Morocco: Are neighbourhood cinemas disappearing?

Despite digitisation costs and competition from multiplexes, some passionate cinema owners are resisting

Industry, Morocco

Morocco: Are neighbourhood cinemas disappearing?

In a hurry, Hassan Belkady climbs up the marble steps of the Rif, a popular cinema that has stood in the centre of Casablanca for over half a century.

We follow him to the projection room where, before the evening's screening, a handful of French and Moroccan technicians are perfecting the last settings to the digital projector they acquired in March.

In June, Belkady’s two other film theatres in Casablanca, the Ritz and the ABC, also swapped their old 35mm projectors for brand new digital equipment.

"We have no choice," says this man who is passionate about cinema. "By the end of 2013, major distributors will stop 35mm film. If you want to survive, you have to go digital. "

Surviving ... The word is not too strong. In the early 1980s, Morocco had 250 film theatres, which welcomed 50 million spectators a year, but by 2012, there were no more than 40 film theatres registering only two million admissions.

The reasons for such a slump? The arrival of the satellite dish, the massive invasion of pirated DVDs -- "Moroccan cinema’s AIDS," according to Belkady -- and the deteriorating facilities downtown.

"Some cinema managers are responsible for this drop in attendance," says producer Aadel Essaadani. "In the late 1980s, many film theatres were not renovated and they deteriorated. As they attracted smaller audiences, they gradually became a haven for couples lacking privacy... "

Some mythical theatres, such as the Rialto in Casablanca, an emblem of 1930s Art Deco style, however, are trying to get by. Their owners say they struggle day and night in order to not close its doors. And they have invested their entire fortune in it.

"We do this for the love of cinema and to preserve our heritage," says Belkady, who says that he lives solely off his... income as a dentist.

Part of the problem is competition from Megarama. The French group started its activities in Morocco in 2002, and now has multiplexes in Casablanca, Marrakech and Fez. With almost all the rights to American and European films screened in the country, it has helped itself to considerable business and the largest number of admissions.

"Megarama's objective is simple: It wants to kill us," says Layadi Mohamed, the owner of the Coliseum in Marrakesh, and the president of South Mediterranean film distributor network MEDIS. "I have filed a complaint claiming unfair competition, but nothing has come of it so far... "

[In contrast,] downtown film theatres simply screen Moroccan, Egyptian or Indian feature films.

The state and the Moroccan Cinematographic Centre (CCM) have recently reassessed their financial support to enable independent cinemas to keep their heads above water. The government is thus committed to supporting 50% of the renovation costs of a theatre if it meets a set of specific requirements. It has also committed to providing a budget of €1m (approximately 11 million dirhams) to support digitisation.  At a rate of €100,000 per projector, this can help to equip a dozen movie theatres.

But this still means that 300 others will remain in the same deteriorated state... For many, the survival of these historic theatres should entail more proactive public policy: tax cuts, aid to modernising the facilities, setting up healthier competition...

Only then will Moroccans perhaps return to their neighbourhood cinemas.


Source: Jeune Afrique


Morocco: Are neighbourhood cinemas disappearing?

© Fernando Murueta

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