Many of Kenya’s movie theatres and cinemas are empty even on blockbuster opening weekends. The Odeon and Kenya cinemas in Nairobi, which used to be filled with movie fans on weekends, as well as other theatres remain largely empty and are now serving as churches and exhibitions halls.
Kenya Film Classification Board Chief Executive Officer Dr. Ezekiel Mutua wants to change all that and is developing ideas up to get fans back into cinema seats. Recently his organization acquired the former Nairobi Cinema with the hopes of turning it into a one-stop movie place.
“Nairobi Film Center is part of a wider plan called SINEMA MASHINANI which was to revive the culture of Cinema going in this country,” Dr. Mutua says. “In 2017 we did a survey and realized while countries like France are selling 165 million tickets to the theatres. Kenya only sells 34 thousand and we realized that people don’t go to the cinemas anymore because they are obsessed with new technology while cinema is supposed to be the experience.”
Obstacles facing the film industry in Kenya
However, a lackluster experience for the average movie buff isn’t the only reason Kenyans aren’t going to the movies like in year’s past.
Film producer Michael Mwangi says the big issue is piracy and unless authorities come up with radical measures then the already low numbers in the cinema halls will continue to nosedive.
“I think they need to first ban piracy because in Kenya piracy is given a license, these are the 50 bob/ half a dollar movie shops. So, it is quite easy if you ban those ones, people will not say I will skip the premier cinema because I’m waiting for it to be released by those shops.”
Movie enthusiast Mathias Muindi agrees. He says there is a large market for online pirated movies and music in this country.
“You just walk in downtown Nairobi, you will see shops open, selling the latest movies. They are almost giving them for free. Most of them have been downloaded illegally from certain websites and are being distributed,” he says.
“Piracy is rampant across Africa, but there are various countries in Africa that have different ways of dealing with that. You cannot eliminate piracy, but you can try to minimize it, which is why in some countries there is political goodwill to deal with piracy. We are yet to see that in Kenya.
Cracking down on piracy and refurbishing older movie houses with updated technology would improve business for the country’s cinemas.
Technology bringing the box office to the home office
But a few movie fans we spoke to say one of the biggest reasons why people no longer go to the movies in big numbers is because thanks to technology, the movies can come to you.
“For me what I think the key reason is, as the world continues to embrace technology and internet of things, it is easier for one to access the latest movies one wants to watch at a click away,” argues Najma Abdirizak.
So let’s say for instance the cheapest here to get a ticket for any theatre in Nairobi particularly, I’d say it will cost you about $ 4-6.So would you be willing to pay that amount for a single movie or would you pay the same amount to get a monthly subscription which will help you watch as much as you want.”
Her assertions are supported by another movie enthusiast.
“I think apps like Showmax, and Netflix have taken over the movie-going culture because in Kenya, for you to go into a movie theatre, you need at least Ksh. 1000/$ 10. Whereas for Netflix, you pay Ksh. 800/$ 8 to watch many movies,” says Hope Kirubi.
Kirubi adds that if movie cinemas offer some form of subscription format to better compete with home and mobile-based services that might help bring back customers.
Film producer Michael Mwangi says better promotion would also help. But perhaps the Kenyan Film Classification Board has the best answer. Filmmakers should make movies that people want to see.
“If you focus on the evil then you demoralize people. People become toxic, they become poisoned and they cannot move forward. Someone said to poison society, just poison their stories. Poison the news they watch, what they read, poison their minds. It’s a battle of the mind. Films exist to shape ideologies.”
Dr. Mutua says films have been used by nations globally to create narratives that have helped market countries to the outside world.
Filmmaker Michael Mwangi agrees with KFCB boss noting that negative stories are being churned out daily with some being demoralizing with implications such as depression. He adds that films can be used to change the tide.
Mwangi said now that most television channels are focused on producing and airing commercials and political content, filmmakers can fill the gap by producing stories that can impact the masses positively.
KFCB boss Mutua feels it’s important to develop Kenya’s film industry because doing so, even at a grassroots level will provide employment opportunities for young talented Kenyans.