Cinema: an audience but no market

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One commonly held view is that there’s no market for African cinema. It’s true that those few films that are produced have a hard time catching on in the North. In the South, it’s even worse: movie theatres are closing, pirated movies abound, television stations aren’t providing broadcasting opportunities, and government intervention is lackadaisical. Audiences prefer American films or local popular productions. Is this the end of African auteur cinema?

In the North’s Shadow
How did this situation develop? It all starts with a recurring reproach. Western subsidy programs are said to have encouraged African cinemas to cut themselves off from « their » audiences by concentrating on auteur cinema to the detriment of more popular cinema.
In the past, after Independence and before the arrival of new technology, cinema was still very expensive to produce. Africans were only able to produce movies with external subsidies. Until the recent launch of the Images Afrique plan in 2003 (a joint project of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Union, and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie or OIF), these subsidies almost only concerned production, while neglecting distribution and marketing. In addition to the conspicuous lack of national legal, legislative, customs, and financial policies and the lack of confidence shown by television networks, doubtless the greatest factor underlying the industry’s lack of structure are these case-by-case subsidies, granted by committees on the basis of screenplays, which have subsidized movies without bothering to find out if there is a market for them. Because Africa is lacking in distribution networks, the criteria for selection tended to be their screening at important international film festivals. The committee’s selection procedures therefore resembled the French funding known as « avance sur recettes »: professionals choose scripts that seem most original and relevant to the present, which is basically a very artistic approach, without a thought for perspective audiences.
While the Agence intergouvernementale de la Francophonie was quick to incorporate African members, French committees were essentially made up of non-Africans until recent protests led to the acceptance of African professionals. Members of these committees therefore necessarily made their choices based on their imagination, on what they thought an African film should be. One of the French Fonds Sud’s most striking criteria, for example, was that the movie had to be shot in Africa…a criteria which obvious determined the subject of the movie as well. In addition, it was required that most of the subsidy be spent in postproduction in a French lab. Besides the contentiousness of an aid with strings attached, that imposed an often problematic collaboration with a European producer, this requirement favoured a certain type of movie where the emphasis was on artistic quality as opposed to access to a market.
So, this approach was based on a French conception of cinema as a universal message. Due to the lack of both African technicians and infrastructure, the films were obviously aesthetically moulded by the North, and owed any originality to the talent and determination of their directors. They seized the cinema as a means to educate and emancipate (as shown by Sembène Ousmane’s l’école du soir,or « night school »), but also to decry their colonial past by making their voice heard, all the while condemning archaic customs or abuses by the African elite. The North thus has a long history of financing cinema which, in all respects, is socially and politically controversial. The situation would have been delicate if this cinema had indeed found a market and attracted audiences, be they western or African. Limiting screenings to film festivals and to small cinephile circles made everyone more comfortable.
If African governments had wanted to stand up for their country’s autonomy in the stand against foreign powers (as Iran did vis-à-vis America), they would likely have given more support to culturally rich local productions at the risk of garnering some criticism. It is therefore revealing that Med Hondo was able to finish Saraouina only with the direct help of Thomas Sankara. A revolutionary government backed a film featuring a renowned resistance leader. But, for regimes that have traditionally maintained ties with former colonizing powers and that are now open to globalization, this surface nationalism just doesn’t cut it. They still give little thought to preserving their cultural identity.
Audiences and markets
In the North, in the late 80s there was a slight improvement when certain directors, such as Idrissa Ouedraogo, used romanesque movies to explore African meanders through the intimate. In addition, there was a demand for « spiritually elevating » movies, such as Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen, which attracted 340 811 viewers in 1987. Such movies were quickly exoticised and stripped of meaning. But after this surge in interest, audiences in the 90’s once again dropped African cinema, being more interested in contemplating their own personal conflicts in other films, especially Asian cinema (1). Recently, however, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes were box office hits, attracting 137 000 viewers in 4 weeks and 3 million viewers in 9 weeks, respectively. Are the tables turning for the better? Both movies managed to attract audiences by analysing hot societal issues, such as globalisation or the colonial past. But their combined success is of no comfort for the many forceful African movies that find no such response. Audiences still relate to the Dark Continent through a complex emotional mixture of guilt and fear, and relate less to the hopeful rallying of African cinema, than to the disillusionment of Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare. That movie won Césars, was Oscar-nominated, and attracted almost 400 000 viewers in France alone.
