No Space for African Films, We Serve Hollywood
By Mwenda Wa Micheni
Business Daily (Nairobi)
10 April 2008
It is a classic case of absurdity. Whether in Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa or even in Kenya, there are several idle cinema theatres on one side, and so many African films seeking exhibition space on the other. "African film and its audience have difficulty coming together. The conditions for this to happen do not exist," says Mr Olivier Barlet a specialist in African cinema. Even after African countries raised their own flags in the '60s, film distribution remained in the hands of foreign companies. Film distribution has remained in the hands of foreign - American or Lebanese - companies, or other multinationals operating from South Africa.
Attempts by Africans to control distribution of their own films are yet to bear fruits. In Uganda, filmmakers are limited to shanty video dens. In Kenya, many are still experimenting with home videos produced by Riverwood while cinema theatres are yet to accept these movies as most of the bookings are made in Hollywood. When Mr Kibaara M'Kaugi was planning the release of his Mau Mau film, Enough is Enough, he had to bargain for months before being slotted in by the NuMetro theatres. The same happened to Money and the Cross produced by Njeri Karago.
"They have no time for local productions, " says Cajetan Boy, a screenwriter. "It's time we came together and took one of the idle theatres to screen our productions, " he says. Surprisingly, even the idle theatres have not spotted the potential in these films despite the attention they have been attracting. Just outside the once very popular Odeon Cinema – a 350- seater theatre located in the Nairobi's downtown - are several matatu touts shouting for passengers. On the now unkempt walls of the box office squeezed in a corner, there is a dusty notice whispering that the show is still on here. Today is the turn of an adult film titled Hanging Up.
A Hollywood release, Hanging Up is a story of three sisters -Eve, Georgia and Maddy - dealing with life, love, and death on the telephone. Showing seven years after its release date, the film has only managed to interest three old patrons this afternoon. Ironically, only two local films - Malooned and Benta – were screened in a public cinema. "We have only relied on what comes from Fox Theatres and have not considered any other option," says Esther Muchiri who manages the box office at Odeon. At some point when it was still popular, Odeon Cinema used to attract a throng of enthusiasts.
According to Esther, who has been working at the theatre since 1981, the theatre used to get 800 patrons daily in the eighties. Today, it only attracts about 10 patrons a day. "There are no patrons coming here any more," Estsher says and confesses that she does not understand the low turnout. "Even when we screen hot romantic movies, only a few men come to watch. There are no women watching our films any more and the young couples who used to fill this space have disappeared too." On weekends, Odeon screens films three times. While there are only two shows between Monday and Friday. The theatre also hosts church services conducted by the Maximum Miracle Centre, an evangelical church.
Unlike the luxurious NuMetro and Fox Theatres that serve the middle to upmarket patrons, Odeon does not offer customers comfort, space and leg room. The seats are worn out and smell of dust. Probably that explains why a ticket costs Sh75 and Sh85 respectively. Nairobi Cinema, which has one of the largest screens in East Africa, now screens Christian movies when there is space. Sun City and Eastlands theatres offer several adults only films for one ticket in an attempt to pull in the more curious crowds. They might have proved their popularity in the continent, but African films are not an option on the minds of cinema managers, at least for now.
In an attempt to understand this paradox of African cinema, Jean-Pierre Bekolo shot a film titled Complot d'Aristote in 1996. The Cameroonian film, a meta-discourse on cinema, tackles the state and direction of cinema in the continent, the dominance of non-African works on African screens, and the clear absence of African films on the silver screens. Though almost totally absent on the silver screens, the first public showing of the motion picture in Africa was in 1903, eight years after the Western world. In fact, the United States of America woke up to the public screening of films just about the same time as Africa.
The difference, according to historians, is that commercial screening started in 1905. In its 100 year history, the American motion-picture industry accounts for about half of the world's box-office releases, grossing annual revenues of over $4.5 billion at the turn of the last century. But Kenyan movies still battle for space in the cinema theatres, surviving on the few VCD sales.
According to Jean-Marie Teno, a cinema expert specialising in African film, the movies suffer because they are financed by European governments, but are hardly screened there where they are seen as having limited box-office appeal. "European television, a major source of funding and distribution for independent films, is also reluctant to broadcast African films. In general, African films are pigeon-holed into specific African events: African film festivals, African theme evenings on television."
Where African films have the potential for having real mass audience appeal, says Jean, they aren't screened as they are always in competition with Hollywood capitalists. At the Fox 20th Century theatres, several Hollywood movies await their slot. Mr Anil Kapila, the CEO of Fox Theatres East Africa, Kenyan filmmakers are to blame for the exclusion. ‘They do not know how to market their films," says Kapila.