoot to renovate Cairo’s historic downtown cinemas after years of neglect, writes Rashda Ragab

Cinema Cairo

One of my most memorable visits to Cairo’s downtown cinemas was in 1994 when I attended a showing of La Reine Margot, a French film featured in that year’s Cairo International Film Festival. 

Hundreds of people were standing in front of various downtown cinemas holding the festival programme and trying to make up their minds which films they were going to choose. The festival, headed by the late great writer Saadeddin Wahba, attracted thousands of people, but in its daily press releases it still classified films as “story or scenes” (qissa wala manazer), in other words, either a good story or some nude scenes. 

A few years later, with the introduction of new digital equipment, more comfortable chairs and good air-conditioning, mall cinemas started to attract larger audiences. Shopping and restaurants gave other reasons for some social categories to prefer the new mall cinemas to the older ones downtown. When the 25 January Revolution took over Tahrir Square in 2011, some downtown cinemas were closed, and others lost their audiences due to the political instability. 

Today, of the 15 functioning downtown cinemas eight are state property, including the Lido, Qasr Al-Nil, Diana, Pigalle, Cairo, Renaissance, Metro and Miami cinemas. The last three are rented from the state by private companies. The other six cinemas in the downtown area — the Odeon, Radio, Ritz, Kosmos, Rivoli and Ramsis Hilton — are private property, while the Karim cinema belongs to the Cinema Syndicate and is rented by the New Century Production Company. 

Some days ago, a fire destroyed the renovation work being carried out at the Rivoli cinema downtown. The cinema belongs to Saudi investor Talal bin Abdel-Aziz and was once one of the most important historic cinemas in the downtown area. “We planned to introduce children’s films and plays,” commented famous actor Ahmed Maher who supervised the renovation work.

The Radio cinema building, bought some years ago by Al- Ismaelia Real Estate Investment Company for LE23.5 million, is now occupied by a company and The Radio Stage has been used by a television production company to make the well-known programme “Abla Fahita”. The Miami cinema, which has an auditorium that can seat 1,600, has not been successful in attracting wider audiences. 

The Diana and Cairo cinemas located in the Al-Alfi district are in a very poor condition and look like abandoned buildings. However, both still show films. A dispute over a contract for developing the Diana, Cairo and Pigalle cinemas stopped the renovation work undertaken by the New Century Production Company.

“The development of the downtown cinemas needs large investment over the long term. Renovation work costs between LE2 and LE10 million, a huge sum that cannot be recouped by an investor on the basis of a one- or two-year contract to use the facility. The state thus has to play a role in encouraging cultural investment,” said Emad Al-Sayed, deputy manager of the New Century Company.

Cinema Revoli

NEW PLANS AFOOT: In order to tackle such problems a new company affiliated to the Holding Company for Cultural and Cinema Investment will be given the responsibility of running the state-owned downtown cinemas under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. It will replace the existing Misr Company for Cinema, Sound and Light.

“The new company will take over the state-owned cinemas, and it will invest in them in order to turn them into profit-making facilities that also encourage culture. Some 24 cinemas, many of them in the downtown area, will be run by the new company. Some need renovation, others will be divided into many auditoriums, and as a result new centres for culture will take the place of the deteriorating old cinemas,” commented Khaled Abdel-Gelil, the cinema advisor to the ministry of culture.

Historic cinemas such as the Diana will be renovated to turn them into attractive film venues, Abdel-Gelil said. Built in the 1930s, the Diana is one of the oldest downtown cinemas. “It was once more beautiful than the Opera House,” commented the late film producer Hassan Ramzi. Old photographs of the cinema available on the Internet bear out his words. 

The renovation of historic buildings in downtown Cairo, renamed Khedival Cairo, is ongoing, and some 760 building are considered to be of outstanding architectural value and are therefore protected by the Organisation for Urban Harmony, a state heritage-protection agency. A special panel responsible for historic buildings has to agree on any internal or external changes to these buildings, noted Haidi Shalabi, head of the historical districts protection section of the organisation.

