It started with infinite promises, tumbled swiftly with one disappointment after another, and ended with a thud. The 2009 global summer film season was largely disappointing, relying largely on sequels, formulaic romantic comedies and toy-based clunkers. In Egypt, the picture was much less stratified. The lawfully dubbed “slum films – a hollow term that simultaneously reflects the shallowness of the pictures – unfortunately blossomed this summer into a prominent sub-genre.
Violence, death and economic hardships dominated this summer’s offerings. The audience responded accordingly, turning their back to local productions for the first time in recent years.
The picture isn’t straightforward, far from it as a matter of fact.
Both the global and local film market suffered from acute fluctuations that left analysts in bewilderment. In North America, Europe and Southeast Asia, the marketing and distribution factors, in addition to audience preferences, explain better the widely irregular performances of the summer’s hits and misses.
In Egypt, the key reason for the summer slump is much easier to pin down: the films were simply not good enough. That’s not to say that the taste of the Egyptian viewer has drastically improved; after all, the highest grossing film of the summer is a crass Sobky-produced rom-com sequel starring a pop singer. Simply put, the 2009 summer films were too bad for the audience to endure.
The summer season officially kicked off in May with two films that couldn’t be any different: Sobky’s comedy “Omar & Salma 2 starring Tamer Hosni and Mai Ezz El-Din and Khaled Youssef’s highly controversial grim “slum drama “Shehata’s Store.
The former benefited from being the sole bonafide family comedy in the first nine weeks of the summer. Good word of mouth was strong among teens and families alike and the film managed to hold impressively week after week. By the end of last week, “Omar & Salma was the only summer release to cross the LE 20 million barrier.
The latter’s fortunes were greatly boosted by the major hype surrounding the film and the curiosity factor Youssef’s recent films have enjoyed. With five consecutive hits in a row, Youssef has become the most successful contemporary Egyptian filmmaker, the ultimate provocateur. Quality of his films and whether filmgoers like his stories or not is beside the point; people will flock to anything Youssef has his name on. With more than a LE 15 million in profits, “Shehata currently stands as the second highest grossing film of the summer.
The stream of hits came to an early halt in May as the flops started to pile. Marwan Hamed’s mega violent actioner “Ibrahim El-Abyad starring Ahmed El-Sakka, Mahmoud Abdel Aziz and Hind Sabry fizzled quickly after a strong opening, coming more than LE10 million short of El-Sakka’s last effort, “The Island.
Reigning comedy star Adel Imam, who scored three consecutive LE20 million blockbusters in the past three years, saw his latest collaboration with scriptwriter Youssef Maati, “Bobos, plummet miserably at the box-office. The corporate comedy alienated younger fans and families alike with its heavy dose of sexual innuendos. The implausible flight of fantasies, tired storyline and recycled gags contributed in making “Bobos Imam’s biggest underperformer in seven years.
Elsewhere, the ensemble “slum drama “The Wedding failed to match the success of last year’s “Cabaret, nabbing half of its predecessor’s take. Ahmed Ezz’s melodramatic thriller “The Replacement represented his second consecutive flop following last year’s “Transit Prisoner. Hany Salama added another entry in his endless line of duds with “The Slaughterer. With nearly LE 5 million cum, “The Slaughterer represented a new low for Salama. Youssef El-Sherif’s wish-fulfillment football fantasy “The International – in which Egypt succeeds to qualify to the World Cup finals for the first time in 20 years – failed to establish him as a box-office star with a meager LE 4 million take.
Ahmed Helmy, yet again, delivered box-office gold with his dark “Groundhog Day remake “1000 Congratulations, trouncing bad reviews and so-so word of mouth. Whether the film manages to equal his past recent commercial triumphs remains to be seen.
Ahmed Mekki produced the biggest runaway hit of the year with “Fly Now, surpassing the entire gross of last year’s “H Dabbour in three weeks. The film still has momentum and could prove to have a life beyond Ramadan.
The sleeper hit of the summer was Yousry Nasrallah’s highly acclaimed “Ehky ya Scheherazade. Targeting adults primarily, Nasrallah’s seventh feature – LE 7 million + in earnings – is the highest grossing film of his entire career.
Producers and critics alike blamed a gush of external factors for the sharp box-office decline: the Thanaweya Amma exams which ended in late June, the swine flu scare that kept families away from film theaters and the Football Confederations Cup that chained millions of fans to their TV sets. These claims are clearly unfounded. “Omar & Salma was the first major production released this summer and yet has managed to become the highest-grossing film of the year in spite of the aforementioned factors. Same thing goes with “Shehata’s Store. Both films extended their successful runs in spite of these factors.
The success of Hollywood blockbusters such as the latest installment of “Harry Potter, the “Transformers, “Ice Age and “Night at the Museum sequels indicates that the Egyptian moviegoers were seeking diversity from the rather homogenous domestic slate.
For the past three decades, Egyptian cinema has worked in patterns, capitalizing on the success of a certain genre by producing countless replicas of the original blockbusters. In the ’80s, drug films dominated the box-office for the most part of the decade. In the late ’90s and first of this decade, comedy ruled, followed by relationship dramas, low-budget teen dramas, thrillers/actioners and now, the “slum movies. The realist tendencies most of this summer films have attempted to lure the audiences with, failed to connect. The ostensibly weighty messages with which the filmmakers felt obliged to lecture the audience fell on deaf ears. Egyptian moviegoers are no different than the global viewers: They have short-attention spans, they easily tire of repetition (case in point: Mohamed Saad) and their tolerance for over-dramatization, a plague that remains widespread in Egyptian films, is, thankfully, declining.
Egyptian producers no longer know what sells and what doesn’t. Daring experiments like “Scheherazade, and “One-Zero before it, have the chances to succeed now more than ever if they find the right audience. Mainstream moviegoers seek direct gratifications found in “Omar & Salma or “Fly Now; straightforward entertainments that wear their intentions on their sleeves.
The failure of the likes of “Ibrahim El-Abyad, “The Wedding, “Bobos and “The Slaughterer cannot be blamed on marketing or the overcrowded marketplace or the swine flu. Egyptian viewers refused to heed the call of the stars simply because they felt they were being manipulated; that producers were forcing them to accept a vision of a reality that’s not their own.
Egypt is one of the very few countries in the world who suffered a significant decline in box-office revenues this year (The only other nation that experienced a similar fate is Russia). If Egyptian producers wish to find a way out of this debacle, they have to work harder, be more innovative and get in touch with the people. Egyptians are hungry for films that reflect their reality, not exploit them, and that could be perhaps the most important lesson of the summer.
In part 2 next Saturday: The global film market and box office in summer 2009 and the crisis of indie distribution.