What Egyptians watch: A quest for the most-watched films since 2011
 
 
Karmouz War (2018)
 

Egyptian Box office revenues have been increasing season after season, and “highest grossing film in Egyptian history” has become an achievement sought out by filmmakers, even this disregards the steady increase of ticket prices. This report attempts to determine the most-watched films in the past few years in terms of ticket sales rather than overall box office revenues.

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Ya Rab, ya Rab!” the same prayer to God is chanted by all characters on-screen. One can feel their bated breaths and the skyrocketing levels of adrenaline pumping through their veins. British forces are about to break into the police station. Although that there is nothing anyone can do about it, everyone in the film has complete faith that Amir Karara, their knight in shining armor, will know what to do when the time comes. 

The audience in Odeon Cinema also shares the same faith, echoing the chants of the characters on screen during a midnight screening of Peter Mimi’s Harb Karmouz (Karmouz War, 2018.)

The scene culminates in a heavy downpour of rain on the area surrounding the station, with the muddy ground becoming the obstacle that eventually stops the British from breaking in.

My friend and partner in this endeavor Islam and I were sitting next to each other in the middle of the cinema when our eyes met. Despite the grandeur of the situation and the intense sense of patriotism blanketing the room, we could not hold back our laughter. We didn’t regret the money we spent on the tickets, though. After all, we had decided to go to the movies because  we were bored, and the audience’s reactions provided us with some undeniable entertainment.

A few days later, Islam sent me a screenshot on WhatsApp of a Facebook status by Peter Mimi,  director of the aforementioned “masterpiece”, claiming that his film is the highest grossing Egyptian film of all time, which many interpreted to mean that Karmouz War is the most-watched Egyptian film in history. 

Islam was surprised. He expected that the spot would surely be held by a film starring Mohamed Ramadan. I, on the other hand — despite thinking that Karmouz War was essentially a bad film — understood why it could be the most-watched film in the history of Egyptian cinema. It was Mohamed El Sobky’s first venture into screenwriting after all, and the film he literally and figuratively bet his money on.

Ticket sales: the true metric

Islam and I were aware that it is difficult to judge the success of a film based on a subjective estimation of the level of enthusiasm it was met with or on how full the theaters seemed when it premiered. You see, there are audiences for every film during peak seasons. But relying on the total amount film grosses during its run in cinemas  is never accurate since prices increase over time. Naturally, the more ticket prices increase, the higher the film grosses.

These questions started a weeks-long search for any statistics for the number of tickets sold for every film, thus getting a closer look into the preferences of Egyptian audiences. Let us take a look at where that journey landed us.

Treated like a ‘military secret’

From his home office, Islam began looking for any statistics on ticket sales, which naturally led him to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the official statistical agency in the country.

Statistics regarding Egyptian cinema are included in the Cultural Statistics Bulletin published within the CAPMAS statistical yearbook. The last yearbook was published in September 2018, and only contains data regarding the number of movie theaters and the number of moviegoers in each governorate from 2013 till 2016 — information which provided no useful answers to our questions.

You may now be wondering why we didn’t think to look for the data at its real source, production and distribution companies. It does seem like the most efficient solution, but the reality is quite disheartening. Taking that route would have cost us a lot of time, since these companies never give public access to any statistics on their films. Some of them barely have any online presence. Placing your bets on the cooperation of production companies is an unwise decision.

With further research, Islam managed to find weekly statistics regarding the box office revenue of films provided by ElCinema.com. However, the site only includes films that were made starting 2011 to the present, and mentions nothing about the actual number of tickets sold. Our team then contacted the people behind ElCinema.com to know how they actually gathered this data. They said that it is official data from distribution companies and movie theaters, making it a sufficiently reliable source. They also clarified that the revenues shown include cinemas in Egypt.

When Islam showed me the results of his search, I was not surprised. I remembered what my friend Mohamed Hussein, who is the managing editor at Al-Cinema al-Arabiya magazine, said about distribution companies often treating ticket sales as though they were “a military secret.”

Building a database

Watching Karmouz War was a change of pace from our usual meetup. We usually meet at a local coffee shop rather than the cinema, as neither of us are particularly keen on watching Egyptian films on the big screen. However, what interests us both is data-based journalism, diving into the world of numbers and analyzing them, and subsequently finding the stories hidden among them. We also have a specific hobby when trying to overcome an absence of information, creating a special database in which we process available information to generate new data.

We started practicing our new hobby by compiling the weekly box office numbers of all the films that came out between the start of 2011 and June 2019, a period of 440 weeks.  Finally, each member of our team had in their hands 7,365 results, each of which represented an individual film’s weekly revenue, for a total of 1,442 films. This information enabled us to draw a clearer image of the increase in box office revenues during that period of time.

The graph above shows how gross box office revenues have skyrocketed overall in recent years, increasing from LE254 million in 2012 to LE713 million in 2018. 

The following graphic shows box office revenue for each film in descending order.

