Cinema: The rise of video booths shows there is an untapped audience out there at the right price

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Africa’s cinemas saw the decline in audiences experienced elsewhere in the 1970s but failed to have a resurgence in the following years. Some investment is being made in urban multiplexes and there are old single or double screen outlets left over from a previous era. The evangelical Christian revival over the last two decades has meant that many cinemas have been converted into churches. But alongside this rather mixed picture, there has been a relentless growth in video booths. These are basic rooms which show pirated films and TV events (like concerts and football matches) and can be found in almost every African country: they illustrate that a market exists but that it is not yet being properly served. Russell Southwood went to a recent event organised by a Belgian organisation called Africalia that looked at the difficulties and opportunities for distribution and exhibition in Africa.

Video booths are a hybrid distribution channel that has not yet made up its mind whether it is Pay-TV for poor people (as cyber-cafes are to non-PC owners) or whether it is a form of down-market cinema distribution. It thrives in its fullest form in Africa’s cities where there is precious little available in the way of cheap entertainment. Its entrepreneurs have no capital to speak of but have access to a sweaty room with a large TV or a digital projector. All of the products shown are pirated because this is a market that simply does not fit the straightjacket of the film (and other material) rights owners. But none of this has stopped these entrepreneurs from distributing African content and experimenting with new types of productions.

As Martin Mhando, the Director of the Zanzibar Film Festival told the Africalia conference participants:”Until the end of the 1990s Africans overseas saw more African films than those in the continent. African cinema halls never showed the African product. But what was worse was that the effect of having these well-maintained Western-product based distribution circuits has been to sideline any novel and cheap distribution methods that evolve with the economies of African countries”. All of this began to change with the rise of video booths. African cinemas did not disappear, they simply shifted shape to reflect the pockets of their audiences: the urban young and unemployed.

In Rwanda, there are only two cinemas left in the whole country but the costs of going to a video booth give a perfect snapshot of the two-tier market that exists. It costs between US19-56 cents to buy a ticket for a video booth showing. An original DVD (say an international film) costs FRW8,000 (US$15), whilst a pirated one will cost FRW3,000 (US$3.74). The equivalent for an original VHS tape is FRW3,000 (US$5.60) whilst a pirated one costs US$2.25. The choice for users is simple: you either rent from one of only two video libraries in Kigali or you buy pirated videos which are sold more widely. Piracy is rampant and international films come in from all over East Africa and are copied in their hundreds. According to producer and director Daddy Ruhorahoza:” The video libraries make hundreds of copies and the Government tolerates this because it makes money”. However, there have been recent police raids on shops recently selling pirated copies of films illegally.

By contrast, Kenya is a much more developed cinema market with 11 cinemas boasting 27 screens. New, up-market multiplexes have been built in the capital Nairobi. Up-to-date data is hard to come by but on the basis of historic figures, ticket sales are probably in the 300,000-400,000 range. Faced with endless international programmes in English on TV and Hollywood films, local “Riverwood” producers decided to emulate Nollywood and produce low-budget films with local, particularly in the large slum township of Kibera. These productions were made with low-cost hand-held digital cameras for as little as between US$548-685. Retail VCDs of them sold for US$3.50 and wholesaled at between US$2.50-2.80. When this phenomenon started in 2005, sales were as high as 15,000 and there was still a novelty value in local people being able to see themselves on screen. Sales are now much lower but according to Lola Kenya Screen Film Festival Director Ogova Ondego, they still only have to sell 500 copies to break even. Local dramas have now been overtaken by music videos of local East African Bongo Flava performers.

Uganda is much more like Rwanda in that there are only 2 cinemas for the whole country with occasional showings in multi-purpose community halls. As elsewhere, Video booths show mainly Nollywood but they also include in their programmes Hollywood films, Kung Fu movies and big events like Premiership and UEFA matches. Irene Kulabako, Chair of the Amakula Film Festival estimated that there were 1,000 video booths in the country which are known locally as Bibanda.

The country has 52 languages and the urban poor are significantly less likely to speak English or to speak it well enough to understand material in English. For as Kulabako told the Africalia conference:”Imagine trying to understand the plot of Titanic (in another language).” As a result, video DJs began to provide a commentary on English-language films that was both informative and funny. As with the piano player for silent films, these VJs often improvised stories to go alongside pictures. The form has become sufficiently popular that VCD copies are made with the added commentaries and are sold to middle class Ugandans. As Kulabako told the audience:”It spices up the film 200%.”

Tanzania’s video booths are called Kideos. These are poorly organised but unlike elsewhere a large number are controlled by a Tanzanian-Asian. There is an association of owners and it is well socially integrated and the owners are growing in confidence. As elsewhere, they cater mainly for the young and unemployed.. There has been a huge growth in video production over the last five years. The owner of the chain of Kideos puts up the money for a production and sells tapes to the video booth owners for TS15,000. According to Martin Mhando:”(The productions) make their money back very quickly. Film-makers don’t want to undercut themselves because it provides a production revenue stream”.

Another interesting sidelight thrown up by the event was the difference in attitude between Anglophone and Francophone participants. One participant complained that all everyone seemed to be talking about was Nollywood and a Francophone participant asked a question about this very difference. Of the Anglophone speakers, 3 out 4 addressed the topic they had been given of distribution. Of the francophone speakers, only one out of the three did so.

Ignoring any subtlety of description, francophones are much more likely to see film production as “art” which should not be beholden to the imperatives of the market whereas the Anglophones (most successfully articulated in the presentation by Martin Mhando) were trying pragmatically to find an economic ground that might sustain a local film industry.

Hovering in the background of the francophone perspective is the model that France has espoused in the post-war period of supporting locally made films in French and to some extent subsidising exhibition outlets. By contrast, the Anglophones were through a process of looking at what already existed seeking to build a model that might work in a financially sustainable way. But whilst Mhando’s arguments were compelling, there is still a long road to be travelled to make local distribution produce enough money to fund local production.

But what are the alternatives? Every one of the speakers described a world in which the majority of productions were produced for donors or NGOs who inevitably were interested in what has been described as the “Western Union” method of film-making: they want to send a message. The alternative of funding films that might be capable of distribution internationally simply illustrated another kind of tie that binds. For all too often it was possible for an African film-maker to carry awards at European festivals but remain almost unseen in his or her country or continent for film-makers are all-too-often not interested in the detailed and difficult work of getting a film successful film widely distributed. The suspicion lingered in the air that the type of “art-house” film that was appreciated at European Festivals might also be as mysterious as Hollywood’s Titanic to many video booth users.

But from a commercial point of view, every African country has the equivalent of a pirate cinema audience that runs into the thousands and free showings demonstrate a wider appetite. The challenge for film-makers, distributors and exhibitors is how to turn this grey market into one that functions at a price level that allows it to go legitimate. The Gordian knot of this challenge is how to get rights holders to take a flexible position that will see them develop a long-term market of some wider scale than is currently available.