Twenty three year old Rahel Kasahun is sitting on a bar stool, flipping through her phone with one hand and holding a mug half-full of draught beer in the other. Sitting across the room from the doors to Agona Serawit Cinema’s movie hall, she waits at the large circular bar waiting for the 4:00pm movie that she says has never started on time.
“Now that my boyfriend’s gone, I usually have nothing to do after work,” Rahel said. “I come here three, maybe four times a week.”
Lately, more and more buildings in Addis Abeba seem to have cinema halls. Many movies are being premiered every day and audiences are floating to the cinemas as each competes for a bigger slice of the pie.
The city opened its first movie house, Setan Be’t, only three years after the world’s first film ever was projected in Paris on December 28, 1895 by the Louis Lumière brothers. one hundred twenty one years down the line, the number of cinemas in the Addis alone has reached 34.
For the registered 471 film productions and thousands of audiences who go out to watch the movies, the cinema halls of the city are popular recreation spots. However, what is screened depends on the decision of a few.
Addis Abeba City Administration’s Culture & Tourism Bureau is the government agency mandated to decide what movies get to be seen. A City Council proclamation, gives the Bureau the authority to allow or deny viewing of all movies in cinemas.
Consent can be withheld due to one of two criteria. The first demands technical standards. The cinematography and quality of sound system are reviewed. The second criterion considers social aspects. It forbids showing of films that degrade ethnicity or religion, promote drugs or pornography; or disgrace societal norms. Permission can also be withheld if there are scenes that defame public figures, including politicians.
Four people, two with Bachelor’s degrees, and two with, Master’s degrees in Theatrical Arts, make up the panel that examines the movies. In the Bureau’s viewing room located on Adwa St. opposite Berhanena Selam Printing Enterprise, filmmakers, after paying an obligatory 700 Br for licensing their film production, show their movies to the panel. If they get the green light for the silver screen, they pay an additional 400birr to get a certificate which cinemas are obligated to request before screening.
Not everyone however, is happy with what is deemed to be censorship.
“It is one thing to be censored and tolerate it, but paying to be censored is a whole new level,” said an assistant director Fortune approached.
Even though the law of the land prohibits any form of censorship, an attorney-at-law who wished to remain unnamed, stated that there are always conditionalities in application. Like the freedom of speech, she said,
The Bureau also requires cinemas to pay 1,000 Br upon opening. They must also obtaind a business licence from the Ministry of Trade and a professional permit from the Bureau.
In most cinemas, movies are selected after the producer or his agent contacts the cinema and sets a schedule for review. Serawit evaluates the movies only by looking at story flow and structure, cinematography, acting, directing, in addition, Wosenyeleh Tilahun, administration & general service officer of Serawit Cinema. described a key element – suspense value.
“The best tactic for any business to be profitable is figuring out the demand of the customer; the cinema business is no different,” said Wosenyeleh.
Addis’ most popular cinema, located in Edna Mall, best known for its Box Office movies, prefers to include professionals from their marketing, cinema, business development and service providers’ teams for decision making. Some others let the audience decide for itself by directly going into screening.
The minimum requirement for cinemas, is 50 seats, fire escape doors, soundproof walls, tiered seating, a snack providing corner and an administrator that has a degree in Theatrical Arts and a minimum of five year’s experience.
Evaluation visits are paid to each cinema twice a year for follow up. However, quite a few of the criteria remain unfulfilled In addition, some requirements do not have quantitative yardsticks with which to measure compliance. No sound or screen quality is specified.
Those that do meet the criteria include the National Theatre, Cinema Ethiopia, Edna Cinema, and Ambassador Cinema are the few who can screen 35mm film – the film gauge most commonly used for motion pictures worldwide. Most of the others can accept only lower quality movies.
“Our cinema development is not advanced yet for us to force the cinemas to have a particular high quality system,” said Tsgaye Zemedie, communication officer of the Bureau.
Nevertheless, revenue sharing between filmmakers and cinemas is often an even 50-50 from ticket sales. The difference comes in those who make filmmakers pay for the printing of flyers and posters, and those who do not. By contractual stipulation, they could be asked to pay up to 10,000 Br.
Cinemas in Addis sell tickets at rates between 25 Br and 70 Br. Saris Cinema, a hall with 300 seats, started with 10,000 Br initial capital, by renting the place which was used to show football matches. The Bureau defines any cinema with more than 200 seats as first grade.
The ticket issuer stands behind a bar crowded by a mountain of cookies and juices centimetres apart from the cashier’s computer set beside it. The gap is barely enough for customers to pass along the bills. When the wide doors that lead to the cinema open, the hall looks like it is able to swallow 400 people without a hiccup. However, the sound echoes each time the doors open.
Saris charges 25 Br for regular viewing of Amharic movies and 30 Br on the day of the premiere.
The weekly intake of saris cinema that screen three movies daily lies between 30,000 Br to 40,000 Br.
There is no difference in the admission charged by state-owned cinemas, Ambassador, Empire and Ethiopia.
A little higher up the scale is Serawit Cinema located opposite You Go City Church on Cameroon St. Serawit’s plush red carpet leads its customers from the second floor of the building to the cinema located one floor above. Posters of famous movies make the walls look like a hall of fame. The dark red and black coloured cinema halls are spacious, the chairs are comfortable, but the doors do not seem able to handle the wave of people that to try to exit en masse.
On the higher end of the spectrum lies Edna Mall’s Matti Cinema, which charges 40 Br for mid-day movies on weekdays. For the three movies shown after in a two hour span, it charges 60 Br if the movie is in 2D and 70 Br for 3D movies.
Edna has three halls, two of them with 152 seats and one with 439 seats. The Amharic movies are screened in one of the smaller halls. They generate a weekly income between 7,000 Br and 9,000 Br.
A record holder in that was a film called Teza. Despite the month-long cycle each Amharic movie stays for, it was able to stay for a year.
“As you see me, I am a big guy I need comfortable chairs, wide screen, and room to breathe; if you give me that, I don’t mind paying for whatever you ask for,” said a freelance mechanic in his late twenties, as he was buying a ticket to the 6.00pm movie.
His view was shared by other movie goers in different cinemas. Many approached by Fortune stated that the sound system and the comfortable chairs are what they care about most.
Regardless of the audience’s views on payment, most cinemas complained about the industry not being as profitable as it can be.
“We all share the same market; the number of movies is growing as well as the cinemas but not the customers. If we are profitable then some cinema is losing and that is devastating,” General Manager of Saris Cinema, Abel Belay opined.
The quality of the movie’s cinematography and content is another reason that customers drive away from Amharic only cinemas.
The complaint is confined to one cinema. It is not only the management that recognises the increment of the cinema numbers effect on the revenue.
One ticket issuer told Fortune that the current cinema business is like a see-saw. It has seasonal slumps. It is only great around the weekend. If there is a big football match, however, the turnout experiences a slump.
Edna Cinema’s Marketing Head, Yidnekachew Firew claimed that their cinema is not affected by the increment in number of cinemas, as they are more focused on Box Office movies making them the only one in town.
“If cinemas want to be profitable,” said Abel, “then we need to make quality offers the audience cannot refuse.”
When asked if cinemas carry out their obligation, Don Simpson, once renowned film producer, screenwriter and actor, answered, “we have no obligation to make history, we have no obligation to make art, and we have no obligation to make a statement. Our obligation is to make money.”
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