French critics unanimously sang the movie’s praises, logically pervious to the prevailing clichés about Africa. They lack the tools to break out of their often limited perception of Africa and its films. The lack of books and scholarly papers or journals dedicated to African cinema attests to that. The African Federation of Film Critics, created in 2004, hosts a website,, with a network of more than 220 African journalists. It’s a welcome alternative to the non-African viewpoint.
In Africa, African films have an audience but not a market, in the sense of a system of economic exchange. A film’s popularity will depend on several factors, such as the cultural similarities between audience and moviemaker, the choice of language used, and whether the film deals with the issues of urban life. Nevertheless, African audiences still prefer local productions whenever available. Numbers show that popular productions win out over auteur productions, seen as too intellectual or too much of a social statement. Action movies are ever-popular and gain increasing clientele in rental agencies where DVDs and VCDs are replacing VHS tapes. New forms of distribution are appearing. In six cities in Nigeria and Ghana, DonPedroMedia has set up a « video kiosque » service providing home delivery of videos ordered by Internet or text message; in Lagos, video or music CDs are delivered in less than 20 minutes. As for South Africa, as soon as the technology exists, films will be available for viewing by mobile phone.
Like everywhere else, the « little screen » is winning over the « big screen ». Television and video clubs are replacing movie theatres. And revenues are suffering because of it. Not only do television channels not pay proper broadcasting rights (they may even ask payment for broadcasting movies!), but also pirated movies are the norm for video rental providers and merchants, be they street salesmen, storeowners, or market vendors.
Death of the movie theatre
Movie theatres have seen better days, notorious for their peeling exteriors and interiors, trouser-snagging worn chairs, unsanitary toilets, echoing or inaudible sound systems, yellowed screens, and hazy pictures… For 100 to 300 CFA francs (15 to 45 eurocents) you will have got to see an American B movie, a karate movie, an English- subtitled Bollywood affair – or even a porn flick – usually in the form of a DVD or a video CD shown on a video projector. In the capital cities, one or two theatres offer recent 35 mm movies in the relative comfort of air conditioning, but they are becoming hard to find. Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s movie Bye Bye Africa, exploring N’Djamena, demonstrated that besides the French Cultural Centre, there are no more movie theatres in Chad. Since most theatres closed in Côte d’Ivoire due to political instability, less than 20 passable theatres are left in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa.
As for English-speaking Africa, South Africa is an exception to the rule. Ster Kinekor manages 360 big screens and Nu-Metro manages 250. These multiplexes have up to 15 theatres, as does Menlyn Park in Tshwane (formerly Pretoria), where 2 of the theatres have seats reminiscent of an airplane business class! Nu-Metro also distributes American and Indian films, and has opened multiplexes in shopping centres in other countries. In Nairobi, Kenya, its Plush Village Market multiplex has 4 theatres with a total of 450 seats, making it the second largest Mediastore after The Palms in Lagos, Nigeria, which boasts 6 screens and was inaugurated in 2005. In that country, cinema has had major setbacks because instability has led to the closure of all theatres. However, the production of home-made videos, numbering 1200 feature films a year, has become a national phenomenon known as Nollywood (2). In early 2004, one Nigerian, Olajide Asumah, got the upper hand by opening Silverbird, a one to two hundred seat, 5-theatre multiplex in the rich neighbourhood of Highbrow Victoria Island. For over 8 euros a ticket, you can see some Indian movies but mainly American ones, some being released on the same day as the New York or the London release date. 40% of the movies are provided by Nu-Metro, while the others are directly rented from Majors. By advertising on television instead of trying to compete with the Nollywood ads covering the Nigerian capitals walls, he pulled in 9000 viewers, grossing 75000 at the box office, with The Day After Tomorrow.
