Amharic Films in Free Fall

It is long known that the local Amharic language film industry is struggling. Long gone are the heydays of the sector, now dominated by cinema hall corruption, increasing costs, lack of creativity, imitation of foreign films and a lackadaisical audience. Though there are high quality films released, audiences seem to have been numbed by the sheer number of inferior movies. To bring the sector out of its slumber, industry insiders recommend tapping into Ethiopia’s rich pool of cultural and historical assets, implementing knowledge-based film making, recognizing the broad-based positive impact of cinema, and garnering due attention from government bodies. EBR’s Kiya Ali takes a look.

A few years back, local Amharic film production was a lucrative business in Ethiopia. Moviegoers were excited about watching movies in a local language they can readily understand. The situation motivated play writers to write more and producers to invest their money in making movies.

The proliferation of Amharic movies has also inspired investors to build new cinema halls. Denver Cinema is one of those cinema halls. Seven years ago, people used to wait in line to watch Amharic movies during all the showings at Denver Cinema. Denver has two cinema halls with 90 seats each and it used to show movies an aggregate of six times daily. An average of 150 people per day used to go to the place on weekdays with the number doubling on the weekends.

The Cinema has, however, reduced its sessions from six to two. “We are even planning to shut down one of the cinema halls and turn into a multi-purpose hall to complement our hotel found in the same building,” the Manager of the cinema hall, Alula Abay said. The main reason behind such a move is the massive reduction in the number of Amharic movie goers. An average of 30 people per day on weekdays and 100 people per day during weekends currently watch movies at Denver Cinema. To compensate its income deficit, the cinema has increased the entrance fee from ETB40 to 50 on weekdays and ETB50 to 60 on weekends.

The tremendous decline in the number of Amharic moviegoers is not an incident limited only to Addis Ababa, though. Adama has experienced the same problem. Despite having the capacity to hold 1,000 people, there are days when Oliad Cinema gets no customers. “Up to 150 people come on Sundays but an average of 10, and sometimes no people appear on weekdays,” an employee of Oliad, Kiya Birhanu told EBR. “ETB 40 is the entrance fee at the hall and we rent the cinema hall for ETB 50,000. We are not making any profit at all.”

This is best illustrated by the experience of Eyerusalem Gashu, a massive movie goer. Eyerusalem used to frequently watch Amharic movies but she hardly does so these days. “The quality of Amharic movies has gotten worse through time and although the actors are experienced, they play similar roles. Creativity is rare in Amharic movies,” she explains. Yohannes Afework, Actor and Stage Manager at Hager Fiker Theater with more than 15 years of experience, agrees. Despite the fact that film recording and editing techniques have improved, argues Yohannes, stories are redundant and lacking in originality. “Watching similar stories performed by different actors is boring for the audience,” he said. Copying stories from Hollywood and other foreign movies is another problem.

The proliferation of free satellite channels and the reduction in the price of satellite dishes has given the local audience the chance to watch various foreign movies for free. This local phenomenon has provided the local audience with alternatives, rendering them more selective along the way. “People always want new things. Ethiopia has rich historical and cultural facets. Numerous fascinating stories of war along with various social and traditional issues provide a sea of stories to narrate. Yet, we have not used these resources as an input in film making,” analyzes Yohannes. “Instead of being casted for their talent, new actors and actresses are selected based on their physical appearance. This has exacerbated the problem.”

Various customs and traditions of different countries around the world are shown in movies. Films have the power of magnifying certain portions of everyday activities of the society and revolve on issues that everyone knows but did not give much emphasis to. They also depict historical, traditional, cultural, scientific and social themes. In the process, they create awareness about the past and present, thus contributing to improved social cohesion.

Moreover, movies create job opportunities for many talented and professional youth who could work as writers, actors, directors, editors, technicians, make-up artists, lighting personnel, casting personnel, stunt-people, continuity people, cinematographers and many more.

