The sad story of our films
A graduate of Theatre Arts at the Addis Ababa University, Aron Yeshitila wrote two stage plays and three screenplays. He received an award as best screenwriter at the 3rd Ethiopian International Film Festival in 2008, for the film he wrote and produced MIZEWOCHU (The Best Men), for which he received outstanding reviews. Aron has worked as a journalist and editor for several weekly newspapers in Ethiopia, including Addis Fortune. In 2010, he contributed an article for a book entitled Theater in Sub-Saharan Africa, published in Germany. In this contribution to Addis Journal, the young film maker laments about the poignant story of the nascent film making in Ethiopia, how an excessive tax of the state is making it difficult for the film makers to get financial return and how this all is affecting the quality of the film production.
Few months ago I received a phone call from a friend who just released a new film. He had to wait for six months before his turn was due to screen his movie at cinemas in Addis Ababa.
“Hi John, how is the movie going at Ambassador Cinema?” I asked.
“Good we are getting 900 to thousand people in a day.” I could feel his high spirit.
“Wow! Congrats that is it. You hit it finally” I said.
“Yes, but we are expecting more because . . . you know . . . this is not a lot”, this time with a slight concern in his voice. It is a feeling that I sympathize with.
He doesn’t want his expectations to be shattered in the midst of his vision for better audience and business which could take him to the next production. Expectation keeps him and all fellow Ethiopian film producers running and alive, when they release new movie; until eventually frustration takes over with the reality they face on the ground.
I refrained from saying further to John, fearing I would give him the impression that I was trying to put off his optimism. The truth is, given the trend of audience turnout for similar movies with a mild popularity, he may never see an audience turnout more than a thousand people in a day. His movie could be at the peak of its time already. After all, a thousand people attendant for a day is a great number at most film scenes around the world.
But as any other Ethiopian producers, John had every reason to be uncomfortable with a thousand people audience for a film he had devoted more than a year of labor and 400,000 Ethiopian Birr (ETB) (little over 23 thousand USD) to prepare.
Here is a quick calculation; John’s film earns 15,000 ETB (about 900 USD) from one thousand people, from that income 1,500 birr [10 percent from gross income] is paid for the so called “entertainment tax”, eight thousand birr goes to cinema rent, add a couple of 30 seconds advertisement of TV which is worth 2,500 birr. Without deducting costs for posters, administration and miscellaneous John is left with 3,000 Br (around 175 USD).
The Addis Ababa Cinemas Administration that operates under the City Administration manages Cinema Empire and Ambassador. At any moment since last three years the administration has 90 movies lined up on its waiting list. Among the liners, half of them have not yet seen screen even though they are ready for screening. After waiting for months, a movie is assigned to one day of a week to run regularly for four months, meaning the movie is featured for 16 days, regardless of quality or market.
With only one day show in a week, the film would need more than a year to retrieve John’s investment. But John has only four months contract to show his film with zero chance of extension.
This might also look a fair deal in contrast with lot of other countries´ experience where a film can access main cinema for much shorter time. But Ethiopian film has lots of peculiarities that make such scenario very difficult to work with. In Ethiopia films are financed entirely by private businessmen, who anticipate profit out of film production; in a best case, individuals who want to finance films for the love of the art and as a side business with less anticipation of big profit. Yet both groups of producers want to see their production at least covering its own cost and become a sustainable sector.
Other funding bodies of government, NGOs, cultural or art institutions are nonexistent in financing film productions. Therefore the film industry is entirely dependent on cinema shows and DVD distribution for its existence.
In order to guarantee the sustainability of her or his career, a film producer should make a movie that is profitable enough withstanding the costs of Entertainment tax (a tax levied by the imperial regime 40 years ago to discourage the spread of bars and overnight clubs), Value Added Tax and high cinema rent bill. The rent of Ambassador Cinema which was 3,000 ETB six years ago has now increased by more than 100 pc and reached 7,000 ETB. A luxury good tax is levied upon imported cameras making camera rent and film production cost even higher.
The private cinemas like Edna Mall, Alem Cinema and Sebastopol try to choose marketable films. These cinemas that take half the income of the show similarly have a high turnover rate of movies as they always enjoy the new releases.
Movies get replaced with new release without achieving any substantial amount of income to cover its cost while the house stays at the peak time of every film. With the limited time of stay in local screens movies should make all income needed to sustain the company.