The smaller capacity of these new theatres reflects the trend of falling audiences which makes larger theatres now obsolete. The Nairobi Cinema only fills 30% of its 825 seats in spite of boasting the largest screen in East Africa, while the Casino only attracts 60 customers a day for its 480 seats. These theatres seem doomed to join the growing list of closed theatres, the latest of which is the 850-seat Embassy.
In Dakar, the fate of theatres in the city centre was sealed by the closing of the Plazza followed by the Paris. 80 theatres figured in Paulin Vieyra’s 1973 survey of Senegal, with 59 560 seats welcoming 4 461 000 viewers. Most have been sold. Only 16 were left in 2000, and they are gradually being converted to covered markets or shopping centres. Since 2004, 35 mm films are almost never imported.
The situation is similar in Cameroon where the only remaining theatres are the Wouri in Douala, the Abbia in Yaoundé, and the Empire in Bafoussam. One entrepreneur has undertaken renovations to re-open the Adamaoua in Ngaoundéré and the Etoile in Garoua. In Bamako, Babemba‘s two new theatres are up and running but haven’t managed to recoup costs. There are no theatres to speak of in either Niger or Guinea. In Gabon, out of 15 theatres in existence 10 years ago, Libreville has only two theatres left for its 400 000 inhabitants: the Majestic and the Komo, recently restored and equipped with dolby stereo. Other theatres have most often been converted into churches.
Burkina Faso leads the pack with the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO). In that country, two opposing circles exist. On the one hand, there are private cinemas. Those of Burkinabe businessman Frank Alain Kaboré are the most renowned. His 1066-seat Neerweya in Ouagadougou is the most beautiful. On the other hand, there are privatized theatres that had once belonged to government-owned cinema company SONACIB, created after Independence in 1970. In 1995, the SONACIB theatres attracted 3.5 million viewers in a country of 10 million inhabitants. But afterwards, a 3 million euro debt led to its liquidation in 2003. Declining attendance was due to the proliferation of black market video showings and losses due to fraud: money was accepted at the door with no ticket being issued, or untorn tickets were recovered and resold. One study showed that this practice cost the company 25% of its revenues, but that revenues went up again if sworn ticket sellers were hired. Director Idrissa Ouedraogo, founder of ARPA (an association of African screenwriters, directors, and producers) took over some formerly SONACIB-run theatres in 2004, for a two-year pilot project. One of them was the other air-conditioned theatre in Ouagadougou, the Burkina. The project has just been abandoned, and the Burkina has been repossessed by the national social security office, whom SONACIB owed 45 000 euros!
In Benin, Janvier Yahouedeou runs three theatres. One has been completely renovated, but changing the carpet or the upholstery isn’t enough. To create the mood and motivate audiences to go out, they need a lively, happening multiplex. The theatre must also provide a high technical quality projection to outdo the ever-popular DVD, which often offers the latest films before they have even been officially released.
« It’s the middle class that are cinema-goers in Africa, » says Frédéric Massin, manager of the Babemba in Bamako and of Cameroon’s three theatres. « The wealthy have plasma screens at home, and the poor go to the 125-CFA-franc video clubs ». But the country’s crisis is economically draining for the middle classes, who hesitate to go out. Without public aid, theatre-owners prefer to sell to a church or a supermarket rather than lose money on their investment. Titanic was an « embarrassing success », but subsequently, pirated digital films have become common. « 54 punches, 179 lashes, 103 wounds – Crimes of Passion – Passionately yours »…despite that advertising banner thought up by Siméon Fotso, Cameroonian manager of Yaoundé’s only theatre, the Abbia (1250 seats for a million inhabitants), The Passion of the Christ was a flop. « It was killed by DVDs », as were Ray and Hotel Rwanda (3).
