Reforming the Ethiopian film industry

In Ethiopia, video film production started soon after the collapse of the Dergue regime in 1991. Since then, Ethiopia witnessed the rapid growth of the local film industry when young filmmakers began to produce documentary and fiction films with the help of digital filmmaking technologies. The technological revolution resulted in the rise of audiovisual productions that accelerated quickly. In present day Ethiopia, 100 feature films, from true stories to fictions, are produced every year.

This might make Ethiopia one of the largest film producers in Africa, probably next to Nigeria. Egypt produces around 30 films each year, Morocco 25, South Africa 15, while the rest of the continent combined (outside of Nigeria) produce just 15. Especially in the second decade, since 2000, where there was a dramatic change in terms of the number of productions in Ethiopia when filmmakers started showing their films on big screens; the government’s ban on showing films (for their supposed adverse effects on society) was lifted unceremoniously.

It is also important to note that in the last ten years the number of production houses in Addis Ababa has more than doubled. In the past eight years alone, about 504 film companies have been granted permission to produce films and screen on cinema. There are many other Film Companies not formally registered with the government office, but producing films to be released in DVD/VCD format. These informal films are scripted and shot quickly, often in a matter of months, then distributed on video discs (VCD) through a network of small stores, markets and itinerant traders. But this encouraging activity has never been on the right track to grow up as an industry. There are many notable challenges that face the infant stage of film development in Ethiopia. In this article, I will try to briefly show some of the major challenges.

Challenges of self-driven film industry
Generally speaking, the Ethiopian movie industry operates outside the established channels of screen financing, production and distribution. This is because the Ethiopian industry faces numerous barriers including lack of production facilities, poor market organization, inadequate rules and regulation, limited understanding of global markets, lack of bargaining power and international relationships. All these barriers resulted in the Ethiopian movie industry operating outside the established channels of screen financing, production and distribution.

Be that as it may, there are also some specific barriers that need urgent action for the proper development of the film in the country. One of which is absence of professionalism. In fact, the film industry in Ethiopia has been based on talent rather than as a professional job. As with most African countries, Ethiopia has practically no educational or governmental support for the film industry. Despite our country’s long and rich history in the arts, our schools hardly have any film programs. Most of the Ethiopian films are made by enthusiastic and talented young people who unfortunately lack the real training and professional contacts needed to succeed in the long term and gain international visibility. In most cases, these people learn from experimentation and observation. Though there is an increase in the number of the filmmakers, we still notice huge gaps in the basic knowledge.

This unprofessional filmmaking structure remains as a recurrent problem for the lack of quality film productions. Meanwhile, many people who start producing films call themselves Director or Cameraman, while they are not certified nor professional. The unprofessionalism structure makes it possible for films to be made quickly and cheaply, but it has also resulted in the instability and a fly-by-night mentality among producers. The films produced by them are of low quality and it does not meet the standards of good films. The absence of professionalism plays a major role in the films being produced with boring stories, monotonous contents, plagiarized techniques of directing and acting. Anything without knowledge does not have a life in this century.

Film Industry without Film Infrastructures
Producing a film is not a success, but reaching the intended audience must be the target. Though Ethiopia is producing over a hundred films in a year, there is lack of venues and distribution channels where the films could be shown to a wide range of audiences both locally and internationally. Currently, there are over 30 governmental and private-owned cinemas in Addis Ababa showing locally produced films on a daily basis, but they are not able to host screenings to accommodate the increasing film productions.

It is not only the movie goers who stand in a queue at the gates of the state-owned cinema; producers also get into queues and wait for over a year to get their films screened for the public. This is one of the major factors for the failure of Ethiopian films to engage local audiences and commercial success. When, after a long wait, the producer gets a chance to show the film, it will be outdated. This is increasingly becoming a problem for more ambitious producers wishing to scale up their movie-making and reach audiences worldwide.