Formerly Greek-owned, the Diana like other cinemas was nationalised after the 1952 Revolution. In 1955, the famous singer and composer Farid Al-Atrash asked late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser to attend the opening of his film Contract of Love (Ahd al-Hawa) in the Diana cinema. Nasser, a fan of Al-Atrash, attended together with other members of the Revolutionary Command Council, and Al-Atrash donated the proceeds to charity. 

Other cinemas also have stories to tell. The Metro, opened in 1933 under the name of the empire, was bought by the Metro Goldwyn Mayer Company and reopened in 1940 as the Metro. The first film it showed was the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind. The Metro was also the first air-conditioned cinema in Egypt, and its equipment were brought in from the United States. Like some other downtown cinemas, the Metro was damaged by a bombing campaign reportedly carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood group in 1947, and it was one of 40 cinemas damaged in the Cairo Fire in 1952.

The Miami cinema was built in 1923. According to the Atlas Al-Qahira Al-Adabi: One Hundred Years of the Streets of Cairo, a historical account in Arabic, the original owner of the cinema was an Italian who invited neighbours to films on Sundays. Like the Metro, the Miami was reportedly bombed by the Muslim Brothers in 1947 and burnt in the Cairo Fire in 1952. It was rebuilt by the Lebanese investor Adnan bin Atani in the 1950s before its nationalisation.

Film stars such as Faten Hamama and Farid Shawki used to organise special screenings of their films in the Miami cinema, where they were watched in silence by respectful audiences. Film star Samir Sabri once had butchers slaughter a cow in front of the cinema to celebrate the opening of his film The Slaughterhouse with Madiha Kamel.

Designed by the British architect Leonard Allen, the Rivoli cinema was built in 1923. Owned by the British Rank Organisation, it used at first to show only British films. It was burnt in the Cairo Fire in 1952 and rebuilt. In 1955, former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and military commander Abdel-Hakim Amer attended a performance by the great singer Umm Kolthoum in the Rivoli where she sang “The Story of my Love” and other songs. Al-Atrash also used to sing at the yearly spring performances there, and his famous song Al-Rabei Admen Tani (Spring Comes Again) was dedicated to this occasion. 

In 1971, the famous singer Abdel-Halim Hafez performed in the spring show instead. However, to the shock of the audience, he fainted on stage of the cinema and was later hospitalised in London.


REVIVAL: The Metro, Radio, Miami, Karim, Rivoli and Qasr Al-Nil cinemas are now part of the nation’s architectural heritage, notes Mohamed Abu Seada, head of the Organisation for Urban Harmony, which means they are protected buildings.

It is hoped that by renovating and restoring them larger audiences will be attracted back to the downtown cinemas. According to Tarek Atia, spokesman for the Cairo Heritage Development Committee (CHDC), the group responsible for renovating the downtown area, “a family living in Maadi could come to watch a film in a downtown cinema and then enjoy walking around the area, which is full of historic buildings. Some of the lobbies of the downtown cinemas are also works of art in their own right.” 

Renovation will be expensive, however, and the question arises of who will pay. The buildings themselves and the land they stand upon, currently mostly the property of the state, are valuable, and this suggests ways of raising funds. The new Holding Company will be able to raise money on these assets, Abdel-Gelil said.

The reuse of the downtown heritage in an appropriate way can also be profit-making, and Atia said that renovating and revivifying the cinemas will help the businesses around them, helping stores and restaurants to flourish. “Our aim is not just about making a profit. Having more cinemas will mean more films, and we are encouraging the marketing of films as part of the country’s cultural production,” Abdel-Gelil said.

 Investors in the renovation project would show films with ministry of culture support, allowing the general level of the material shown to be raised. Audiences would have the chance to see good films that do not always have enough distribution in commercial cinemas.

