Film makers in the region who converged in Kampala for the 8th Annual Congress on East African Cinema explored the possibility of exploiting the Internet, film training initiatives, alternative means of fundraising and distribution including the networks of the film pirates as some of the means to propel the industry forward.
The congress, held during the Amakula Kampala Cinema Caravan Festival from December 14–17 2011, focused on how to leverage the East African Common Market for cinema.
This is against the background of a 130 million strong population in East Africa that not only offers a potential market for film consumption but also reveals the multitude of stories that can be told cinematically across the varied cultural tapestry of the five member nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Summarising the current state of the industry, Prof Martin R. Mhando, a Tanzanian filmmaker, said: “Cinema is dead in Africa because no one goes to the theatre anymore. Maybe a few members of the elite class watch films in theatres, but the cinema market does not make much money like it did in the 1960s–80s. We can’t sell in Africa and yet our market is here at home.”
“We need to identify our target audience. We may not get them in the cinema hall, but we should make the products that they actually want and these could be DVDs, television, makeshift video halls or via YouTube,” noted Charles Asiba, chief executive and festival director of the Kenya International Film Festival.
Asiba, who is also the director of the Kenya Film Commission, added that: “Cinema should be the high end product of a filmmaker.
If you can have a theatre release that should be the ultimate — but it is only a select few who turn up. The Nigerians have been producing home videos for the past 15 years and it is only now that they are turning to theatre productions because they have created audiences for their films.”
“We have witnessed a revival of pop music in East Africa thanks to the new generation. With the middle class now listening and appreciating local music in place of the once dominant Congolese music, the film industry could borrow a leaf from the music sector and target the video market and not the cinema market.
We could also copy the Bibanda [video halls] in Uganda and develop our film structure around that kind of distribution pattern,” said Mhando, a film professor at Murdoch University in Australia.
“We have observed that more people are watching DVDs in the comforts of their homes. So for us to claim to be doing film business, we have to take our films to homes or even the makeshift video halls, as long as we can generate income. We can’t claim to have a film industry if we are not making money,” Asiba added.
“My advice to the young filmmakers is that they should look at cinema as a business and not an art. As much as it is a creative industry let’s look at the business end of our productions. Why are we making these films? Can we live on them? Can they sustain our livelihoods?” Asiba asks.
According to Richard Geria, sales and marketing manager of Fast Track Productions, the emerging market for African film is online. “The online market is presenting an alternative channel for the distribution of film content.
The regulation for this new outlet maybe non-existent but it offers film producers an opportunity to make money.”
Fast Track Productions has developed a platform called AfricaFilmOnline.tv that is still being tested and should provide its customers with a variety of African content. It is a Video on Demand (VoD) service where members will sign up to download television episodes and films. Payments will be made using debit cards, credit cards or mobile money.
“We have noticed that there is a huge demand for African films. We have uploaded all the 90 episodes of the first season of our television series ‘The Hostel’ on our platform and we have been overwhelmed by the demand for DVDs of the series. Our targets are the Ugandans in the diaspora and the high enders in Uganda who can afford the latest gadgets,” Geria revealed.
According to Geria, the film producers will be entitled to 25 per cent of the revenue generated after sales.
“We shall share the numbers with the producers as partners. In order to protect copyright infringement we have invested in a security system in which our customers will only be able to stream and not download content,” he said.
According to Elijah Kitaka, business development associate at Google Uganda, the recent launch of the Ugandan YouTube channel gives the country’s filmmakers an opportunity to broadcast themselves to the world on the largest online video community.
Mhando highlights a completely different approach to the issue of piracy without necessarily condoning it, in his paper titled, Leveraging Film for the East African Common Market: The Swahili Film Market.
“While we have no figures to quantify the extent to which the Swahili film business functions and aids the Tanzania economy, we can indeed see the number of people involved in the production and distribution of videos, therefore acknowledging the job creation capacity of the industry.
The distribution network that reaches millions of customers, is a genuine job creation enterprise.
The hundreds of machinga (street vendors) that survive on this business attest to the importance of culture to their lives and therefore the country,” Mhando argues.
Mhando believes that piracy is not necessarily a negative aspect. “It can help us to improve the way we communicate.
It provides employment and cuts down the crime rate. We can take advantage of the pirate’s distribution networks to make our sector profitable. Let’s think outside the box to leverage film for the East African Common Market,” he argues.
At the Swahili film level in the past decade, the means by which independent films, documentaries, and screenplays are financed, advertised, marketed and sold has undergone tremendous change. More than 100 Swahili films are being produced annually, all competing for distribution deals. “Indeed the distribution of Swahili films in Tanzania and the region in general has eclipsed that of Nigerian films,” Mhando writes.
,” independent filmmakers’ opportunities to have their scripts produced or films released into the marketplace have become increasingly difficult, Mhando observes.
Kenya continues to churn out many films in English and Swahili recognizing both the language factor in the marketing of films as well as its cultural efficacy and beneficence, Mhando adds in the paper that projects commercial and cultural conditions necessary for a viable and utilitarian film industry in the region.
However if we are to look at the market in general we find a much enlarged distribution circuit in the region. Steps Entertainment of Dar es- Salaam has captured and controls the market of Swahili (Bongo) films around the region and have now opened offices in Rwanda, DR Congo and are looking at opening offices in Kenya and Burundi, Mhando adds.
“Indeed it is a well-known fact that the distribution of Swahili films in Tanzania and the region in general has eclipsed that of Nigerian films,” Mhando writes.
Steps Entertainment began its operations in 2005 with the mission of reaching the people through small outlets and agents spread countrywide offering affordable entertainment and education through films.
They produce 6,000 DVD copies of a film and sell 4,000 copies on the day of release. The average cost of production is $10,000.
According to Mhando, “Notwithstanding the piracy factor, the company has indeed expanded to producing films cheaply in order to allow themselves a wide profit margin to undercut the film pirate. It has now achieved a modicum of respect despite it also being seen to undermine the growth of local filmmakers through their crass management system.
It is well-known fact that producers for Steps are forced to pay minuscule rates to artist (except the stars) to just break even while affording Steps the margins necessary for profit making.
With its vast distribution network in and outside Tanzania, it purchases movies and distributes them across the region.”
“What Steps has revealed however is that there is need for a link between producers and distributors. Steps works in both and in that way undercut the producer. If there was a link, an “advertising and marketing” link who would handle multiple projects,” Mhando observes.