North Africa is better off but its range of theatres is quickly disappearing. The Algerian Civil War caused major damage. At Independence in 1962, 400 theatres existed; before the start of the conflict, 54 remained; but now almost all have closed. The country is working towards renovating and re-opening about 15 of them. In the late 60s, Tunisia had a population of 6 million, and 66 movie theatres, 28 of which were in Tunis, for a total of 34 824 seats. Added to that were the country’s travelling movie shows that brought the total count of film projection venues up to 155. Today, with 10 million inhabitants, there are only 14 movie theatres, of which 7 are in Tunis, all with shaky projection quality. Satellite dishes are omnipresent on rooftops, providing endless movies 24 hours a day, because pirated movies can be decoded for only 5 dinars, or 3 euros, a month. A DVD player costs 70 dinars (42 euros) and it is easy to have American movies burned before their release for only 1.50 dinars at official stores. Morocco is the exception to the rule, with 160 theatres, but in 1981 that figure was at 251. Today, barely thirty comply with minimum projection standards.
That doesn’t keep audiences from flocking to North African theatres. In Tunisia in the 80s, Nouri Bouzid’s first three films attracted 200 000 viewers and Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine drew in 500 000 in 1990. In 1996, Essaïda by Mohamed Zran got 300 000 viewers again. Moroccan cinema is strongly propelled by production subsidies partially financed by a percentage of television advertising revenues, and regularly boasts hit movies: Mustapha Derkaoui’s Casablanca by night attracted 340 000 viewers in 2003 and in 1998, Femmes et femmes by Saad Chraïbi was second only to Titanic. Nevertheless, cinema audiences have decreased by half in a decade.
Popular cinema triumphs
Such success is reserved for the so-called « popular cinema » genre in sub-Saharan Africa. Burkinabe journalist Boubakar Diallo enjoys repeated success with low-budget productions (40 to 50 000 euros for 90 minutes). The movies are financed by indirect advertising: mineral water, mobile phones, motorcycles, et cetera. « The idea is to attract audiences with genre cinema », he says. « If people aren’t going to see movies, it’s because we’re not showing what they want to see ». Like the romantic comedy Sofia, the police movie Traque à Ouaga, or the western L’Or de Youngas, all by Boubakar Diallo, Ouaga Zoodo (‘Ouaga Friendship‘) attracted 50 000 viewers in 2005. Its director, Boubacar Zida (also known as Sidnaaba), runs Savane FM.
In Madagascar, video is king. The last 35mm production was in 1996: Quand les étoiles rencontrent la mer by Raymond Rajaonarivelo. Even first-generation directors like Ignace Solo Randrasana make digital movies. About ten such feature-length films are released each year. Audiences gobble them up, even though the quality isn’t always up to snuff, because this popular, locally-shot cinema combines action, love stories, popular music, and rags-to-riches storylines. It all started with Avoko Rakotoarija’s Kung fu movies and Henri Randrianierenana’s very commercial films. The director of Tana 2003, Laza, was educated at FEMIS, France’s national film school, and banks on better quality and bigger budgets. Afterwards, he employs tape-to-film transfer, but he is alone in doing so. Imanoela Rajaonah, better known as R’nB artist Spy D, directed Sesitany (The Devil’s Eye) in 2005, in French, even though movies are generally shot in Malagasy. But according to latest reports, the genre that is thriving on the island at the moment is garish, tabloid-style gore gore…
Cinemas belong to a Réunion-based company that rents them when a new video is released. But the society wants to sell. Attesting to cinema’s renaissance via video, in April 2006 the first Malagasy short-film festival was organised by Laza, with around fifteen participants.
Should theatres be maintained?
