CAIRO – 6 December 2019: The 41st edition of Cairo International Film Festival organised the fruitful program Cairo Industry Days on the side-lines of its latest edition.
US embassy in Egypt cooperated with CIFF in this important cinematic program, inviting a number of prominent American filmmakers and TV experts to enrich Cairo Industry Days.
Among these experts are Johanna Blakely, the managing director of Norman Lear Center and famed American producer and writer of prime-time dramas Christopher Adam Keyser.
Keyser is best known for creating the television series ‘’The Society’’ and ‘’Party of Five’’. In 1996, the ‘’Party of Five’’ took home the Golden Globe Award for "Best Drama Series." Keyser along with his writing partner Amy Lippman received the Humanitas Prize for the episode "Thanksgiving".
Keyser said to Egypt Today that he is here principally because he is part of the many programs in the Middle East Media Initiative. ‘’ I have been involved with that program of the US state department, I mentor some of the writers from the region and I came because this is kind of get together for all the people who were part of the program the last two year, a kind of reunion, we had fruitful conversations with people from the region about how to keep forward this collaboration between US and Middle Eastern writers’’ Keyser said.
Blakely said that she has been involved with the Middle East Media Initiative from the beginning because they decided that in order for this program to really succeed and to really help the filmmakers, TV producers and writers to make some kind of content that audiences are craving they really needed to have some research and some information about what audiences love, what they like to engage passionately and what is not yet in the market place, all that require some sort of research.
Keyser said that the MEMI project here in Egypt is happening at the same time of Cairo International Film Festival where huge fans of great cinema around the world are here in Egypt which has one of the longest cinema history.
Keyser added that he is a television writer, so he is not a specifically student of cinema, but he grew up knowing that ‘’Cairo Station’’ was a movie that meant something back when he was watching, when he was younger and start to know what great cinema meant.
‘’This year Cairo Film Festival is a continuation of a meaningful addition to world cinema and it meant a lot to American filmmakers and begin that kind of cooperation and conversation that makes television in Egypt and the region as meaningful as cinema has been and this is part of the reason why we are here’’ Keyser recounted.
Blakely said that she was really excited to see ‘’ Beyond the Raging Sea’’ movie and she talked to different people about how to get tickets to see the movie at
its screening at Cairo Opera House but they said to her it has been sold out.
‘’One thing that I hope Cairo Film Festival will be able to do, which is to expand the number of venues they have for the films, the theaters where they can showcase the films, and to have a dedicated theater, because I always thought that screenings are distributed all over town instead of one particular place’’ Blakely said.
She elaborated that she knows this happens with other successful film festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival in New York as they became so popular that they needed to find their own theater, so she hopes this happens for Cairo Film Festival.
‘’This is my first time here in Egypt and I was looking to come here for so many years. We have met several talented people from the Egyptian cinema industry through the Middle East Media Initiative because they come to Hollywood to visit and so everybody in the program acknowledges that Egypt is the driving force in the television and cinema, and there is a great respect for people here and I must say that I really enjoy dealing with Egyptian people because very fun personal interactions and good conversations occured, because people here are real talkers and they even talk with their car ( she laughs) and that’s very appealing to me’’ Blakely said.
Keyser explained that the first ever thing that he ever became obsessed with was Egyptian history.
‘’I read all about Egyptian history, it was a very meaningful experience to be here, the idea of having the opportunity to see the pyramids, walk around and spent some sort of time in Cairo was a dream to me, it is very meaningful experience to me to be here, we met wonderful young people who will be part of the future of Egyptian cinema and television and some more established people who are part of Cairo Industry Days not just the MEMI program, all this made a wonderful introduction for this country, that we will definitely visit again’’ Keyser said.
He admitted that they are focusing very much on television, so one of the conversations they have been having was about how television in the region can become part of the global conversation that happens on worldwide television, it is an international thing.
‘’Everyone watch what they made, people watch all kinds of things, television in the region that is tended to be structure around for Ramadan season and moving away from that is not entirely but expanding beyond that to make the kind of stories, character based stories that allow your regional speakers to speak to the whole world. For us it is been mostly a conversation about how you begin by writing and telling stories that are true to the Egyptian or Middle Eastern audience, that speak to everybody because they are essentially character based that means 6,10 or 12 episodes that got made with high production values are accessible, exciting and have dynamics storytelling’’ Keyser recounted.
Blakely added that one thing has to do with format , for example the Ramadan format is not something that translates internationally and so it is essential that the industry embraces a serialised format that allows for multiple seasons.
At the Norman Lear Center they perform a lot of research about how entertainment and media effect people lives, it becomes a topic of conversation that bring people together with a common culture, and if you just have one of these series that disappear after one Ramadan, there is not an opportunity to develop a continued relationship with these characters and what they experience.
‘’I think all humans require storytelling through their lives and continuation of storytelling could become very addictive, people become very devoted and I think it is through this kind of storytelling, Egypt might be able to attract a much larger international market, other people outside Egypt could become obsessed with the really creative characters and the specificity of the experience here, I think people are looking for unique stories and different stories, they don’t want the same stories over and over again , for American audiences it would be very excited to find out what daily life is actually like in a place like Cairo, so I really hope that sort of transformation occurs’’ Blakely explained.
