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Iran's cinemas threaten to close in protest over high costs

Protest action by cinema owners would be the first highly visible message of opposition to Ahmadinejad's key economic policy, launched last December, of cutting Iran's $100bn-a-year subsidy bill.

A patron looks at photos posted ouside a cinema in Tehran this spring, a time when Outcasts 3, a comedy mocking the candidates in the disputed 2009 presidential election, was a hit at the box office. Atta Kenare / AFP
A patron looks at photos posted ouside a cinema in Tehran this spring, a time when Outcasts 3, a comedy mocking the candidates in the disputed 2009 presidential election, was a hit at the box office. Atta Kenare / AFP

A night at the movies is one of the few legitimate and affordable ways for Iranians to have fun, even if there are tight restrictions on what is screened. Now the door on that outlet could be slammed shut, literally.

Cinema owners threatened this week to close their movie houses to protest against costs that have soared since energy subsidies were slashed last year. Exorbitant utility bills, they complain, are driving them out of business.

It is a warning that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government is taking seriously. He prides himself on cutting Iran's $100 billion-a-year subsidy bill, a step long deemed necessary by most Iranian and western economists but which none of his predecessors, fearing public unrest, dared take.

Any protest action by cinema owners would be the first highly visible message of opposition to Mr Ahmadinejad's key economic policy, which was launched last December.

The closure of movie theatres, which serve as a useful social pressure valve, would also garner more bad publicity for the Iranian regime abroad.

It would look bizarre for a country with a flourishing film industry to have only derelict cinemas. Iranian films are the country's best-known cultural export. Several directors have won prestigious awards at international movie festivals.

The regime is already embarrassed that some of these celebrated figures live in exile because of censorship and repression at home. Among them is Mohsen Kakhmalbaf, whose 2001 movie Kandahar was listed by Time magazine as one of the best 100 films.

Another highly acclaimed and politically defiant director, Jafar Panahi, has languished under house arrest in Tehran since May 2010 while he appeals a six-year prison sentence and 20-year filmmaking ban for spreading "propaganda against the state".

Running cinemas is not cheap. Those in Iran require air conditioning in the sweltering summers and central heating in the chilly winters.

Owners argue that most of their customers cannot afford higher ticket prices at the box office to offset rising utility bills.

"After the implementation of the [subsidy] plan, the price of electricity, water and gas increased 10 to 15 times, while the income of the cinemas did not increase," Habib Kavoush, a spokesman for the Cinema Guild, told Sharq, a reformist newspaper, on Tuesday.

If one cinema is forced to close because of its rising costs, "we will shut down all the others", he warned.

The complaint will strike a chord with Iranians who have seen their own household bills rocket since the government started slashing subsidies that had kept fuel and food prices artificially low for decades. Petrol rose as much as seven-fold overnight and the cost of bread has more than doubled. Inflation is rising, and there is stubborn unemployment.

Even so, the International Monetary Fund has hailed the subsidy reform, which Mr Ahmadinejad has boasted constitutes "the biggest economic plan in 50 years".

Along with new cash payments to help people cope with rising prices, it would lead to a fairer, richer and less wasteful Iran, he said.

The Iranian president invariably paints a rosy picture of his country's economy, insisting it is in far better shape than those of western nations that have imposed sanctions on the Islamic republic because of its nuclear programme.

But as a populist, Mr Ahmadinejad will be keenly aware of the public discontent that could be generated by the closure of cinemas.

Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance said movie house owners were exaggerating the problem - but promised the government would help.

"The issue is not so critical… no cinema will be closed due to this," a ministry official, Alireza Sajadpour, told Sharq. "There is a plan to support the cinemas and it will be put into practice within 10 days at the latest."

He added that this has been a golden year for Iranian movies, with several films taking more than several million dollars in the domestic market.

Cinemas are among the few public places where Iranian families can go to get out of their homes, which for many in the sprawling, traffic-polluted capital are small apartments.

Better-off young Iranians also visit western-style cafes or hike at weekends in the rocky foothills of the snow-dusted mountains just north of Tehran's more affluent northern suburbs. But unmarried couples are always at risk of harassment from the morality police.

Foreign films are often banned at Iranian cinemas for reasons of morality. Many Iranians, however, avidly watch Hollywood movies on pirated DVDs and on illegal satellite channels in the privacy of their own homes.

But, said a journalist in Tehran who asked not be named, "it's not the same as a good night out at the cinema".

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae