Morocco's disappearing movie theaters

Despite booming movie production, action is needed to save what is left of the Morocco's old movie palaces.

al-monitor A giant cinema screen was set up for people to view films for free throughout the annual Marrakech International Film Festival in Marrakech, Dec. 11, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal.

Topics covered

theater, morocco, film, economy, cinema, art

Apr 24, 2015

At first glance, it seems like Moroccan cinema is doing well. About 30 festivals are held every year, 25 feature films are produced and dozens of foreign movies are shot in the country, namely through the production company based in Ouarzazate [Moroccan Cinematographic Center (CCM)]. Morocco comes in second place after South Africa in the list of African countries [in the cinematography field], and seeks to reach [first place].

This fervor, however, masks a sad situation: Movie theaters are slowly disappearing in the country. Morocco had more than 250 movie theaters 30 years ago and more than 50 million spectators per year. Today, some 2 million are distributed among the remaining 37 theaters.

In Casablanca ... Vox, Sherazade, Lutetia, Mauritania, Kawakib, Verdun, Liberte, Opera and even Mamounia recently closed down. The list is long and has already raised the anxiety of the residents of Casablanca. This alarming situation was at the core of the discussions April 17 in the former church of Buenaventura de la Medina in Casablanca to talk about “the future of abandoned cinemas in the city of Casablanca.” This initiative was launched by the regional administration of the Ministry of Culture in Casablanca and by the Save Cinemas in Morocco association.

Various concerned parties, such as operators, officials from the Ministry of Culture and civil society members, participated in this meeting. They talked about the sad situation that Moroccan cinema is facing. A year ago, the Ministry of Culture and the Save Cinemas in Morocco association, with the support of Casamemoire, began large-scale measures to protect and save movie theaters from negligence and destruction by registering 14 movie theaters as part of Casablanca’s heritage. The operators and owners of movie theaters were not pleased by this step, as they consider the authorities to be forcing them to protect the buildings even though activities there are no longer profitable.

Operators claim compensation

“With tear-filled eyes, I am now witnessing the decadence of cinema. We have all struggled for years by preserving the buildings and losing money. We do not mind turning these theaters into a heritage, so long as people are compensated. Those who own these theaters have invested their money, and sometimes even their wives’ jewelry. The state has murdered cinema through the CCM. Cinema is thriving elsewhere, while it is disappearing here. It is dead,” said Abdelhamid Marrakchi, an operator and the honorary chairman of the Moroccan Chamber of Movie Theaters and the Chamber of Film Distributors.

Many operators, who were sitting in the front row during the [aforementioned] meeting, shared this view. “The problem today is that cinema is stagnant and I can confirm that the movie theaters that were closed down will not reopen, ever,” said Skalli, the successor of the legendary Sherazade movie theater, which is the meeting place for the movie lovers of Casablanca. It was built in 1958, the first cinema to be built by a woman.

Although production is still stable, distribution and screening are facing a major problem because of several factors: the black market of pirated films, the monopolization of distribution by multiplexes, the globalization of television through satellites and the significant taxes imposed on the theaters’ operators. The abandoned movie theaters can be explained by the fact that operators did not succeed in applying the digital change that could have brought back customers.

The classification of movie theaters stirs debate

“Cinemas are closed and piracy is widely spread. Today, we are facing a race against time. The aim for us is to react and save what can still be saved, and we have used what was available to us for this purpose. And this was the article [of Law 22-80 on the conservation of historical monuments], which allows us to register and classify movie theaters,” said Tarik Mouni, the head of Save Cinemas in Morocco.

This classification stirred a debate among operators. “This classification is a tool to force us to reopen and remain opened. But the law allows us to defend ourselves, and this is what we will do should we not find a solution,” Skalli said.

Amidst the protection of heritage and the economic realities, many believe that the survival of historic cinemas should be linked to a proactive public policy: decrease taxes, promote modernization of movie theaters and create better competition.

Toward a concept of multi-purpose rooms

Save Cinemas in Morocco believes that we should push things further and seek new models for cinemas to restore their multidisciplinary functions, and thus expand the cultural structure in Morocco through multi-purpose spaces.

“We can recover today the value of this heritage through various mechanisms. We do not want to undermine the operators. We rather seek to reach an understanding in order to try and solve these problems,” Mouni explained.

“We, as residents of Casablanca, love cinema. We are not being pessimistic. Let’s try to create a combination that functions well,” he added.

The road to stop the disappearance of dark rooms in the country seems long. However, these meetings have succeeded in shedding light on new ideas. “After today, I think we will find a solution that will please all concerned parties,” Skalli said.

This step is essential, as the cinema issue in Morocco goes beyond the mere matter of cultural structures. It is part of a much wider problem related to culture and to its role in society.

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