Interview Adel Adeeb has courted praise and controversy with the films The Yacoubian Building and Baby Doll Night. The head of Good News Group's film division talks about the cost of being one of the top in Egypt's industry.
Good news abounds
The Egyptian film producer Adel Adeeb, the son of one of Egypt's most celebrated screenwriters, Abdel Hay Adeeb, is comfortable with controversy. His movie company, Good News, had already gained a reputation for tackling difficult issues following the magnificent The Yacoubian Building (Omaret Yakobean), an international critical and financial success, so he was probably well-placed to handle the storm of criticism that came his way with Baby Doll Night.
The film ended up costing around $7,000,000 (Dh26m) and, it would be fair to say, was not too warmly received by the Egyptian critics with one describing it as staggering idiotically between symbolism and realism. When I asked him about the virulent critical response, Adeeb, naturally enough, preferred to focus on the positive response the film received outside Egypt, including being voted one of the year's top 10 films at the Montreal Film Festival and winning, for the first time in Egyptian cinema history, a prize, in Brussels, for best screenplay. The city's mayor also presented him with a medal for his contribution to Egyptian cinema.
Adeeb believes that the domestic response was a combination of jealousy and the desire of critics to make a name for themselves by trying to take down a large target. "This is how media works here. They just want to kill the company because it's a big company. They just want to crucify it." And there's certainly no bigger Egyptian media target than the film's producers. With 43 divisions, ranging from newspapers, magazines, television, web content and a chain of cinemas, the Good News Group dominates the Egyptian media landscape. The Group's movie division that Adeeb runs has, since 2003, produced the three most expensive movies in the history of Egyptian cinema. It is a factor that also helped to provoke, he maintains, some of the bad reviews from critics whose magazines had been forced to pay their own way to see its Cannes premiere: "They killed the movie without seeing it - I saw a reporter who left after 10 minutes of the movie, writing a report and sending it back by fax from Cannes."
Good News's movies are the latest facet of Egypt's long-standing domination of Arab cinema. The country's first film was produced in 1907 and it's been estimated that over three quarters of all the short and feature length films made in Arab-speaking countries in the 20th century were Egyptian. Over the past few decades though, Adeeb says, following its privatisation by Nasser's government and the country's financial malaise during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, the industry had fallen into relative decline. "Researching what happened in the last 20 years in Egyptian cinema would make you feel sorry," Adeeb says.
Sitting in the office of his new house in Cairo's Pyramid Gardens, Adeeb is now much more optimistic. The signs of Egypt's recent economic liberalisation are visible out of the window: newly built mansions, houses and apartment blocks dominate the landscape, all fuelled by the economic changes that have, over the last few years, made some Egyptians much wealthier. The government's reforms have also extended, he says, as far as the film industry. Adeeb told me last year that "our minister of culture and our prime minister did a great job. Over the last five years they changed all the laws, the tax laws." "Three summers ago," Adeeb tells me now, "the gross of the whole year was 80 million Egyptian pounds, the year after was 160, then 220 and I think we expect this year either to be the same or higher."
He also believes that the local industry will benefit from the government, making it easier for international companies to film in Egypt. "If you go for the budgets, Morocco compared to Europe is 50 per cent less, but Egypt costs 50 per cent less than Morocco. And we have all the experts, all the real filmmakers, all the equipment, even more advanced and complicated than you can find in the States."
Good News's strategy has, so far, been to produce high-profile, high-budget movies. The company is not, Adeeb maintains, just looking for a quick return on its investment which, he tells me, is the way the industry has worked over the past 20 years. "Our money comes back from a long-term investment - and we are the only company that does that." The company also benefits from having so many divisions, all of which can contribute to the production and distribution of its films. "For instance, now I have the movie," Adeeb says. "I want to make its advertising and I have my agency. The movie has to be edited, so I have my post production. This movie has to have a song; I can settle this with the music department. This movie has to be in the movie theatres; I have my movie theatres. It goes this way. How we integrate together; this is the main magic in the equation."
Throughout its short life, Good News's movie division has also introduced new ways of marketing and promoting its product. It released The Yacoubian Building and Baby Doll Night in Europe over the summer so that vacationing Arabs, could watch the films uncensored. Yacoubian alone made enough, Adeeb says, over one summer's run on the Champs Elysées to produce two low- to medium-budget Egyptian movies."
The group is also turning its attention to online distribution, setting up partnerships with iTunes, Google and Amazon. "They made a deal with us just two months ago, because we are the biggest content providers in the whole Arab world, to put our movie out there legally, not pirated on the net." Already, he says, online movies and clips have earned the company $150,000 (Dh550,000). And having a presence on the web makes a significant financial difference. A promotional CD of the soundtrack for Baby Doll Night sold five thousand copies in 10 days, compared to 160,000 people who bought it online over a similar period, while another 250,000 people bought ring tones. This, he says, "is the moneymaker".
Good News is not, however, neglecting traditional forms of distribution. They are opening new cinemas throughout the country. "There are 80 million Egyptian people and we are living on 10 per cent of the land and we have only now 750 screens, so try to imagine if you have more screens." He explains how, by opening a cinema in the rural town of Zakazikm, he brought movies to an area of five million people and, even though the prices are a fraction of those charged in the group's flagship cinema in Cairo's Grand Hyatt hotel, the town now generates more revenue.
The company will also soon announce deals with two of the Arab world's biggest distributors and TV companies, ART and Kuwait's Hisham al Ghanem. For the first time, set prices will be agreed, in advance, for a series of different productions. "For our line-up of 25 movies over the next two and half years, we make a price list and then instead of waiting for three years to collect our money, it's 50 per cent on signing and 50 per cent when they get the movie? this way you can get your money faster and you'll have more protection for your movies and be able to create a real stable business for the next couple of years, as I know how much money I'm going to spend and collect."
Adeeb intends to expand Good News's relationship with Europe by setting up joint festivals with cities such as Brussels, Rome and Paris. Events, he promises, that will result in joint productions, with each film being shot in Egypt and the host country, with joint crews focusing on subjects relating to both countries. And despite the state of the world economy, the company is also planning a Dubai-listed IPO. "We've started touring with HSBC - we got AAA for our company and this is great," Adeeb says. "We started our touring a month ago, while we were inside the crisis - and all people wanted to get in."
Like most people in the business, Adeeb is an optimist - and despite the critical mauling of his last movie, he says: "Nobody will ever stop me from doing what I love. Either it's directing or being a CEO or just selling popcorn or whatever. If I'm loving it - nothing will make me stop. This is how I was raised and this is what my father told me to do and this is what I'm doing." And with that the interview is over; the ringer of his mobile phone is turned back on and the calls from suitors wishing to participate in Good News's success begin again.