This fact put producers in a dilemma of deciding whether they should produce what could turn out to be the next popular material rather than what they believe they should really present. The pressure of making profit can influence every component of film production from selecting genre, theme, casting actors, picking places; as a result changing the general philosophy behind making the film.
Market has also influenced the overall artistic tendency and trend of films. Since a couple of comedy films made a good profit few years ago, comedy film productions have more than dominated the film industry in Ethiopia.
Despite the very large amount of video film productions made, Ethiopian films are hardly seen in international festivals, shows and distributions. Poor production quality, language barrier and absence of organized structure to exchange films between African nations have curtailed the way to international screenings and distribution. But the main problem can be attributed to lack of quality of the films for failure to harness what would become another financial lifeline for film production. At this infant stage of the film sector, lack of capacity in exploiting the medium to visually develop and express Ethiopian context is prevalent.
In terms of content, Ethiopian films “are not Ethiopian films” as most common criticism saying goes. Though I think all movies made by Ethiopians can all be called Ethiopian films, I share the fact what critics meant to say when saying the movies are not Ethiopians. The value of the films in contributing to Ethiopian culture or representing it is mostly very low.
Regardless of traditional or modern Ethiopia they are trying to depict, the films lack depth in portraying the society. Most of its depiction goes superficial like presenting socio class differences mostly in terms of material and physical than exploring the inherent meaning of characters being what they are in Ethiopian context. A persistent confusion of culture and tradition, and a failure in viewing them apart from each other have led their search for own identity to be very cumbersome.
They have the difficulty to understand the cultural departure occurred in the past decades in a deep level. As a result the movies are forced to restrict themselves to material level of food, clothing, music and historical events in depicting the traditional Ethiopia or the values of the modern Ethiopian culture.
Lack of an in-depth understanding of their own culture has made the movies to languish behind and become a kind of relic to the contemporary real life culture rather than becoming mirror or leader of it.
One of the symptoms to this crisis was the repeated plagiarism committed by Ethiopian films from part or whole film of Bollywood and Hollywood films. Instead of creating own style, view and image that really represents Ethiopian context in international scene, the filmmakers were seen busy in copying and pasting materials that could be applicable to Ethiopian context and make themselves safe in the local market.
However the film industry can be commended for maintaining its existence and reclaiming the audience that was lost by the theatre scene. Theatre has been part of city culture since 1960s in Ethiopia. It was quite customary to experience thousands of people congregating to watch a theatre performance at the five public theatres of Addis Ababa.
After losing its quality for presenting deeper psychological, social and political issues in its realistic based performances, theatre had started to lose even the role as entertainer. By the end of 20th century theatre audience had starkly dwindled from the houses. But theatre as a scene survived for a reason that the theatre houses are run by government budget and all personnel from actors, dancers, directors and administrators were permanent theatre house employees.
Film by its own essence is a powerful medium of the modern era, and in Ethiopia it can be said that it has achieved to fill the entertaining role that was voided by theatre.
But when the film fails to entertain and with a very discouraging environment rather than support created by the government, its demise can be foreseeable.
Whether the film sector is regarded by regulators as no more important than a luxury business or as a powerful communication tool that cannot be controlled once it boomed is still in question. But the concerned government body is making no effort to make the situation better for the film sector, despite repeated demands.
But in the post colonial Africa and post modern world we are living in films can have more benefit to this continent than any other place in the world.
As it has been said repeatedly, film paves way to new philosophical, cultural, artistic, scientific thoughts as a result keeps a society alive and dynamic. Especially films made by Africans, has a potential to create and promote new ways in understanding and adopting our traditions in the modern society. This stimulates cultural transformation and utilizing our knowledge to further development of our artistic capital. It can visually inspire other art fields such as fine arts, music, dance and literature. In Ethiopia it can be a very powerful tool to raise and initiate discussions on sociopolitical and socioeconomic problems, ranging from the subtle ones like generation gap, collective apathy and social trauma to obvious ones like gender inequality, migration and corruption etc . . .
The financial benefit of film production as an industry, in terms of job creation and initiating tourism, is also evident in part of the world where the industry has developed.
Popular movies like Lord of the Ring, Lost in Translation, The Last Samurai, Cold Mountain have sparked interest on audience to travel to the actual locations of the films they indulged in on the silver screen. Uzbekistan had a tourist advertisement with a motto The Land of Borat. There is no reason the magic charm of tourist wouldn’t work for Ethiopia and other African countries if the film sector is properly handled and allowed to nurture.
If targeting small and medium scale business is a companion to job creation then the film industry should be taken more seriously.