Al-Badla (The Suit, 2018) is the highest grossing of all films in the study, with Nadi al-Regal al-Serry (The Secret Men’s Club, 2019) coming in second, while Karmouz War and Al-Khaliya (The Cell, 2017) take the third and fourth places, respectively.

Both movies ahead of Karmouz War came out after it, which hints that box office performance is indeed what the makers and distributors of those films—like the makers and distributors of Karmouz War before them — prefer to use to claim that their film was the most popular. This ultimately brought us back to square one.

Avoiding misleading numbers

We could not forget the driving force behind this quest for data, the assumption that the increase in revenue does not necessarily have to indicate an increase in the number of tickets purchased, especially due to high inflation rates and varying ticket prices throughout the years. “As informative as it seems to be, this data can very easily trick us, and it came close to doing so,” Islam says.

After a bit of brainstorming, we found a gateway out of this dilemma; creating our own database by doing some math with the data we have. Islam’s suggestion was to divide the revenue of each film on the average price of tickets in the year in which it was released to get an approximate to the number of tickets sold, and then compare the films using these numbers.

We immediately rushed to our computers, with Islam researching every open movie theater in every governorate while I gathered ticket price information from some theaters.

ElCinema.com offers information on open movie theaters in only 14 of Egypt’s governorates, so we find data for the remaining 13 governorates by closely studying Google Maps. As of March 25, the day of the search, the complete list contained 96 across the country. Additional data regarding cinemas located in certain governorates was compiled through their Facebook pages and others through direct phone calls, since some cinemas do not state their ticket prices online.

After updating the list with the current ticket prices for every cinema, which ranged from LE20 to LE180, a new question arose: What price should be used to divide the revenues? Using the wrong number would certainly provide us with misleading results.

Luckily, the science of statistics had a solution, a process known as sampling.  We chose a sample of movie theaters from our list, calculate their average ticket prices over the years, then generalized the results. 

We needed to make sure our sample was representative, so we divided the cinemas into three categories based on ticket price:

  • Inexpensive cinemas; whose ticket prices range from LE20 to LE40 (50 cinemas)
  • Moderate-price cinemas; whose ticket prices range from LE45 to LE80 (34 cinemas)
  • Expensive cinemas; whose ticket prices range from LE85 to LE180 (12 cinemas)

We had to choose a sample that represented these three categories with the same relative weight they had in the 96 cinemas on the list we compiled a few days earlier.

To calculate this, we divided the number of cinemas in every category by a common factor of 12, leaving us with: 4 inexpensive cinemas, 3 moderate-price cinemas, and 1 expensive cinema. The process was not as easy as expected.

To view the cinemas we chose for our sample click here.

Searching for actual ticket prices 

At downtown’s Cinema Metro, ticket prices were typed up with messy formatting on a sheet of A4 paper and hung up on its metal doors. It stated that standard ticket prices are LE40, which are reduced to LE35 for the 10:45 am matinee screening.

I asked the box office employee about ticket prices in past years, to which he snapped: “I don’t know, I’ve only been working here a month. You can ask someone from management,” before walking away.

We asked the same question in many other cinemas and the results were the same. The most useful answer I got was from an employee in Nile City cinemas named Mohamed, who guessed from memory that in 2011 one ticket cost LE35, and that the price increased by a rate of LE5 per year. However, he did not have any evidence to confirm these prices.

Our last option, ElCinema.com, only showed updated ticket prices for 2019. Therefore, we had to look for an alternative online source, such as archived news and blogs.

We needed to find the ticket price at one of the eight cinemas in the sample for each of the nine years between 2011 and 2019. After searching, we found 54 results out of the required 72 data points. As a result, we had to estimate the remaining 18 data points based on available prices from the  years preceding and succeeding it.

Time to apply the formulas!

Islam was excited to apply his formulas, which he’d written on a small piece of paper stuck to the corner of his laptop screen.

Formula #1:  

Average ticket price in a certain year = Total ticket prices for sample cinemas that year/Number of sample cinemas

After applying the above equation, results showed that ticket prices increased six times over the past eight years. The largest increase was in 2018, with prices increasing by over LE10 on average.

Formula #2:

Approximate number of tickets per film = The film’s box office revenue/Average ticket price in its year of release

We then applied this formula on all the films used to attain the most accurate result possible.

The final results 

The jumbled numbers on our laptop then transformed into clear, informative graphs like  the one below:

The above graph shows us that, like total revenues, the number of tickets sold has increased over the designated period, although at a much slower rate. Ticket sales increased overall by 12% from 11.5 million in 2012 to 12.8 million in 2018. There is a rather steep drop in 2013, followed by a gradual recovery over the following years before peaking in 2017 at 13.2 million tickets sold.

When ranking the films using our estimates of ticket sales, The Cell and Huroub Idtirary (Forced Escape, 2017) came in the second and third places respectively, with The Suit following them in fourth place. Karmouz War was actually few films behind, in seventh place, while the highest ranking Mohamed Ramadan film on the list, Abdo Mota (2012) came in tenth. Al-Diesel (2018), Ramadan’s most recent film, came in 41st place.

