Curtains come down on Amman's cinemas

Curtains come down on Amman's cinemas
Feature: In the past, police were called to control crowds flocking to Amman's downtown picture houses. But dwindling crowds have forced many to close.
3 min read
11 May, 2015
Audiences in Amman are now almost exclusively male [Getty]

Mohammed Mahfoudh has seen the steady decline of the cinema industry in central Amman over the past 40 years.

The number of cinemagoers has been in sharp decline for years, turning profits into huge losses.

Most of the cinemas in which he has worked have closed their doors.

"The age of downtown cinema is over," says the manager of Cinema Palestine, in the centre of Amman. He sits at the ticket counter, and never serves more than 30 people a day. "Most of those come looking for a place to sleep."

During the peak of cinema, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was common to call in the police to control the swollen crowds outside Amman's cinemas.

Mahfoudh worked as a film distributor and manager of Cinema al-Hussein during the heyday of Egyptian film in the 1950s.

Ten years ago it closed its doors due to a sharp decline in cinema attendance.

Mahfoudh rented the Cinema Palestine to continue in the cinema industry he loves, but is now struggling to meet the $12,700 a year rent for the building.

The owner of the building has taken Mahfoudh to court to force his to pay his arrears or leave. Either option will mean the cinema will close.

"Previously, cinemas were the only places for entertainment, but today people have many other options," says Mahfoudh.

He urges the government to cut taxes and registration fees to revive the downtown district.

"[The government] looks at cinemas as private investment, not as a part of the city's history and cultural and artistic movement."

     Previously, cinemas were the only places for entertainment, but today people have many other options.
Mohammed Mahfoud, manager, Cinema Palestine

Family entertainment

During the 1950s, cinema audiences were almost exclusively families.

Over time, cinemas began admitting anyone who paid, and soon they were packed with unemployed labourers, who would spend their days watching back-to-back films.

In an effort to maximize profits, some cinemas showed pornographic films to attract a younger audience. These were soon shut down by the authorities.

At one time, there were 15 cinemas in the city centre, and now only four remain.

One of those, Cinema al-Hamra, now looks derelict. "There is no income to renovate. The cinema's income barely covers the running costs," says Abu Yosef.

Business has got so bad that Abu Yusuf is thinking of turning it into a coffee shop.

"Look, downtown has no visitors. In the past you could not find a place to sit in this street," said Abu Yusuf.

"Plus, today, you have thousands of satellite channels that show modern movies and the availability of DVD players," he said. 

"Films that cost millions of dollars to make are being sold as cheap [pirated] copies, so why do people need the cinema?"   

Amman's pirated DVD shops have been doing booming trade in the past decade, but the downtown cinema industry is breathing its last breath.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.