BEIRUT: “Once we launched this campaign, I noticed that people were shocked that we were having this financial ... discomfort,” Hania Mroue says, not quite smiling. “So many businesses are closing down. So many institutions are having difficulties. Why is it shocking that Metropolis is also having problems?
“I realized people didn’t know that we are an independent organization. We do receive a small grant from the Culture Ministry, which never exceeds 5 percent of our budget. People wonder, ‘Why doesn’t Empire finance you?’
“Like any other cultural institution in the world, we have financial difficulties sometimes. We’ve had that from the very beginning.”
Metropolis Art Cinema opened its doors in the auspicious month of July 2006. Then located in Masrah al-Madina’s little theater (now home to Metro al-Madina cabaret space), Beirut’s sole art house cinema commenced its programming with its first reiteration of Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique.
Within 24 hours or so the country’s airport had been bombed by Lebanon’s southern neighbor, commencing a monthlong conflict. The building housing Metropolis opened its doors to displaced families. The cinema soon resumed the projections, though that first Critics Week audience dissipated.
The cinema’s launch was uniquely stressful but its early history hasn’t been dissimilar to that of this town’s other independent arts initiatives. “If you wait for the right time to do something,” as Ashkal Alwan founder Christine Tohme has put it, “you’ll never do anything.”
“We’ve had some good years and some bad years,” Mroue resumes. “We managed to find solutions internally, without reaching out to the audience.”
Thirteen years after opening Metropolis, now lodged in Sofil cinema, has launched its first fundraising campaign. As the cinema’s founding director points out, this sort of thing isn’t unusual in the arts sector.
“It’s normal for a cultural institution to reach out to its audience at some point and ask for help,” she says a bit defiantly, “especially given the, um, financial discomfort the country is now in.”
Shortly after Metropolis opened, Mroue recalls, she’d told a local paper how she’d sustain her cinema in Beirut’s seemingly hostile environment. “First, as long as there is an audience coming to the cinema, we’re not gonna close. If the audience is not interested anymore and they find alternatives then, yes, it makes sense to shut. Other than that, we’ll manage, like everybody else in this country. The second thing is, we’re never gonna rely on one source of funding.”
She opens a brochure worked up for the campaign, and points to a pie chart breaking down the cinema’s yearly budget - about half of which has been obtained from EU funds and embassies.
“We try to diversify our funding sources as much as possible, so that if there’s a crisis in any sector, we can survive.
“I never imagined there’d be such deep cuts to culture in all EU institutions. And that at the same time the country would be going through an economic crisis where businesses are very reluctant to support cultural organizations. And that there’s a financial crisis that makes philanthropists so oversolicited, they have to prioritize.
“We’ve now reached a point where none of the conditions is favorable,” she says, closing the pamphlet. “We made a public call because I felt that the audience has always been our greatest supporter.
“Everywhere I go, there’s always this question: ‘Will cinema survive VOD [video on demand]?’ I keep saying, ‘Yes. Nothing replaces a cinema experience. People will still come to cinemas, whether the film is pirated, on VOD, whatever.’
“I thought maybe I should ask our audience, to see if they really think this cinema should continue, instead of me answering on their behalf,” she says.
“So far, the response has been overwhelming. The campaign went viral. People are calling from everywhere, Lebanon and outside, offering all kinds of help - financial as well as volunteering their time, putting us in touch with influential people who could support us in different ways. Institutions also contacted us, trying to find ways to partner. People offered us venues, in case we want to move to a different and cheaper space.”
Metropolis’ yearly activities are of four types - programming, youth audience education, film industry activities and film conservation, the mandate of Cinematheque Beirut. The goal of this campaign is to keep all four programs running until at least 2020.
“We don’t want to make any compromise on the quality of our projects,” she explains, “and we don’t want to raise ticket prices. The idea isn’t to save the institution now, but to make sure that it will be there 10 years from now.
“I hope we’ll be able to find the money we’re looking for, but I think we already have the answer, that people want us to continue. That makes me want to fight to keep it running.”
In the profit and loss of its first dozen-plus years, Mroue says, box office receipts have been its one constant. “It’s important for people to know that the box office helps us stay in this venue, because it’s not us that take the box office but Circuit Empire, as rent for the space.
“I think we’re doing well, knowing that attendance in general has declined in all cinemas. Metropolis’ market share, while small, is still the same. The same number of people come,” she adds.
Accentuating the cinema’s diminished budget is the increased expense of programming.
“When we started, if we wanted to screen a European film, the embassies would cover the screening fees, invite directors etc. Now, because they have budget cuts, it’s become more complicated.”
Films have also become more expensive to acquire.
“I think sales agents and distributors understood [this region is] an important market. Ten years ago we could get some films for free, because they were happy to explore this new market. ... They never had any requests from Lebanon. Now they have several requests from here and they make you pay for this screening. We also have competition from the Gulf and the region’s Class-A festivals, who have also contributed in increasing films’ screening fees.
“The classics compensated for that expense. International classics have also become more expensive because of the movement to restore films and rerelease them commercially. A film from the ’50s or ’60s is no longer an artwork but a business opportunity, making it more complicated and expensive for us to program them.
“We still have Arab films,” she smiles. “The few heroes who are restoring Arab classics are still eager, happy to find audiences and to create a market for these films. This is fantastic.”
Mroue believes there is a pressing need for all four facets of Metropolis’ programming.
“It doesn’t make any sense, Metropolis continuing without programming films. I can’t imagine programming for adults and not for the kids. I can’t imagine an institution in Lebanon that is not deeply connected to, and supporting, this film industry. ... Can you imagine us programming only recent films and not films from our local or international cinema heritage?
“Film heritage activities continue,” she says. “We’re applying for funding. We’re looking at partnerships with important institutions ... As for the space, I think we can’t continue if we don’t at some point have a venue of our own that is called Cinematheque Beirut. Maybe now is not the time. But this cinematheque will happen, someday.”