Cinema in Kenya & Nigeria: Between the burning discs & the big screen

The maxim that ‘Africa is a continent, not a country’ holds true for cinema. Yet one corner of the continent tends to be overlooked. South Africa has modern multiplexes; West Africa has Nollywood; North Africa has the rich film and cinema history of Egypt and the Maghreb. Only East Africa, notably Kenya, often doesn’t register in discussions about how cinema is developing.

Words: Patrick von Sychowski


WHEN CINEMA TECHNOLOGY LAST covered Africa’s cinema market in September 2017, Kenya had already put itself on the global map with not one but two IMAX screens in the capital Nairobi, putting it ahead of most European capitals, which typically make do with one or no IMAX screens. Today, only South Africa with eight IMAX screens (plus an additional two opening this year) is notably ahead, while Egypt has two open and one in backlog. Elsewhere, Morocco and Angola each have an IMAX screen, while Nigeria also has two, with one on backlog. And IMAX performs — in Nigeria, average box office is higher than average box office per site in Europe, as noted by Alessandra Bernacchi, IMAX senior manager for theater development in Europe and Africa, in a presentation at the 2019 ECM Conference [see p.43]. As with IMAX and cinema in general in Africa, a turning point was the release of “Black Panther”. Embraced by audiences as ‘their’ film, nowhere was this more true than in Kenya, due to the lead role for Oscar-winning Mexico-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyongo. There was even a Movie Jabbers Black Panther cosplay screening in Nairobi, proving that cinema and movie fandom go hand-in-hand.

Yet even when Comscore expanded its Africa focus in May of 2019 to nine territories, these only covered Western and Southern Africa, with Kenya left out. There is hope that with the change of regime in neighbouring Sudan and the return of cinema, as well as an end to domestic and cross-border conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea, that West Africa can return to the cinematic family of African regions.

Elsewhere in Africa, the authorities are cracking down on disc piracy, realising that it hurts both jobs in the legitimate film production and cinema sectors, while also not contributing to public finances in the form of sales and entertainment taxes. Yet even this crackdown has an unintended toxic legacy.

Piracy: unintended consequences
Talking about this to Heike Wolkerstorfer from the cinema advisory The Big Picture after the ECM conference in Istanbul, she revealed how she became an almost accidental activist in this fight against piracy. “I have no solution to this very complex issue (poverty, youth unemployment, lack of infrastructure and access, religion, etc),” she professed, “but I am trying to support Nigeria’s tremendous effort in confiscating pirated DVDs.”

The country has truly stepped up its anti-piracy efforts significantly in recent time. In the months around New Year the Nigerian Film Censor publicly burnt pirate DVDs with a street value running into millions of dollars. “However, the burning has devastating effects on the environment (such as poisoning the groundwater),” she acknowledges, “hence I am trying to get some contacts of people who are experts in the DVD field and know of environmentally safe ways to discard of them.” There are shredders that can safely destroy CDs and DVD, she says, “but since we are talking about millions of DVDs, only industrial shredders would be an option and those aren’t available in Nigeria. Buying them isn’t an option due to budget restrictions.”

Paying a price for doing the right thing?
Even as countries like Nigeria and Kenya are trying to rebuild their cinema infrastructure and create a market for domestic films, they risk poisoning the very ground under their feet by trying to battle illegal forms of film consumption. “Ideally, and in my little world of unicorns and elves, I would like to find a studio(s), philanthropist, etc. who would be willing to supply the shredders for free and ship them to Nigeria,” Heike says. The alternative would be to find another solution of discarding the pirate DVDs in an environmentally friendly manner [Ed: such as commercial reclamation of plastic and aluminium elements].

“For studios, this gesture of support and recognition would be good publicity,” Heike says, “and with this very act they would recognise Nigeria’s effort of combating piracy. This in itself would be very empowering. Not to mention the possibilities of building a bridge between Hollywood and Nollywood. The opportunities could be endless…” she trails off.

While there are thus reasons for optimism that countries like Kenya and Nigeria are rebuilding their cinema infrastructure themselves, it would serve the interest of Hollywood as well to make sure that the next “Black Panther” film is seen legitimately in an IMAX or another big screen, while the illegal copies of it do not contribute to the environmental damage to the continent.

If anyone reading this thinks they can help, get in touch with us. The higher up the better.


Tackling toxic piracy

One thing that unites all cinemas across Africa is the scourge of piracy. The closure of the single-screen cinemas across the continent in the 1980s and 1990s can be directly traced to the rise of optical disc piracy and the illegal video parlours that played both local and international content. There was simply no way a commercial cinema could compete with a CRT television set and a DVD player in a shanty town shack in Nairobi, Lagos, Marrakesh or Soweto. Even as cinemas have made a return thanks to the growth of malls in many African cities, the arrival of IMAX and some brave entrepreneurs, the illegal disc piracy continues. Authorities across the continent are starting to take a range of actions. In South Africa, the producers of the Oscar-nominated “Tsotsi” themselves sold copies of their film on discs amongst the pirates, except with the twist that after 15 minutes of the film the screen went black and a message thanking the viewer for having helped to pay for the film was played — the next on-screen message urged them to go and see the rest of it in a regular cinema.