Initiative to boost plexes carries across continent

JOHANNESBURG — As African filmmakers continue to grapple with distribution woes and search for ways to increase B.O. earnings, a pan-African initiative is aiming to boost exhibition by building hundreds of screens across the continent.

According to Dayo Ogunyemi, one of the group’s founders, Cinemart is an ambitious attempt to reimagine public spaces in urban African settings. The goal is to offer high-quality, low-cost screening venues in densely populated areas that are currently neglected by African theater chains.

“Cinema is mass-market art,” says Ogunyemi. “Let’s make it available to the vast majority of people.”

Screen penetration rates in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) lag far behind global averages; according to Ogunyemi, there is roughly one screen for every 6 million inhabitants. With Cinemart, he hopes to achieve levels comparable to India’s, with one screen for every 100,000 people.

The audience, says Ogunyemi, is already there.

“All across Africa, people are watching movies,” he says, “they’re just watching them in video shacks with a 19-inch TV.”

Informal video halls, which typically screen pirated films for around 10¢ or 15¢, proliferate in urban slums as well as rural areas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, chains such as South Africa’s Nu Metro and Ster-Kinekor and Nigeria’s Silverbird offer a more upmarket experience for middle- and high-income consumers. Most theaters, however, are located in shopping malls far from high-density, low-income areas.

“There’s definitely a space for the high-end cinemas,” says Ogunyemi, “but what people really want … is something that’s better than the video shacks, but not so sophisticated that the price points move out of the reach of the mass of people.”

Construction of the first Cinemart sites in Nairobi is expected to begin in the next month. While affordable cinemas will anchor the complexes, there are also plans to include retail space and Internet cafes at each site.

The company has substantial foreign investment behind it, says Ogunyemi, and there are plans to have at least 20 sites operational around Kenya by the end of the year. Uganda is likely to be the second country in the company’s rollout, while talks are also under way in Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa.

Ogunyemi, who was born in Nigeria, says the project has been nearly a decade in the making. It began with attempts by Ogunyemi and his partners to “put some structure around Nollywood that ensured consumers get access to good content and filmmakers, and producers get a financial return on their investment.”

Finding a formula that rewards both producers and consumers remains the goal, with local content playing an integral role in the Cinemart business model.

“This is very much (a model) for African filmmakers,” says Ogunyemi. “In all the markets we’re going into, local film is going to be a very big part of the overall revenue picture.”

Along with exhibition, Cinemart will offer distribution to filmmakers lacking formal deals, another problem that vexes most African helmers. Ogunyemi says filmmakers will get between 30%-50% of B.O. revenues for their pics.

“Five years from now, we’ll be having a very different type of conversation about the commercial sustainability of African films,” he says. “By the time we get to 100 screens in any region, it starts being very transformative in terms of (filmmakers) being able to make back their money.”

He points to the pan-African success of last year’s Congolese smash, “Viva Riva,” as evidence of the hunger for more African films across the continent.

“If Hollywood ends up coming into the mix, good for them,” he says. “If they don’t, I don’t think we’re going to have any problems filling our seats.”

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