Like mobile phones, are digital movie projections actually a chance for Africa? According to Kodak, emerging countries could more easily jump to all-digital projection. Video-projection on the big screen is doable in favourable conditions with an investment of under 15 000 euros. Producers could thus avoid the costs of tape-to-film transfer. As an alternative to gigantic theatres in downtown areas where no-one goes at night, smaller theatres of a 200-seat capacity, that would be located in residential areas, are struggling to come about. Some encouraging pilot projects have been successfully carried out in Cameroon, with subsidies from the OIF (4).
But it’s not easy to compete with video-clubs that have sprung up all over the big cities, and which are reminiscent of the old « neighbourhood movie theatres » in Europe. In Dakar, at 100 CFA francs a ticket, « clandestine cinemas » rake in up to 10 000 CFA francs, or 15 euros, a day. There are approximately 2000 « videoprojectionists » in Burkina Faso. With two showings a day, they make a 5 billion CFA franc turnover (7.5 million euros). Ditto for Togo or Benin where figures are similar. Yaoundé’s video-clubs are organized in multiplexes of a few dozen seats. The phenomenon is not limited to the cities : in villages, small theatres welcome roughly twenty people, who sit on benches watching non-stop videos at all hours of the day. They are especially popular near schools. Young people out of work encourage pupils to skip class to watch videos; Cameroonian newspapers regularly report this as a leading cause of truancy in the country!
Traditional theatres having almost disappeared, it will be increasingly difficult to argue in favour of the existence of theatres. Television is everywhere and will keep getting bigger as technology progresses. But even if, someday, television does justice to films by its size, what about the collective sharing of emotions based on common cultural references, that basic function of cinema that goes beyond its function of entertainment? In the cinema’s dark confines, that shared emotion has meaning and a social purpose. It is reassuring to feel afraid together, and it is constructive to dream together.
Human development
Africa continues to enjoy a communal lifestyle, and its way of viewing film remains a collective experience that reflects that vitality. That’s not where the trouble lies. Rather, the content of films poses a problem. Beyond simply entertaining viewers, do such images subjugate the viewer, turning him or her into an object, or do they, on the contrary, mobilise the viewer as a subject? Film’s aesthetic dimension remains the key issue. If Mozambican producer Pedro Pimenta’s suggests professionally endorsing the thousands of video-club owners (see our interview), it is partly to increase their responsibility for the scenes that they project. Doubtless, cinema’s future, and that of society as a whole, lies in making cinema an art form at the service of human development, part of a people-based economy that helps some make a living. It’s a human issue and plays a role in the life of each one of us. A market is not only about buying, but about education, offering the public what it needs to grow. The more awareness is raised, the more people will be motivated to choose based on what encourages their autonomy. Cultural awareness happens when people willingly open their minds, and seek deeper understanding, not when it is presented as a duty. Isn’t it important to remember that, instead of being stunned by the success of local productions which appear outside of established institutions? Wherever did we see quality cinema emerge without the support of audiences? Old ideas die hard; even in the United States, « the government-administered budget for culture per capita is as great if not greater than France’s ». (5)
The artistic value and content of movies require careful observation and a critical eye, before knowing whether movies present « what audiences want ». Audiences quickly tire of the same old formulaic products being cranked out. Because of cinema’s creative element, it is difficult to predict how a movie will fare. Policymakers should let themselves be guided by what Maïakovski provocatively called « elitism for all ». As the many examples in Catherine Clement’s December 2002 official report on culture and public television illustrated, « talent creates a circle, and thanks to constant efforts, that circle widens. It widens until it reaches everyone. » (translated for the purposes of this translation).
Dealing with Pirating
Yet productions still have to find the means to exist. Today, it is often the pirates who set the pace and keep up with the demand, both of which are essential in developing a market! Without increasing revenues, the two arts most threatened by the digital revolution, cinema and music, are in danger of disappearing. No returns on investment, no entrepreneur. They are intercepted by unscrupulous businesspeople who rely on international networks and sophisticated technologies. Their dealers circulate freely among law enforcement officers without fear of reprisals. While a complete eradication of pirating may be wishful thinking, it is possible to control it by a strict legal framework. Morocco just set the standard: a new law passed on February 14, 2006 stipulates heavy penalties that can result in up to 4 years imprisonment and a fine of 600 000 dirhams, or 54 000 euros. Over 2 million CDs and DVDs were seized in 2006 and the major network run by « toubib Momo Boss » was brought down in October in Rabat. He was a med student with several stores and rampant activities in covered markets all over the country.