Additionally, there is also a shortage of distributors where Ethiopian films could be distributed on video disc (VCD) through a network of video shops. In the 1990s, there were a considerable number of distributers operating in Addis Ababa, but their number have declined drastically over the past decade in an alarming rate. They are also getting out of the market due to several factors, including copyright infringement. The country has now very few left over distributors that are not capable enough to keep up with the increasing film productions.

Copy right; Fast Growing Challenge
Copyright infringement remains a big challenge for the Ethiopian film industry. Though there is a Patent Right Office and Copy Right Association, which are tasked with ensuring the proper implementation of copyrights laws, little has been done in this regard. They choose to turn a blind eye while pirates copy people’s original work. Weak intellectual property enforcement in the early years led to widespread piracy, but also to deep audience penetration.

Fake/pirated DVD and VCDs became another big challenge for the film industry in Ethiopia as films continued being pirated by the small local studios on the streets, which would sell a movie for a price two times lower than the original price of the item. This damaging activities resulted in the bankruptcy of producers and pushed many out of the film industry.

A space that matters
Film being an inherently collaborative and international medium, young filmmakers need to develop skills beyond the basics. To this end, they must work with local and international peers and mentors. They must also have a dedicated space to consistently meet, network, and learn from each other and from other stakeholders about the many creative, technical, business, institutional, and cultural aspects of contemporary cinema.

In Ethiopia, where resources are generally meagre and devoted toward more “practical” matters—and yet where most cultural programs are organized and run by the state—there is literally no dedicated space where the film community can meet, obtain resources, and produce their own events, from the elaborate and highly-organized to the impromptu and low-budget. What was really missing in Ethiopia is a space where the concerned stakeholders can come together to design the development of the national industry.

The Ethiopian International Film Festival (EARTHOPIAN) might be here mentioned as a partial remedy to these various problems. For over the last decade, the EARTHOPIAN has worked to give Ethiopians greater access to the African and world cinema, as well as to each other by providing opportunities for people to meet, and learn each other’s work. This has been good, but not sufficient, to meet the needs of our community.

Still, there is a strong demand for a dedicated space or platform that could ideally provide events and programs on a regular basis for greater continuity, breadth, and depth in developing a vibrant film culture as well as spurring film production and consumption. Such kind of dedicated spaces will bring together local and international filmmakers, media houses, television producers, broadcast council representatives, and government ministers as well as practitioners to meet, compare notes, collaborate, and develop relationships for the present and the future.

It will also be a multipurpose platform for filmmakers from around the country to meet and discuss film policies, practices and critically debate and share ideas about film; and develop strategies, tactics. And for the broader industry, it helps to achieve a greater quantity and quality of productions as well as engage with broader issues affecting cinema around the world.

Government; film as a luxury
In the present day Ethiopia, there is no appreciation and support for culture whatsoever. Although this is an integral part of our society, the government has proven to be mute and indifferent on the subject of culture, particularly on the sector of film. This certainly makes Ethiopia a special case that must be carefully considered.

There are some basic issues that shows the government’s negative attitude towards the film industry. For instance, film is listed in the heavily taxed category of the “luxury goods”. Beyond the income tax (30Pct of the total income for the fiscal year) and the VAT (15Pct on each ticket sold), producers have to pay also the entertainment tax (10Pct of the income generated by each production). This is an old tax approved during the Haile Selassie’s regime to discourage “immoral” commercial activities like night clubs and dancing halls. The tax law is outdated and economically damaging for the film industry.

It is also recalled that the well-equipped organization of the Ethiopian Film Corporation was also dissolved by the government with the proclamation no. 151/1999 and lost its role. Until today, it is not known where this diverse equipment is exactly located. Recently, there is an attempt to initiate some new support systems for film production in the country. The cinema policy is one example which was ratified in 2017/18 to be included as a curriculum in line with technical and vocational educational institutions policy. But this is not enough. There are much more to be done in order to build a strong film industry.


8th Year • Oct.16 – Nov.15 2019 • No. 79

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