I love watching movies, particularly those with unpredictable twists. Beyond my fascination with movie plots and characters, I muse over what it takes to produce a good film.
Nairobi was once abuzz with movie theatres but most of them have either closed down or have been repurposed into houses of worship — not that I have anything against soul harvesting.
The obsolescence of movie theatres in Kenya is a stark reminder of how technology has revolutionised mass-entertainment along with other major industries. It is encouraging, however, that a new breed of state-of-the-art movie theatres is springing up in strategic locations to appeal to Kenya’s rising middle class.
Of greater interest still is that a majority of the films and movies screened locally are mostly from established movie spinners such as Hollywood and Bollywood. Occasionally, local productions are screened, and I was delighted to attend the premiere of Subira, which was crowned as the Best Feature Film at the Kalasha Awards 2018.
The talent and quality displayed through this production are impressive. Sadly, our productions barely command the cult following that is enjoyed by box office productions such as super hero film Black Panther. The fact that our very own Lupita Nyong’o starred in the film was a bonus to Kenya.
With all our expertise, talent and crew base, it is of concern that our local productions do not resonate locally and even globally. The dismal patronage of movie theatres threatens the sustainability of the film industry as producers are unable to recoup their investments through box office sales and actors cannot string together a decent income.
A good number of local producers are now caught between trying to produce flicks similar in theme as the Western blockbusters, but without budgets, production technology and equipment to back the pieces they make. This has led to increased deculturisation and westernisation in our society.
The economic value of the film industry in Kenya is yet to be properly understood and this, therefore, limits investment into the sector. Advanced film markets such as the USA, China and India and recently Nigeria employ deliberate strategies to support their film sectors. For example, China has set quotas on the number of foreign films that can be screened in the theatres in the country.
To penetrate wider markets including Africa, players from these film-developed countries leverage the internet and mobile telephone to distribute their content as exemplified by over the top operators (OTTs) such as Netflix and YouTube. Disney is also set to launch its streaming service. This, backed with major investments in dubbing studios, theatre and movie halls, guarantees that returns on the films produced in these markets are higher.
In Kenya, broadcasters will ultimately be required to air 60 per cent local content. However, most stations struggle to sustain the current 40 per cent threshold because they are unable to attract or sustain advertisement revenue, which is determined by viewership. These broadcasters, together with distributors and broadcasters, can draw lessons from the OTTs. To penetrate new and broader markets, the OTTs leverage local insights to produce content that is relevant for a specific market. Netflix, for example, will soon premiere Queen Sono, an African themed female-led spy series set in South Africa. This strategy, which they have applied before in markets like India and wider Asia, are meant to rump up viewership numbers in the specific markets.
OTTs previously subsisted on content from other production houses but are now developing their content to reduce their dependence on others. All this points to the fact that besides just movie productions, we can invest and make significant returns in the film sub-sectors such as prop production.
The Kenya Film Commission (KFC), Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC) and the Kenya Film School (KFS) will have to pool resources and efforts to address the needs of the film sector.
We need to have investments in film studios and sound stages that can appeal to both local and international movie makers. The government is also looking into putting in place attractive incentives to entice international movie producers to film on location and spur a positive ripple effect for the local communities and boost the tourism sector.
The World Intellectual Property Organisation recognises that digital technology has revolutionised production and distribution of music and movies and that revenue generated to access entertainment content has decreased in most parts of the world.
The local copyright and intellectual property laws, therefore, need to be harmonised with international laws. The sector players have also called for the conclusion of the film policy so that it can be the overarching reference for film production. The levies charged for filming in various counties also need to be renegotiated to avoid double taxation.
The fragmented African market stifles growth in the entertainment sector, but potentials exist through the Smart Africa initiative, under which Kenya is responsible for driving the digital economy. Co-production opportunities should be explored in these markets and producers should not shy away from looking East to tap into China’s 1.2 billion market.
The government seeks to establish a revolving film fund accessible to filmmakers for productions. In collaboration with the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of ICT will also develop effective tools and mechanisms to aggregate data and analyse the value of the different verticals within the entertainment sector to influence investment decisions.
With a median age of 19 years, Kenya’s film sector has a huge potential to generate youth-centric job opportunities.
And just like the US and China have done, we can and must produce movies that portray our values, foster our patriotism, enhance cohesion and also validate the industry players who work tirelessly to entertain us. We need to advocate congenial and collective screen-time opportunities at movie theatres across the 47 counties. In the words of Walt Disney, “movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.”
Mr Mucheru is CS, Ministry of ICT.