Egypt cuts filming fees at archaeological sites to lure international filmmakers

In a bid to attract international film producers to Egypt, the Antiquities Ministry has significantly lowered its prices for filming licenses at archaeological and historical locations.

According to a Wednesday announcement by minister Khaled al-Anany, the cost of a licence for an international production will be LE15,000 for a day, LE60,000 for a week-long package and LE150,000 for a month. For Egyptian productions, the cost will be a third of these rates.

Licenses for international documentaries will cost LE5,000 a day, LE20,000 a week and LE50,000 a month, he said, while licenses for Egyptian docs will be a tenth of the cost. Anany also announced that tourists will be able to film inside museums for LE300.

These prices are half the previous rates, state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper reports.

National Council for Cinema head Ahmed Awaad tells Mada Masr that these rates are yet to actually be approved and released by the ministry.

Awaad, who was head of the censorship authority before being appointed to the council in November, says the film council worked in partnership with the ministry on the new pricing plan.

“We put our vision for the suggested prices to the ministry,” he says, “and all I can say is that these rates are unprecedented.”

The new prices will be a “huge transformation for the cinema industry in Egypt,” says film producer Safy Eddin Mahmoud. “We always avoided filming at archeological locations due to the high costs. Until very recently, we would pay LE2,000 or LE3,000 per hour, and then more than that if we were filming outside of official working hours.”

Morocco has become the premier destination for filmmakers wishing to film in the Middle East, and major Hollywood movies filmed there include Lawrence of Arabia, the Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Sniper, Babel and the fifth Mission Impossible. The third season of series Game of Thrones was also filmed in Morocco.

Often referred to as Morocco’s Hollywood, the city of Ouarzazate includes prototypes of international archaeological and historical locations, including Pharaonic sites. It also hosts Atlas Studios, the world’s largest studio, made up mostly of deserts and mountains, where a number of historical films and productions requiring large empty desert spaces have been filmed.

Filming licenses for international productions cost 3,000 Moroccan Dirhams (about $310) per week, according to the Centre Cinématographique Marocain. At LE60,000 (about $6,800), even Egypt’s new rates are significantly higher.

The cost of filming in Egypt is also high when it comes to licenses to shoot outdoors. The prices are not clearly laid out, but privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported in 2009 that costs were increasing, reaching LE10,000 per hour to film at Cairo International Airport for example.

For producer Mahmoud it is these costs that are prohibitive. “I hope the new prices will be similarly applied to other institutions and settings,” he says. “For example, one day filming at a railway station costs LE200,000. If I have a script with a scene in a train, I usually change it to something else.”

Looking to Morocco, he says that country’s licensing process is easy, affordable and in line with state policy to support tourism by showcasing it as a perfect tourist destination in international films.

For Egyptian film director Ahmed Abdalla, the problem goes far beyond the cost of filming licenses. Abdalla identifies state bureaucracy, censorship and intervention in the content of productions as major impediments to the work of local and international filmmakers in Egypt.

“I had a horrible experience filming Rags and Tatters [2013],” he recalls. “I had to wait 10 months for permission from the Endowments Ministry to film in a mosque. It was during Muslim Brotherhood rule and there was huge resistance to filming in locations of a religious nature. Even though the script had already been approved by the censorship authority, the ministry asked for a copy.”

Abdalla refers to Egyptian authorities’ “one-window policy” to facilitate the licensing process, whereby filmmakers only have to deal with one state entity, but contends that the issue is conservative state officials who set themselves up as guardians of public morality. “The problem is less the cost of filming licenses than the state’s iron fist on artistic production,” he says.

The documentary The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, produced by National Geographic this year, was a source of major controversy locally. It deals with the development of the idea of God in ancient and Abrahamic faiths, and parts filmed in Egypt focused on the religious heritage of the Pharaonic and Islamic eras.

Censorship Authority head Abdel Sattar Fathy announced that if it insulted God, filming would be stopped immediately. “When the authority issues permits to any foreign film, a representative usually accompanies the crew to oversee all the scenes,” he said in October last year. “If the authority’s representative finds any insults to God or religion, he terminates the filming.”

The Nile Hilton Incident (2016), a Swedish-German political thriller by Egyptian-Swedish director Tarik Saleh, epitomized the difficulties faced by international fimmakers in Egypt, according to Abdalla. He recalls how the crew waited for a month in Cairo for their licences to no avail, before ultimately filming in Morocco. Saleh was not available for comment.

In the film a corrupt police officer investigates the death of a singer involved in a relationship with wealthy hotel owner and contractor close to sons of former President Hosni Mubarak. Based on the true story of the death of Lebanese pop singer Suzan Tamim at the hands of her Egyptian husband, Mubarak-era businessman Hisham Talaat Mostafa, the film examines the intersection between money and power among the political elite under Mubarak.

In an interview with state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper, Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam said in December 2015 that the Censorship Authority objected to some points in the script but then received a call from the tourism minister, who had received a call from the Swedish ambassador. The ambassador reportedly threatened that no more Swedish tourists would come to Egypt if the film was not granted the required licenses.

“I think no foreign ambassador has the right to intervene in my work or pressure us,” the minister told the newspaper. “Why this humiliation?”

Suspicion and hostility towards foreigners within state institutions is a major issue, director Abdalla believes. “How can we imagine international filmmakers coming to Egypt to work in such an environment of skepticism and incitement against foreigners everyday in the media?” he asks. “Cinema is a very profitable industry, but if we want to profit from it, reforms far more fundamental than reducing the prices of licenses are needed.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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