The real film making army can be found in the movie theater when the credits are rolling for minutes after the movie is finished; only the projectionist and people in the film business may stay to see that. What we see on the screen is a list of hundreds, if not thousands [in Hollywood productions] of people, companies, services and facilities that were employed to make the film. Job titles many people might not even contemplate in relation with filmmaking like carpenter, electrician, driver, caterer and many more basic ordinary tasks are performed by citizens in all areas of the economy. Eventhough the sector is unreliable thousands of Ethiopians has made a career out of film sector and tens of thousands of individuals benefit from it financially at different level of film production.
In USA the states wage vigorous competition between themselves in trying to lure film projects to be produced in their home state by providing projects with different kinds of tax reduction and incentives mainly rebating. This program allows a qualified film projects to claim a refund in an amount up to 25% of the total direct cost incurred in the State while filming. The reason behind is that in addition to job creation film production spends about 40 percent of its budget on the city it is filming.
Between 2004 and 2009 around 198 films have been produced in Addis Ababa spending nearly 69 million ETB (4 mln USD), an average of 350 thousand birr individually. The movies have generated more than 35 million ETB revenue through rent and tax. This figure may not be something to be boasted for an industry at a moment but it can grow exponentially or vanish totally depending on how the sector is treated. From the people who invested in the fledgling film sector, nearly 95 percent of producers haven’t produced their second film. the cause for this was clear they couldn’t recover the money they invested at their debut production.
It would be silly to ask for a rebate in Ethiopia’s context. But justice should be done on amount of taxes, venue rents and media advertisement paid by producers in order to see the sustainability of the industry. The so called “Entertainment Tax” must be lifted off because it is completely inappropriate and has lost its touch with time. From its name it is has derogatory connotation that reduces the field of performing and recording arts to a mere entertainment machineries, and artists nothing more than entertainers as traditionally used to be called (Azmari, Achawach, Keledegna).
Distribution of DVD and TV show are other means of incomes after films retire from theatre screens. Sadly our movies are not lucky to benefit from either of them. If the widespread copyright infringement couldn’t be combated to its last with sincere commitment from both regulators and practitioners, it will stifle all the recording arts to their death.
The director and producer of “Kezkaza Welafen” (Cold flames), Tewodros Kasahun, has seen good days in the film industry when he put “Kezkaza Welafen 1” on screen five years back. When he distributed “Kezkaza Welafen 2” on DVD all over the country, he was only able to get his hand on five thousand birr from the sales of original copy. Many producers have suffered loss because of theft and illegal distribution of cheap CD copies.
Nevertheless all these facts do not set films and film practitioners free from being one of the culprits for the plunge of the film sector. Most of the films are done by practitioners with a little or no knowledge and experience in their respective role of directing, writing and acting coupled with opportunistic producers attracted by the big chunk of profit. The sheer fact that film production is increasing at such uncertain time for recovery of investment, shows that new producers do not even try to learn about the current situation of the sector before they invest. Due to the fact that most producers come from other business sectors and careers they have much lesser capacity to choose from bad and worse film script to produce. Bad soap opera stories, mostly cliché tic themes of romance and family conflict, platitude characters, poor plots, bad acting, poor sound and picture. . . you name it; all are the traits of our movies.
But again I believe quality problem cannot be solved in a fortnight. It needs experience as an individual, as a team and as an industry. We have also witnessed a lot of improvement mainly from technical perspective of cinematography, sound and editing quality.
I also believe that the aesthetic quality of films will mature in time as the audience’s taste and experience improves. Despite the sharp discrepancy between good and bad movies, it is seen that the audience turnout is also highly dependent on the day of the show. Any film viewed on Sunday generally enjoys the best number of audience. The audience mostly looks for the usual feature film dramas than trying to explore other styles. The reality-show style film “Guzow” (The Journey) which was new in its kind for Ethiopian screen had a hard time in cinemas in Addis Ababa in 2010. Some viewers who watched the film have asked the theatre house for refund because they said “Guzow” was not a film and they were swindled. Such experience of audience reaction can make filmmakers anxious to try to explore and experiment new genres and styles and genres. It is a kind of reaction that restricts filmmakers and producers to the customarily made cliché tic realistic dramas that has shown a little change from the stage dramas presented for over half a century.
But we have to act on problems that give no time and can be solved with some amendments. I believe initially government should correct its view of the film sector and make drastic policy and regulations, to make its burden easy if not to support it. Unless anything is done from the administrative side, as we read the sad story of our movies, we may later read their obituary.