But pirating mainly concerns American blockbusters, and their producers exert pressure for such legislation to be passed. Unless there is an effective redistribution policy along the lines of the French model, national cinema only becomes endangered once it gets popular. If the government doesn’t react, producers try to minimize the damage by beating pirates at their own game. In Nigeria, they are flooding the market in record time. In Burkina Faso, Boubakar Diallo markets his VCDs at 1000 CFA francs, a price that beats off all competitors.
But increased revenues must also come from television broadcasting rights. Once again, a framework is necessary, namely by making copyright offices independent of the government. If not, preference given to State-run television will encumber budgets and encourage the endemic lack of discipline.
The Television Debate
Yet, it is television that has mainly shaken cinema everywhere. Years ago, youth dreamed the time away in westerns, kung fu movies, and Bollywood flicks shown to a packed house. Since the 1980s decreased buying power has had a negative effect on theatre attendance, while television offers an alternative through series and mini-series. Friends pile together in a television-equipped home to recapture some of the theatre’s charm and to fantasize together at the beautiful women, cars, and houses seen on Beverly Hills or in Latino soap operas. Hopeful parents call their kids « Kelly » but not « Ntaphil », after the hero of the Cameroonian 2005 hit series.
These series attract appreciative audiences, but they don’t represent an eldorado of otherness. A joint new tender has been launched by the French Foreign Affairs Minister and the OIF. It concerns 50-episode projects that would match the demands of national and private channel providers, and it should help give production societies more structure. Locally-shot programs effectively have the advantage of helping viewers have a more realistic vision of their current reality.
Series aside, television’s involvement in financing documentaries and fictional movies is a chapter not yet written. Television stations are often the first to show illegal films, as demonstrated by the Nigerian and Malagasy examples. They rarely approach independent producers and are slowly losing the market to numerous satellite stations, who are consolidating their hold with general-interest programming and low fees (5000 CFA francs in Yaoundé and Dakar). Nevertheless, there is strong citizen demand for locally-shot programs, especially societal documentaries. Both in television and cinema, entertainment is never the sole consideration. We mustn’t forget the cultural role that public television, as any educational system, should be able to play. That supposes diversified production to satisfy all audiences. And that will not happen without professional structures and a legal framework to work hand in hand with this diversity.

1. Essay by Olivier Barlet, La critique occidentale des images d’Afrique, in : Africultures n°1, dossier « La critique en questions », oct. 1997, p. 5-11 and in Cinémas d’Afrique noire : le nouveau malentendu, in : Cinémathèque n°14, automne 1998, Cinémathèque française, Paris, p.107-116. Available on-line at
2. Cf. Nollywood : le phénomène de la vidéo au Nigeria, sous la direction de Pierre Barrot, collection Images plurielles, L’Harmattan 2005.
3. Cf. Olivier Barlet, Une Afrique sans salles ? in Cahiers du cinéma, September 2005.
4. See Christian Tieng’s vivid reports on university life at
5. See Frédéric Martel, De la culture en Amérique, Gallimard 2006. This report shows that the American cultural policy is largely a fiscal one, since businesses and taxpayers can claim tax deductions for donations. Also, universities carry an enormous part of the statistics. At 4000-strong, they are veritable hubs of culture and the principal employers of the country’s nearly two million artists.
Olivier Barlet wishes to thank Thierno Ibrahima Dia, Yvette Mbogo, Charles Mensah, Karine Blanchon and Mouhamadou Sobi Mouktar for their valuable help.
Translated from French by Sameena Black///Article N° : 5851


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