In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Lebanese were considered to be the foremost cinemagoers in the world. They used to be so drawn to movie theatres because there weren’t many options as far as entertainment was concerned (TV etc…) and primarily because the ticket price to see a movie was one of the cheapest in the world at the time (less than $0.25 compared to $3 in the U.S.A and 5 Francs in France). It is interesting to note that while cinemas in present day Lebanon have a fixed ticket price throughout the country, this bygone era had 3 different types of tickets depending on where you sit with Orchestra being the cheapest (less than $0.25), Balcony being the medium and Fauteuil Club being the most expensive (at $1.50). Pricing also differed from city to city, with Beirut naturally being the most expensive.
The Lebanese weren’t simply regular moviegoers but they were also movie buffs par excellence because Lebanon used to show and accept a rich myriad of films originating from all corners of the world, catering to all tastes and different levels of culture. Thus diverse genres, languages and ethnicities featured on the silver screen, resulting in an eye-catching flood of American (North and South), French, Italian, British, Swedish, Turkish, Arabic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese films amongst others.
This feverish cinema passion was manifest in the increasing number of movie theatres across the small country during this time period. According to Georges Sadoul’s reference book, “The History of Cinema”, the number of cinemas rose from 80 back in 1950 to 118 in 1960. The Lebanese Statistics Group (Statistics Central Directorate) give more accurate and detailed figures which show that by the end of 1961 Lebanon had 168 movie theatres seating 83,000 people and by the end 1970 there were 171 cinemas with the capacity of seating 85,000.
UNESCO’s 1965 annual report “Facts and Figures” reveals that Lebanese cinema attendance reached its peak in 1960 when Lebanon was rated the second in the world with each Lebanese buying an average of 22.5 tickets per annum while Hong Kong, which ranked first, had an average of 22.8 tickets per inhabitant. However by 1965 this figure had dropped to an average of 14 tickets per annum due to the increasing competition of TV, the dynamic boom of Lebanon’s theatre movement and cultural life, and the Lebanese becoming more discerning moviegoers. Box office figures from 1972 show a rebirth and rejuvenation in regular movie going which remained strong until the outbreak of the civil war.
In order to appreciate the extent of Lebanese cinema attendance we need to put things in perspective by examining what was happening in other countries at the time. For instance in 1965 when Lebanese attendance hit a low of 14 tickets per person, the average American bought only 7 tickets while the French bought 4, the Chinese 6, the Egyptian 2.1, the Iranian 0.4, the Yemeni 0.2, the Russian bought 20 tickets per year and Hong Kong maintained its top rank with 23 tickets per inhabitant. Also it should be noted that before the civil war Lebanese movie theatres used to have 50 seats for each 1,000 Lebanese while the USA used to have only 35 and Egypt a mere 5 seats.
If we take a closer look at the time period, we discover that in addition to the more obvious reasons mentioned above for the decline of Lebanese cinema attendance, there are other factors which played a significant role in this development. Many good films were banned in Lebanon due to their stars, directors, producers or company being black listed because of their affiliations with the Zionism movement. Also many films were shown severely cut to the point of ‘mutilation’ due to strict censorship which sanitized sexual, political or religious content. This practice naturally put off and frustrated certain moviegoers. We shouldn’t forget that the early 1960s were the golden years of “New Wave” cinema and saw the birth of ‘difficult’ or ‘artsy’ films by masters such Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman and other greats which discouraged the average viewer who believed that cinema is nothing more than entertainment and shouldn’t rack your brains.
What remains a bit odd is that between 1960 and 1965, when the Lebanese started to go the cinema less and less, more and more movie theatres were built and certain areas and regions that never had a theatre in their vicinity saw the rapid construction of many in their district (for instance: in 1963 the first 15 cinemas were established in the Beqaa Valley while 3 theatres were built in Akkar in 1964).
If we take Beirut alone we learn that the capital and its suburbs boasted 60 cinemas in 1972. The capital itself had 43 movie theatres back in 1961 with the capacity of seating 27,588 people and in 1963 it had 49 cinemas which could seat 33,403 while in 1970 it had 47 movie theatres seating 33,494 people. The last figures clearly show that the number of seats had increased while the number of movie theatres had actually decreased by 2. The main reason for this was that the Hamra area was rapidly becoming the cultural, commercial and entertainment centre of Beirut and witnessed the opening of many new cinemas while the Downtown area which used to be booming with cinemas was seeing a significant slowdown. As more people came to be entertained in Hamra and Ras Beirut, Downtown was another scenario…the “Amir” closed down, the “Sheherazad” and “Hilton” cinemas were converted into theatres and the “Capitol” was transformed into a large bank.
The movie theatres in Lebanon were generally in decent condition, being well equipped and modern. The exceptional majority even tended to be incredibly lavish…in fact, the St. Charles, built in the early 1970s, was listed by Variety magazine as being the most luxurious and modern cinema in the world. With such unique, chic ambiance to accentuate the cinematic experience, it’s no wonder that the Lebanese before the civil war used to spend more than $20 million per year on their movie tickets (translating into approximately 35 million tickets at the box office).