The cinema culture in Uganda has come a long way. There was a time when cinema was for snobs, people wondered why they would spend Shs20,000 to watch a film they could find on the streets for less.
According to Acram Juuko, the public relations manager Century Cinemax, those days, even those interested did not have a lot of information; “they would come to the cinema and watch what is available,” he says.
But then the culture improved, people picked on franchises such as the DC and Marvel films, Fast and Furious, Lord of the Rings and the Has Fallen series, he says when the audience got plugged in, they started coming to cinema as a way of life; “some were even excited about seeing a film before anyone sees it,” he says.
A good year!
By the time the lockdown happened, Century Cinemax, Uganda’s biggest cinema was anticipating a good year, thanks to releases such as Tenet, Mulan, Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Fast and Furious, No Time To Die, King’s Man and Dune, among others.
With the marketing involved, the films were going to make 2020 a dream for exhibitors across the country, then Covid-19 happened and many films were delayed until next year, while others such as Mulan, Artemis Fowler and Ava were available on streaming sites such as Netflix and Disney Plus.
But regardless, the damage in Uganda could have been salvaged, for instance, while in Nairobi, the Kenya Film Classification tried to ensure the cinema-going culture does not die, by promoting drive-in cinema innovations and sponsoring start-up filmmakers to stay in business. Their Ugandan counterparts under the Uganda Media Council, did all in their power to suffocate the art.
“We tried many times to have meetings with them about reopening the cinema business but they were not willing to meet,” says Godfrey Musinguzi.
Musinguzi is the brains behind the Uganda Cinema Night, a monthly initiative geared towards promoting Ugandan films through periodic screenings. For a Ugandan film to screen, the Uganda Media Council has to classify it at a fee of Shs150,000, foreign films mostly showed by cinemas pay $150 (approximately Shs600,000).
For many filmmakers and film exhibitors, since they contribute heavily to the Media Council through the fees, they believed they would have been key in fighting for the reopening of cinemas but that wasn’t the case.
Musinguzi also believes that Uganda Communication Commission, the organisers of the annual Uganda Film Festival would at least use some of their 2020 festival budget to help the industry stay on its feet.
But none of these bodies, he says, seemed interested.
Making matters worse, not even the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) was helpful.
“We wrote to the UNCC to intervene, especially when churches had been allowed to operate, our reasoning was that if some churches are happening from spaces that work as theatres and cinemas, then it should be okay for us to open,” says a cinema operator who chose anonymity.
However, to their shock, UNCC was not willing to push for theatres and cinema reopening because they believed advocating for artistes would put them in a spot that would make them look like they were fighting the government.
“They even refused to host a press conference we wanted to hold from their premises,” he says.
On Saturday, almost after eight months under lock and key, a few cinemas started opening for business while counting losses.
Counting the cost
Century Cinemax, for instance, on a public holiday, receives traffic between 1,000 – 1,400 people., Jjuko says. With a ticket going for Shs22,000, a public holiday could be a killing at more than Shs30m.
With Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, Heroes Day, Martyrs Day, Eid ul Fitr and Independence Day all gone, Century Cinemax alone lost more than Shs200m in public holidays, this is minus the month of Ramathan which is a peak season or the weekends through the seven months they were closed.
The belief is that cinemas may not have lost all this money if the Uganda Media Council had stood and advocated for them, the same way people running churches pushed for their opening.
To make matters worse, different government organs did not have a harmonised communication system which frustrated exhibitors, for instance, in August, Media Council gave a green light for a drive-in cinema to happen at Panamera, only for the police to stop it without giving an official reason.
Last week, the Ministry of Health allowed cinemas, gyms, dance studios and mobile markets to re-open. The move was celebrated by many. On Saturday though, not many cinemas had reopened, but the few that opened, a few people were there to watch films.
“I have been home long enough, so coming to the cinema, even if it is to watch a film I already watched, makes me feel like life is normalising,” said Clare Tusiime.
Juuko believes people are not going to be as many as they had then, especially on the first weekends, but he knows they will all eventually come back.
On how they are surviving without adequate content, he says at the moment, they have a number of Hollywood titles but the main ones remain postponed. This though, could be a good time for Ugandan filmmakers to salvage from their older films.
There are Ugandan films audiences loved but didn’t get a chance to stay at the cinema for long, films such as Rain, Bella and Veronica’s Wish could have a second life at the cinema.
But for Musinguzi, whose audience has watched most of those local films, the real challenge sets in.
“We are meeting the National theatre management to forge a way forward, but after that, the issue of content will set in,” he says.
Since cinemas closed, only a few filmmakers were able to shoot films, many were only writing. Now that they have opened, there are a good number of scripts waiting for production with only a few productions ready for screening.
“Even the few productions that went on were for TV series because it is all that could pay at the time,” he says.