To live up to its potential, however, experts say the sector needs to be able to attract a good number of viewers, although that does not seem to be the case these days. The growth of the sector has, thus, been stunted. Producers point their fingers at poor cinema quality, bureaucratic procedures of cinema houses, and the low attention the sector is afforded from the government as the main contributing factors to the poor performance of the sector. “The government considers film making as a purely profit-making business. This has contributed to the plummeting number of moviegoers, ultimately hindering the growth of the sector. It is about time that the government understands film making is more than a business. It is a place where we fight negative cultural influence, promote the country, attract tourism, and create job opportunities,” Dawit Tesfaye, a producer with more than 10 years of experience, told EBR.

The corrupt system around cinema halls is also a major factor that holds back the growth of Ethiopian cinema. Cinema halls choose the type of movie they show based on its potential financial reward. They directly and indirectly dictate film makers on the type of films to make by determining the kind of movies they will show. They have characterized the traits of films that draw large audience numbers. Therefore, they automatically screen those films that fulfill these characteristics and discriminate against those that do not. That forces producers, who produce movies with a different perspective, out of the market. “Most of the cinema hall owners are like landlords in a feudal system. They don’t contribute anything to the growth of cinema. They share half of the income from entrance fees but don’t do any promotion works to get more audiences.

The entire burden is on the shoulders of the producer,” Playwright and Director Meaza Worku analyzes. Meaza noted that high production and promotion costs, increased payment to actors, tax, corruption around cinema hall managers, and other factors push experienced producers out of the market. This trend floods the market with inexperienced new entrants. “I am not surprised by the fall in the number of Amharic moviegoers. What surprises me more is how the sector has still managed to survive,” she went on to remark.

Meaza has a different perspective on the alleged low quality of Amharic movies. She pointed out that many movies have won awards based on expert evaluation while the number of viewers such movies attract is very low. Had quality been the issue, Meaza contemplates; these movies would have drawn a large audience numbers.
Arsema Worku, Secretary of the Ethiopian Film Producers Association, agrees with Meaza. The absence of research is a big problem for Arsema. Arsema contends that Ethiopian moviegoers have not been categorized based on concrete research. Despite complaints regarding the similarity in stories and low quality of movies, Arsema goes on to ponder, such movies are the ones that generate more income than high quality movies like Teza, Kuragnaye and Yefiker Waga. Arsema also thinks that persistent criticism of Amharic movies has its own contribution in the plummeting number of moviegoers.

“Instead of appreciating the sector and giving constructive criticism, the media batter Amharic movies. On the one hand, they request around ETB30,000 for a maximum one-minute advertisement but, on the other hand, they buy the movie to show on their TV stations for only ETB10,000. That is a loss for a producer,” Arsema states. She concluded that such challenges force producers to minimize their costs, which in turn affects quality. Arsema also raised management issues in the filmmakers’ associations as another problem holding back the growth of the sector.
The majority of the movies produced these days have comedy as their genre. Daniel Tegegn, Actor, believes that the huge success comedy films such as “Yewondoch Guday” enjoyed in drawing large viewers prompted many filmmakers to adopt comedy as the preference of the Ethiopian moviegoer. He argues that such an understanding is the root cause of the proliferation of comedy films. Daniel believes that the dramatic change in the number of comedy movies has rendered moviegoers slow to respond to high quality movies like Kuragnaye. Daniel also thinks that the content of comedy movies is not strong. “They just incorporate anything they think would make people laugh. This makes experienced actors highly selective and even draws them out of making movies,” Daniel explains. As a result, quite a number of actors, including Daniel, have shifted to theater.

For Tigist Girma, Actress, though, trying to imitate foreign movie styles is the main reason behind the dissatisfaction among movie lovers. She believes that making Amharic movies Ethiopian and telling stories that are in line with the cultures and traditions of the country are among the solutions to reverse the trend in movie going. Tigist believes that the falling number of moviegoers has rendered professions like acting unlivable as producers make fewer films these days because of the reduced capacity of films to generate profit. “We make money based on our contractual agreement with producers. So, if producers can’t generate enough income, they can’t pay us fairly. This has a serious impact on us. The price of rent and food items increases by the day in the face of reduced income,” Tigist remarked.

