While the luminaries of the African film world descended on Burkina Faso last week for the start of Fespaco, the biannual pan-African film festival holding its 25th edition Feb. 25-March 4, French media conglom Vivendi used the fest’s opening as a showcase for its ongoing plans to expand its footprint across Africa.
With a screening of “L’oeil du cyclone” (Eye of the Storm), local helmer Sékou Traoré’s 2015 Fespaco prize-winner, the company unveiled the fifth movie theater it has built in sub-Saharan Africa in less than a year, part of an ambitious initiative dubbed CanalOlympia.
Taking its name from the fabled L’Olympia movie theater in Paris, CanalOlympia is a high-profile gambit to transform moviegoing in one of the world’s most underserved cinematic regions.
Each theater features state-of-the-art digital projectors and Dolby Surround 7.1, while solar panels and batteries guarantee an uninterrupted flow of electricity in countries with erratic power supplies. Tickets are priced at just over $3 — cheaper than many African competitors — ensuring that movies are “accessible to all people,” said Corinne Bach, chairman and CEO of CanalOlympia, who added that the company expects to open six to seven theaters this year, and dozens more in those ahead.
Across the continent, where decades of economic decline have prompted the closure of movie theaters dating back to the colonial era, cinemagoing has been a dying pastime. In Cameroon, where the first CanalOlympia cinema opened last summer, the last of the country’s movie theaters were shuttered in 2009. In Ouagadougou, which prides itself as the doyenne of African film, just two of the dozens of cinemas built by the French still operate year-round today.
There are signs that a shift is under way, prompted by rising incomes and a growing middle class with disposable income to burn.
Still, in order to reverse the trend toward home entertainment, as well as the on-demand content consumption on mobile phones, “you have to offer something very compelling for consumers to get out of their homes and embrace cinemagoing,” said Giovanni Dolci, Imax’s managing director for Europe and Africa.
Four years ago, Imax was operating only two theaters across the whole of Africa; today there are 13, with seven more in development. Four new Imax theaters were opened in 2016 alone.
“There is an appetite for the premium experience that Imax has to offer,” Dolci said, adding that the company’s African venues have offered “extremely solid” returns, even comparable to their peers in more developed markets.
For Vivendi, Africa is a significant part of its growth strategy. While the company’s Canal Plus Group’s operations were down 4.7% in 2016, owing to a shrinking subscriber base in France, its pay-TV platform has made dramatic inroads in Africa, where it’s operated for two decades and now has 2.8 million subscribers — a 33% increase from 2015.
Continued growth, of course, isn’t guaranteed. As with other emerging markets, most African nations face precarious economic gains; in Nigeria, where local exhibitors were detailing ambitious expansion plans just a few years ago, a protracted recession has sent the currency into a tailspin, driving up the cost of imported equipment, such as projectors and building materials, and putting many construction plans on hold.
Still, such are the costs of doing business in a region where both the challenges and the potential are great, and it’s impossible to predict what surprises await.
Bach points to the recent opening in Ouagadougou, where CanalOlympia execs had promised local audiences that their new theater would be open in time for their biannual celebration of African film. The ribbon was cut on the eve of Fespaco, just 100 days after construction began.