This file picture shows a view of the historic Metro cinema theatre as a man walks past, along the commercial Talaat Harb street in the almost deserted city center Egypt's capital Cairo, on the first day of Eid Al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday which starts at the conclusion of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.-AFP photos

Egyptian cinemas are slowly reopening after months of lockdown, but the huge sector sometimes dubbed "the Hollywood of the Arab world" has taken a severe hit during the pandemic. After movie theatres were shuttered because of Covid-19 from at least March to June, filmmakers and the wider sector are bracing for an uncertain future. "This year has been a great loss to the movie industry in Egypt," actor Sherif Ramzy told AFP. "The industry came to a complete halt for months." Egypt has a long love affair with the silver screen, and usually cinema fans will queue outside movie houses for the latest romantic comedy, drama or action flick.

But this year major summer releases were put on hold indefinitely, and production of many movies was at least temporarily suspended. Only a single film, the sci-fi comedy "Al Ghassala" (The Washing Machine), was released during the Eid al-Adha Muslim celebration, which typically sees six or seven movies premiere every year.

In June, the government threw a lifeline to the reeling industry by allowing cinemas to open their doors but keep attendance capped at 25 percent to ensure social distancing. "Even the partial reopening of theatres has not helped get the ball rolling," said Ramzy. Egypt, with over 100 million people, has recorded nearly 100,000 infections and more than 5,000 deaths. Daily new reported cases have fallen but Egypt fears a second wave may hit as lockdown measures are eased.

'Zero income'
For the industry, the public health crisis has dealt a severe blow at a time Egyptian cinema has been struggling to reclaim its past glory as the region's creative powerhouse. Egyptian movies have for decades been popular across the Middle East and North Africa, profoundly influencing popular culture and spreading the country's vernacular. The Egyptian film industry had its golden age in the mid 20th century when screen star Omar Sharif, the actor Gamil Ratib and director Youssef Chahine achieved world fame.

Classic Egyptian movies captured life under British colonial rule, the decline of the monarchy and the formation of the republic under president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The sector fell into decline in the 1970s when the state's role in the industry receded and studios pumped out commercial fare critics slammed as formulaic and lacking in production values. The sector was again hit by the political turmoil in the years following the 2011 uprising that unseated longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, when production slowed and cinema audiences declined. But industry professionals say the novel coronavirus pandemic has been like no other crisis.

Filmmakers have been forced to reduce staff and regularly sanitize locations that are typically teeming with huge crews and frenetic activity. A film set may usually see more than a 100 people at a time, including stylists and make-up artists who are in close contact with actors. Several Egyptian celebrities, including prominent actors, reported testing positive for the virus following the end of filming Ramadan series.

In July, seasoned actress Ragaa Al-Geddawy died after a weeks-long struggle with the illness. The Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies says the industry employs at least half a million people, 40 percent of whom are on fixed contracts. "We have been paying staff and crew members for months and we had zero income," said Ramzy, who also manages a production company.

Boost to streaming
Last year the Egyptian film industry made 33 movies, earning $72 million, according to an ECES report. The figure is small by global standards, but "in terms of revenues, it is still the highest in the Arab world," said ECES. "Projections for 2020 are far less, especially as dependence on movie tickets sales has now become too risky," said producer Mohamed Hefzy. "We will have to wait until a full return to normalcy, which may not be this year at all. Perhaps next year." Lockdowns have boosted online streaming services everywhere, and in Egypt Watch iT, which launched last year, became one of the biggest players.

Following the March launch of its #stayhome promotion, "the service saw a huge increase of the subscription base," Moustapha Bekheet, its vice president and managing director, told AFP via email. During Ramadan, the service which already boasts more than 65,000 hours of online content, acquired multiple top series and TV shows. The Ramadan season brought an increase in daily active users to "more than 89 percent," he said.

Hefzy, who is also president of the Cairo International Film Festival, said the transition to online platforms is "a natural development, and COVID-19 only hastened it". They serve as a hedge for producers against losses, especially during the pandemic, he added. "But they cannot substitute movie theatres," he said. "The cinema experience remains to be unique and important and it should be preserved."-AFP