A Digital Cinema Gold Rush in Africa

Patrick von Sychowski investigates how the Nigerians and the French are leading the push to bring (back) cinema to the continent.

With the notable exception of South Africa, cinema has been slow to embrace digital across the continent of Africa. This is not so much because Africa clings to analogue film, but because the theatrical cinema business has languished or, in some countries, vanished, mainly due to piracy, the rise of home entertainment and stunted local film industries. In Congo’s capital Kinshasa, for example, the last cinema closed in 2004, leaving a city of 10 million without a single movie theatre. Yet the growth of an affluent middle class and malls has led local operators to start investing in new multiplexes and upgrading existing facilities. The market has attracted outside interest, particularly from France with the likes of Vivendi, MegaRama, CineAtlas and Ymagis racing to enable a potential African cinema revolution.  No single article can do justice to the varied nature of cinema across the 54 internationally recognised countries that make up Africa — even if data and information was available for all. The good news is that after years of decline, cinema is slowly on the rise across much of sub-Saharan Africa. UNESCO data showed the number of cinemas went from just one in Senegal in 2012 to six in 2015, Mozambique grew from four in 2009 to six in 2015. Even war-torn South Sudan is recorded as having one cinema in 2015. But in North Africa there has been a steady decline, with Egypt dropping from 165 cinemas in 2005 to 69 in 2015, while Morocco had 119 cinema in 2005 but just 31 ten years later.

The heartland of african cinema

When it comes to cinema, three countries have traditionally played an outsized role in the African continent when it comes to cinema and film: South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. Of these, South Africa has more in common with markets such as Brazil or Thailand than the rest of Africa when it comes to having a developed cinema sector. This leaves Nigeria and Egypt as the twin poles for cinema in sub-Saharan and North Africa. Of these two Nigeria has seen the most multiplex developments recently.Silverbird Cinemas in Ikeja Mall claims to be Nigeria’s oldest multiplex, having opened in 2004, and the operator has since expanded to eight cinemas with 69 screens, making it West Africa’s largest operator. Filmhouse opened its first multiplex in 2012 and has the ambition to open 25 cinemas by 2020, with a current total of 44 screens across ten sites. Genesis Deluxe Cinemas (GDC — not to be confused with the server maker) has opened seven cinemas with 15 screens and was the first to show a digital 3D film (The Green Hornet) in Nigeria. There are also other small operators such as Ozone Cinema and Viva. IMAX concluded its first agreement in Nigeria with Filmhouse Cinemas in 2015 for a screen in Lagos. This was a first for West Africa, though IMAX had previously signed a deal in Angola as well as several sites in South Africa and Kenya. “There is an appetite for the premium experience that IMAX has to offer,” Giovanni Dolci, IMAX MD for Europe and Africa was quoted in Variety, saying that African IMAX screens have “extremely solid” returns, comparable to cinemas in more developed markets. As in other markets, the arrival of multiplexes and IMAX in Africa is to a large part a function of the growth of malls. Other West African territories are following, with Ghana also having two Silverbird Cinemas.

a market of opportunity?

Yet the absence of a cinema resurgence in many African territories has prompted outsiders to step in. The perhaps unlikeliest is Vivendi Group’s Chairman Vincent Bolloré, whose Canal+ is a major pay television operator across Africa with 2.8 million subscribers. His Canal Olympia venture aims to open 100 cinemas across Africa, the first of which opened in Cameroon’s University of Yaounde in June 2016, followed by a second in Douala (south) and a third cinema in Yaoundé. Cameroon had 32 cinemas in 1973, but the last closed in 2009. With television and piracy arguably helping to kill cinema, a TV platform owner is now cinema’s unlikely saviour.

The next ones planned are an 11-screen complex in Rabat and an eight-screen multiplex in Tangiers. These are expected to grow box office by a staggering 70%. With ticket prices at around $5, the multiplexes cater to the middle class, though Moroccan films hold their own with Hollywood, consistently capturing half of the Top Ten films each year. Morocco is outpacing Egypt  in both films and cinemas.Against this backdrop, Ymagis’s  acquisition of R2D1 in 2015 makes sense, given the presence and involvement of the cinema service company in North and French-speaking Africa. The same year Ymagis’s Maxime Rigaud was appointed to head the exhibitor service division (merged with Ymagis Engineering Services and now called CinemaNext) for France, Switzerland and Africa. In 2016 CinemaNext installed Laser Barco DP4K-60L RGB and Dolby Atmos immersive sound systems for three new Megarama multiplexes in Bordeaux and Morocco, Casablanca and Marrakech for the Horizon PLF screens. Morocco thus had 4K RGB laser with Dolby Atmos even before some European territories.

The above is just a snapshot of the cinema situation in Africa, with a focus on the high-end multiplex market that caters to the middle- and upper-classes. But cinema has proliferated and flourished in countless of other ways across Africa. This ranges from the many festivals appearing from Algiers to Zanzibar; the travelling outdoor cinemas that provide both education and entertainment to people that don’t own a TV, the low-cost 100-seat cinemas in Addis Ababa, the glorious Art Deco cinema in Eritrea dating from Mussolini’s days, the inflatable screens that attract hundreds of children in the slums of Kenya, the ‘cinema at the end of the world’ in the Egyptian desert that had seats, projector, screen, and electricity generator out in the open but never showed a single film. These and many others also reflect the reality of cinema in Africa today. 

Yet there can be no doubt that multiplexes and digital single-screen cinemas are on the march. It has been estimated that Nigeria’s entertainment and media market alone will double in value to $8.5 billion by 2018, of which a growing part will go to cinema box office. So even with currency fluctuations, conflict and political uncertainty, it is clear the appetite for big screen entertainment is being re-kindled across Africa. With global attention having been focused on territories such as China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey, Africa could be cinema’s next big growth market.