Rather surprisingly, Sherif Arafa’s X-Large (2011), starring Ahmed Helmy and Donia Samir Ghanem, came in first on the list. Another film of theirs, Laff Wa Dawaran (Flimflam, 2016) also made the list at number six.

Box Office: Give me 3 Ramadan and 5 Helmy!

During an evening chat on the phone, my friend Mohamed Awad, who edits the arts and literature section on Ida2at.com, tells me that box office competition remains as fierce as it’s always been between action and comedy flicks. However, what strikes him the most is how audiences buy tickets, calling the films by the names of their stars rather than their actual titles. “Give me three Ramadan,” one might say, for example, or “Five Helmy, please!” 

That X-Large was at the top of our list of the most-watched films from 2011 to mid-2018 was not only surprising to me and Islam, but also to our colleagues Mohamed Awad and Mohamed Hussein.

While we may be able to explain why The Suit has surpassed Al-Diesel or Karmouz War in box office performance and number of tickets sold by virtue of its popular lead (Tamer Hosni) and the fact that it’s a comedy revolving around a pretend-policeman —combining all the lures of the other three films — it isn’t so clear to us why X-Large managed to top all these films.

X-Large (2011)

Hussein’s answer to this question is that Helmy’s films perform so well because he is one of the most popular actors around, and because comedies are almost always guaranteed to draw audiences. The atmosphere in which the film was aired was also a contributing factor to its staggering success. At a time of political turmoil during the 2011 revolution, most mainstream producers were scared to make new films, fearing the financial risk. That is, except for El Sobky, who produced X-Large precisely at that time.

Awad, on the other hand, attributes the movie’s success to the fact that comedy films usually have a family-friendly rating, which means more tickets are purchased at a time. On the other hand, action films are mostly frequented by young people.

The battle continues

While the battle Islam and I fought to obtain the data is finally over, the ongoing box office battles between filmmakers and distributors do not seem like they will end any time soon.

Karmouz War was released during the Eid al-Fitr holiday of 2018, and in the Eid al-Adha season of the same year, The Suit and Al-Diesel were competing over the number one spot in box office sales.

That year, neither a movie’s potentially entertaining premise nor audiences’ pre-release enthusiasm could guarantee it the highest revenue or ticket sales. Mohamed Hussein watched Al-Diesel in a movie theater in Hadayek al-Kobba packed with young men barely out of their teenage years. Everyone was out of their seats with excitement, cheering for the protagonist as though they were in a football match, with some physically miming what they were seeing on-screen. The last time Hussein had witnessed such a scene was while watching Al-Irhab Wal Kabab (Terrorism and the Kebab) in the early 1990s. 

Al-Diesel (2018)

What surprised Hussein, however, was what happened next. During a chase scene where Mohamed Ramadan’s character flees from a swarm of cars and rabid dogs, the audience started to settle down until they eventually went silent, a stark contrast from their previous animated state. Some even began vocally to express their disapproval of the scene. In most Mohamed Ramadan films, he usually faces danger from human adversaries whom he ultimately defeats by the end, not cars and dogs. This frustration may partially explain lower box office returns than usual. The film made only LE24 million. Using our formula, this  translates to roughly 432,000 tickets sold.

On the other hand, Hussein’s experience watching The Suit in a cinema located within a mall was much more tame, only interrupted by laughter from the audience, even though the theater was as full as it usually during a peak time like Eid Al-Adha.

The Suit (2018)

Usually, a film remains in cinemas after the Eid season as long as people are buying tickets. Films that are not well-received get pulled out right after. After the last Eid al-Adha season ended, the filmmakers behind The Suit announced that it had become the highest-grossing film in Egyptian history, passing Karmouz War.

According to our statistics, it is true that The Suit is indeed the highest in terms of box office performance in terms of total revenue, although it comes in fourth place for number of tickets sold.

Will Helmy trump all of this year’s high-profile action flicks?

During Eid al-Fitr 2019, there was fierce competition between Sherif Arafa’s Al Mamarr (The Passageway), starring Ahmed Ezz and Peter Mimi’s Casablanca, starring Amir Karara. Right now, a similar battle is raging between Marwan Hamed’s Al-Feel Al-Azraq 2 (The Blue Elephant 2), Tarek al-Eryan’s Awlad Rizq 2 (Sons of Rizk 2), Sherif Arafa’s Al-Kenz 2 (The Treasure 2) and Khaled Marei’s Khayal Maata (Scarecrow), actor Ahmed Helmy’s first film in three years. Together, these films, along with The Passageway and Casablanca, constitute the bulk of the 2019 summer movie season. 

We’ll have to wait until the season is over before we can properly assess these films’ box office performance in terms of revenue and tickets sold. My bet is that Helmy’s film will be the most-watched of the season, although I’m unsure that it will be the “highest grossing film in Egyptian history.”

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Abdelrahman Iyad 
Islam Salah al-Din