An increase in the downtown cinema ticket prices would probably accompany their renovation. Today, they charge some LE25 to LE35, which is very reasonable in comparison with the new mall cinemas that charge between LE70 and LE150. “I don’t think that an increase in the ticket prices will decrease the downtown cinema audience,” Abdel-Gelil Hassan, media spokesman of the Al-Arabia Cinema Production and Distribution Company, said. Some years back, his company rented and renovated both the Metro and Renaissance cinemas, but it did not increase ticket prices.

However, new private-sector investments in the downtown area raise worries about changes in the character of the area and its residents. People working in new businesses downtown will have different entertainment needs, along with needs for new restaurants and stores, Atia said. But he believes that downtown is big enough to offer entertainment for all social categories.

The Miami cinema offers one cautionary tale, however. It was fully booked during the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, but it had lost 75 per cent of its audience one week later during the non-holiday period. The higher prices of entertainment as a result of the fall in the value of the Egyptian pound have made going out more expensive, with inevitable effects on cinema audiences, said Ahmed Belal, deputy manager of the cinema.

Downtown cinemas are generally crowded during the Eid holidays, but increasing film production is important to attract larger audiences outside of them. The Garidat Misr Al-Cinemaeya news films that used to be shown decades ago, along with more popular comedies, could increase audiences. The Metro cinema shows children’s films every Friday morning throughout the year, and this has turned out to be a successful formula.

“The most important problem for the Egyptian cinema industry nowadays is film hacking, however,” Hassan said, in which films are shown illegally on the Internet just days after their release. Cinemas lose their audience and production companies lose more than 50 per cent of their profits as a result, according to Belal. “Illegal showings have to be prevented, and channels not paying licences must be sanctioned by the government,” he added.

Moreover, age classifications currently decrease audience numbers for no good reason, observers say. Films will be available on television channels later anyway, Belal says, so it makes no sense to prevent young people seeing them in cinemas. However, starting in the 1990s films that only seek profits have had a bad effect on the younger generations, meaning that some kind of age classification is still necessary, Abdel-Gelil said.

“Two years ago, age classifications were applied to some television series, and now all series abide by them. The state is there to help people protect their children from inappropriate material. It is not there to spy on them,” he added. 


NEW EXPERIENCE: Zawya, a cinema project affiliated to Misr International Films, has been showing excellent films at very reasonable prices in downtown cinemas over recent years, attracting cinema-lovers from all over Cairo.

Launched five years ago in the Odeon cinema in the downtown area, Zawya later moved to the Karim cinema rented by the New Century Production Company because it offered better conditions for audiences. “The management is independent, and the auditoriums have better sound and picture facilities. We also have two auditoriums instead of one,” said Youssef Shazli, manager of Zawya. 

With two halls with a total capacity of 400 people, the Karim cinema can act as a hub for the kind of films Shazli wants to show. Now audiences can enjoy events such as the Panorama of European Cinema, the Cairo Cinema Days, the Short Film Festival, and films drawing attention to renowned filmmakers at the Karim in downtown Cairo. There are also programmes hosted by Zawya such as the D-Caf for Modern Art and the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival, along with film seminars and workshops.

Zawya is a financially successful project, and it has been drawing crowds to its showings most of the year. The project has thus become largely self-financing, offering new perspectives for the future. Because of the renovation work at the Karim cinema, ticket prices are to be increased to LE40 from LE35, however. 

Zawya makes some profit, but more importantly it shows good films, attracting audiences that stopped going to the cinema years ago because of the lack of quality material, according to Emad Al-Sayed, deputy manager of the New Century Company and partner of Zawya. His company’s donations to the Ismailia, Cairo and El Gouna Film Festivals have been part of the social responsibility of companies to encourage the cinema industry, he said. 

Adhering to the same principles, the company offers very reasonable ticket prices at the Odeon cinema, which it also owns. Ticket prices at this cinema, which resumed activities last Eid Al-Fitr after renovation, are between LE30 and LE35.

“The state has to look at cultural projects in a different way. It imposes too many taxes on the cinema industry, seeing it like any other industry, almost like iron or cement. The result is that India produces 1,040 films a year, while Egypt now only produces 40 or so,” Al-Sayed, whose company has produced several well-regarded films lately, said.

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