Distribution: a superhuman effort?

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African film production and distribution have to go hand in hand, affirmed the participants at the « Cinema and distribution circuits in Africa » seminar, at the Fespaco 99.

« If film production is a considerable effort, distribution is a superhuman effort. » Right from the beginning of the seminar, any glimmer of hope was cast aside. For Dominque Wallon, ex-director of the French National Centre for Cinematography (CNC), and author of the report that paved the way for the reform of European aid to the cinemas of the South, the crisis in production is also linked to the lack of distribution, an aspect which the subsidies do not cover. The state of affairs is pitiful: there are few professional distributors and movie theatres, many of which are in a bad way, there is a shortage of copies, and second-rate films and American productions. Hence the need to invest in a network of both private and state movie theatres, to set up box office controls, and to create a real film promotions network. Wallon stressed the importance of distributing short films and the importance of Africa’s film heritage, many of whose works have never been screened.
It is thus necessary to relate distribution to the subsidies granted to film – but how exactly? That was what Serge Kancel of the European Union wanted to know, taking this opportunity to announce the Union’s setting up of a technical assistance bureau via the Amiens Festival. But who should the contracts be signed with? Isn’t a systematic system of subsidies to this cinema likely to create « bad habits » amongst the distributors? The economic stakes accentuate the tensions in this domain…
African film needs to be competitive, and to benefit from a minimum of promotion material (clips, posters, press books, etc.) if it is really going to break into the commercial circuits. That is what many African films are cruelly lacking, Bassek Ba Kobhio affirmed, describing the Ecrans Noirs experience. This Cameroonian association has (successfully) been distributing African films in central Africa for four years now, primarily in cultural centres, but also in commercial theatres when it has the necessary promotional material. « The problem is not about whether or not the African public likes these films. When an African film is shown, they go to see it – they don’t like many, and appreciate some », Ba Kobhio stated. « We need to think in terms of regions, » he added. In addition to the movie theatre network, the association also started programming an African film a month on the Cameroonian television a year ago.
The competitiveness to African films was also stressed by Noureddine Saïl of Canal Horizons. « An African film needs to be presented as a normal film, without any great to-do or debates », he insisted. Regulations concerning the television stations’ participation in film production are necessary: « If the stations are left to their own free will, they prefer to buy without participating, and if they are broke, they prefer not to show African films. »
And the market? In the States, Cornelius Moore of the California News Reel remarks, « The commercial theatre market is extremely difficult. Foreign films represent only 2%, half of which come from France. » The market is thus limited to the schools, universities, libraries, etc. However, the television market, with its numerous private channels, offers considerable possibilities. Moore cited the example of a cable station which programmes an African film week every year.
Ultimately, the seminar did not offer any magic solutions, but many questions were asked. In the workshops, discussions were animated, and even passionate at times. For example, when Ba Kobhio suggested the possibility of transforming the festival network into a system of exploitation, by using the money spent on the filmmakers’ travel costs to pay distribution rights. « But wouldn’t that simply divert us onto a parallel market? » one participant exclaimed. It was Gaston Kaboré who calmly pointed out that, at present, it is often the director who pays for the copies and sub-titling of a film, without having any guarantee of the financial returns…
« African film must become competitive. » Does this comment made by a Senegalese cinema owner have to be the last word? Shouldn’t the superhuman effort be the alliance of commerce and culture?

///Article N° : 5380

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