Cinema in Africa makes a ‘third-reel comeback’

'In the 1980s, a wave of cinema closures began to unfurl across the continent as rundown picture palaces were turned into auto repair shops, supermarkets, restaurants and even churches,' writes David Esnault (Thomas Mukoya)

'In the 1980s, a wave of cinema closures began to unfurl across the continent as rundown picture palaces were turned into auto repair shops, supermarkets, restaurants and even churches,' writes David Esnault (Thomas Mukoya)

Like the plot of an old-fashioned movie, cinemas in Africa are making a third-reel comeback after years of worrying decline.

In many countries south of the Sahara, digital technology, strong investment and modern theatres are bringing about a major revival of movie-going, ending years of cinema closures.

But the good news comes with a drawback: the new cinema complexes give precedence to Hollywood blockbusters rather than films made by African directors.

In the 1980s, a wave of cinema closures began to unfurl across the continent as rundown picture palaces were turned into auto repair shops, supermarkets, restaurants and even churches.

Today, continent-wide figures for the industry are sketchy, but the sector is making a comeback. It’s driven by demographic demand and digital technology that provides low-cost distribution.

“The demand is there,” says Jean-Marc Bejani, the chief executive of the Majestic chain, which has opened three cinemas in Abidjan in the past two years. Next year, the chain will open three more in the Yopougon district.

Oil industry professional Bejani discovered there were no cinemas left in Côte d’Ivoire.
Success came fast: 75 000 tickets were sold for a single cinema in 2015 and 175 000 in 2016. “Before this, the movie theatres were old and technically outdated,”Bejani says.

“I come often,” says schoolgirl Marie Benoit at a Majestic cinema as smart as any European multiplex.

Canal Olympia has applied a similar hi-tech approach to its bid to conquer West and Central Africa. Since 2016, this subsidiary of global entertainment group Vivendi has opened six cinemas in Cameroon, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

The group’s aim is to construct several dozen multi-role complexes, and work to build three new venues has started.

“A middle class is developing in Africa ,” says Corinne Bach, head of Canal Olympia.

In a number of countries, old cinemas are being upgraded or reopened in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

On the other side of the continent, in Kenya, the renewal of cinema began about a decade ago. The East African nation has several modern cinemas, usually located in shopping malls, in place of the small venues of yore.

But Franco-Gabonese director Samantha Biffot bemoans the lack of African films on show. “The cinemas need to screen our work, because most African films are only to be seen at festivals or abroad,” she says. — AFP

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