How the Egypt Crisis Has Shut Down Show Business

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian film star Khaled Abu Naga, left, stands behind leading dissident and former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei during a demonstration in Cairo's landmark Tahrir square Jan. 30.

"Everything is shut down; life is at a standstill," one producer says as U.S. movies get pulled and Egyptian stars take part in protests.

The political crisis in Egypt has had a devastating impact on the entertainment industry in the country that has been called the "Hollywood of the Middle East."

"Everything is shut down; life is at a standstill," producer Marianne Khoury, who runs MISR International Films (September 11, El Medina) with her brother Gabriel, told The Hollywood Reporter. "People are glued to their TVs."

Khoury supports the protesters and, with her company's work shut down, decided recently to help in whatever way she could. She took a carload of blankets to support the anti-Murbarak demonstrators, but her car was attacked by "thugs paid by the government," she said.

"It was an extremely traumatic experience," Khoury added. "People in the street saw the car full of blankets and guessed who they were for. The whole street attacked us with unbelievable violence and people started banging on the windows."

She was pulled from her car by her hair before being rescued at the last second. "Finally," a shaken Khoury recalled, "I was taken in a truck to an army checkpoint and sent home."

At a time of crisis, making movies may pale in comparison to the magnitude of events, but what is happening to the entertainment industry remains important to the region. That is true even though Egypt is a minor market for American movies in terms of revenue (the UAE is the top market for western product in the region due to the presence of many foreign oil workers). Even some movies scheduled for that market have been pulled or held back. For instance, Warner Bros. has put the release of Yogi Bear in Egypt on indefinite hold.

There are no major English-language releases currently shooting in the region. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol had completed shooting in Dubai before the crisis erupted in Egypt. It has moved on to Vancouver.

There is a Disney production for the Arabic language market currently in production in Jordan, where the crisis has not shut down production. It is one of the first movies Disney has made for the Arabic-language market.

The crisis has even inspired one new production. Producer Tarak Ben Ammar announced at the end of January he will make a film based on the life of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouzizi, who set himself on fire to protest the lack of freedom and unemployment in Tunisia, setting off the historic chain of events. It will be filmed in Tunisia beginning later this year.

The importance of Egypt as a media center isn't measured by the handful of western movies that make it past the local censors. While Egyptians watch a lot of American TV series, most of the movies they go to, as with others throughout the booming Middle East, are made in Arabic for the regional market. And most of those are made in Egypt. That is why the industry based in Cairo holds a unique and premiere position in the Middle East.

For generations, Cairo has been the epicenter of Arabic-language movies. Egyptian actors are stars throughout the region, and their leading directors, writers and producers are among the most important in that part of the world.

Now those stars and filmmakers are more likely to be protesting than emoting and creating. Among the anti-government activists regularly participating in the protests in Cairo is outspoken filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, director of Scheherazade Tell Me a Story.

Mahyad Tousi, who founded BoomGen Studios with partner Reza Aslan, is based in New York and L.A. but provides marketing and production services to major movie companies distributing or marketing movies in the Middle East. Recent credits include Disney's Prince of Persia.

Tousi said in an e-mail that the crisis has had a disruptive effect. For instance, his partner Aslan had to cancel a trip to Cairo in late January to attend the Cairo Book Fair.

However, Tousi believes "what is transpiring in the region is ultimately a positive development" because it speaks to the changing demographics. He said young people make up "75% of the population and their desires are very different than their parents. They want to be a part of the world, not isolated from it."

Tousi believes this is going to have a long-term impact: "There is no going back for this generation. They are awake and aware thanks to technology, the Internet and social media."

Not everyone agrees. One of those on the other side is Egyptian actress Yousra, who said in a TV interview she fears "what comes next will be worse" and "we will look back at this period and regret it."

She is among those who fear that there could be a more regressive, religious government that will censor movies and TV even more.

Katayoun Beglari, a VOA reporter in Cairo predicted whatever the outcome the movie business will recover "because it's a big business." That doesn't mean it won't be changed, she added: "The new government may impose controls but it has always been controlled by the authorities."

Alex Ben Block reported from Los Angeles. Deborah Young reported from Rome.