Tigist argues that actors and actresses need to have alternative means of income to support their lives, as acting by itself cannot do that anymore. Under such conditions, Tigist goes on to explain, making low-quality films just to try their luck at whatever meager profit there might be becomes a plausible feat.

Furthermore, the attitude of government officials towards film making is a warning for producers not to invest their money and time in the sector. Dawit complained that abuses by the police while lawfully shooting films is part of his daily working life. “I was even arrested by the police while shooting a scene around Kebena and stayed in their custody for eight hours. I did not violate the law. The only problem was attitude,” Dawit says.

High taxes on imported film equipment, though excise tax is expected to be reduced from 100Pct to 10Pct as per the new proclamation, and lack of incentives are also cited as factors contributing to the limited production of quality movies. In addition, casting the same actors and actresses again and again keeps the door shut on new talent. “Moreover, copyright breaches in distributing films discourages producers from investing their money in film making and repels new entrants,” Yohannes states.

Alula claims that the apparent monopoly of the sector by a handful of people has hurt its growth. In addition to managing Denver Cinema, Alula also writes film scripts. He has not, however, agreed with producers to proceed to production. “I agreed with a certain producer to sell my play for ETB30,000. But after consulting some other people, she forced me to change some aspects of the content. The problem is that the major actors in the sector are not willing to entertain new perspectives,” Alula remarked.

Elias Mengiste, Deputy Manager of Cinema Ethiopia, noted that neglecting knowledge and trying to lead the sector with money is one of the core problems hindering its growth. “The declining number of moviegoers has to do with the fact that the sector is led by less-educated people,”Elias said. In his opinion, the fact that Cinema Ethiopia is not catching up with modern technologies is one of the factors that pushes away moviegoers. He pointed out that some of the chairs in the cinema hall are broken, the place where viewers buy snacks is not attractive, and cinema halls still use the backward 35mm projector. “To regain our customers, I strongly believe that Cinema Ethiopia has to renovate itself while maintaining its historical values,” Elias argues.

The management of Cinema Ethiopia has finalized a feasibility study as well as the design to renovate the cinema hall. Elias pointed out that the estimated cost of repairing the whole building is estimated to be ETB37 million. Besides technological and knowledge gaps, Elias identified the lack of incentives as one of the major problems behind the poor performance of the sector. Despite their long years of experience, for instance, employees of Cinema Ethiopia still earn a salary of around ETB2,000 only. “People need to be remunerated amply to come up with new ideas, serve their customers properly, and maintain their business,” Elias says.

Regulation No. 14/1999 has bestowed the Addis Ababa City Government Cinema Houses Enterprise with five powers. These powers include: staging recreational film shows in the city; organizing, promoting and managing cinema houses in the city; importing and distributing films to be designated for shows; carrying out other activities related with film undertakings; and determining and collecting charges for the services it provides. Elias explains that subsequent directives needed to implement the regulation effectively have, however, not been introduced. Political instability, inflation and unemployment are additional factors that have contributed to the dwindling number of Amharic moviegoers.

Towards solving the complex problems that exist in Ethiopian cinema and the film industry at large, Elias recommends institutionalizing the sector to be the main priority. He noted that public theaters such as Hager Fiker have institutional structures with money allocated for them from the government whilst public cinema halls are left on their own. Following that move, he calls for building a research institute, providing continuous trainings, and letting the sector be led by knowledge as the remedial actions that would help regain Amharic moviegoers.

Solomon Denu, Arts Presentation and Events Production Director at Addis Ababa Culture, Art and Tourism Bureau, believes that the necessary incentives to the film sector has not been given by the government. “Although film is considered a luxury, its impact on building the image of the country and attracting tourists indicate that it is not,” he said. Solomon doesn’t support excise tax on film equipment and the fact that cinema is considered a luxury. His office, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, has therefore already embarked on activities to have films considered as basic goods. He remarked that the positive steps of the new bureau, Addis Ababa Culture, Art and Tourism Bureau, established in 2018 provide hope for the future and somehow indicate that governmental support for the sector is not dead and buried yet.

9th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2020 • No. 82

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