‘’I think all the different platforms are digital platforms, one of the most exciting thing about them that is true in our country and could be true here is that it provides an entry point into the industry, what does it mean to say let us begin by making a television program, this was very difficult but now young artists can make a YouTube series, they can make a game, they can tell story via Instagram, and by starting that way , if people begin to respond to that story, this gives you an opportunity to prove in some ways that you got a story that people are attracted to and then by the way it goes to the other direction as well, and then you create a TV show or a movie and the story continue on all these different platforms, it is not just the combined experience of all these platforms is really immersive for audience, it draws people in, more people know about it because young people are watching things. I think there is a huge democratising influence on creativity to have all these platforms, it is exciting wherever it takes hold.’’ Keyser said
Blakely admitted that fans also enjoy taking a pic behind the curtain, finding out about how their favourite movie was made, how their favourite television show came out, hearing the stories of the celebrities and the stars who inhabited these roles and this is what the digital platforms can really offer, these quick insights and this how you built loyalty with characters and story lines, and this is how you make them financially competitive in the marketplace.
Keyser admitted that they are not experts in production, they talk about television now more than cinema.
‘’In Egyptian television I know that budget tend to be lower, and the world expect pretty high production values, we find production that is made for local audience is now finding global audience, and when finding global audience it become much more lucrative to make this product and that feed money back into production, we found this in other countries, as once the audience are global, production values can go up because they will re-profit from the global audience’’ Keyser explained.
Kayser said that there is a large market in this region, much larger than other individual markets.
‘’ You have a market that is large enough to actually reap the profits, as this industry gets global the more money will be invested in the industry and production value gets better’’ Keyser said.
Blakely’s dream has always been to find the kind of content that would be appealing to the pan Arab audience and because there are different nations, with different dialects and with different sensibilities. ‘’If someone would be able to find this formula that really appeal to this large audience I think this would be very lucrative’’ Blakely said.
‘’ In our country for example you can make a product that is not in English and people will watch it’’ Keyser said.
‘’I think in the United States we were very spoiled because we had a huge entertainment industry dedicated to us, speaking about our jokes and things we understand and we forced the stories basically on the rest of the world because they didn’t have the same entertainment industries in their countries, that is changing, and it became much cheaper actually to produce a lot of content because of digital devices , so it has been very interesting for me to see how foreign content has really started to get a grip on the US audience because a lot of us are bored with the stories our own industry has been telling us and as we were discussing, it only takes one show to make a breakthrough, and people start say this is incredible story, who is the writer, director and the cast, and financial people start saying I want another series from this cast’’ Blakely explained.
According to Blakely this happened to some degree with the TV show Narcos which have a bunch of subtitles where people in the United States rarely watch a movie or a series with subtitles but now it is quiet frequent.
‘’So I am quite optimistic how the streaming platforms in particular are going to bring all kinds of content from all over the world to global audiences’’ Blakely said.
Kyser explained that his background is in making television series. ‘’We used to make 22 episodes series , before that in the American television we made 34 episodes series or 40 episodes series, they were all driven by economics, they weren’t driven by what the story needed’’ Keyser recounted.
Keyser narrated that the American television season began because new models of cars came out in September that was when television shows started airing to advertise cars, so it has nothing to do with what story needed but with what advertising needed, but now we live in a different world, a world of streaming, of people having access to the episodes whenever they want and now television shows exist to make sense for the story they are telling.
‘’I think in general what we found out is that audience prefer shorter seasons, they like to see the end at some point from the beginning, no one wants to read a 2000 pages novel, so the idea of making shorter shows does a lot of different things, it is really good for the audience, it is really good for creators because you do better work when you do less work in a shorter period of time, television series are not like novels, in our modern version of the television system which is now practiced around the world the length of episodes and seasons is driven by what the story demands less than by what advertisers demand which is really a positive change’’ Keyser explained.
Blakely explained that the subscription model for television has revolutionized television in the United States and around the world.
‘’I think one of the other wonderful benefits that you don’t have to produce programming that you think will appeal to everyone which impossible, with the subscription model you can make programing that is for every single person in that family and the subscription keep getting paid because you are pleasing everyone in the family, maybe not all in the same time but you have that wide array that will appeal to very small audiences of different types, so you see a wider range of programming in subscription models than in main stream broadcast models’’ Blakely explained.
Kyser said that the ironic thing is that American movies are in the opposite direction , they are made principally to appeal to global audiences, for billions of people to watch, that made it more generic. American television is based on the idea that you don’t need to make it appeal to everyone, you can make a very local story and make billions of people to watch.
‘’I think young filmmakers in the region are moving in the right direction, really sophisticated, honest, locally drive character based stories that can work in the global market but it takes time to do all of that, we are working on empowering young storytellers and individual writers to create their own narratives, they don’t need our advice on what stories to tell’’ Keyser said.
Blakely’s advice to people in this program is that they need to take very seriously their audience, they need to find out what they crave, what stories they are not hearing and need to know about, to find ways to connect with audience by storytelling, by telling the stories that are relevant to their lives, this kind of relationship with the audience translates to high viewership and financial benefits.
Middle East Media Initiative has writers from all over the region and Egypt, in addition to searching for new young Egyptian writers to join.