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DURBAN  — Africa has the potential to unleash up to $2 billion in box office revenues a year, according to the findings of a study that was presented during the Durban FilmMart this week. But a comprehensive and unified approach from filmmakers, policy-makers and business executives across the entire value chain is needed to tap into a population of 1.2 billion on a continent that’s drastically underserved by cinemas.

While mobile phones and rising internet penetration have transformed content consumption across Africa, the key for building and growing a sustainable African film industry is a transformation of the continent’s theatrical model—from building more cinemas to changing the ways local films are marketed and distributed. This is a conclusion of Dayo Ogunyemi, a financier and founder of 234 Media, and author of the study “Framing the Shot: Key Trends in African Film 2018,” conducted by 234 Media, in partnership with the Goethe-Institut and with support from the German Federal Foreign Office.

“Digital platforms may have enabled a democratization of access to content, but they have also narrowed the range of content that consumers are most likely to see, effectively concentrating the supply,” said Ogunyemi, who noted that digital gatekeepers such as YouTube, Netflix and iTunes have largely marginalized African content.

“Far from leapfrogging to a digital age in which African filmmakers beam their creations to rapt audiences around the world, creating a sustainable film industry in Africa will require investing in the fundamental building block of every successful film industry in the world—an effective network of brick and mortar cinemas.”

Drawing on the experiences of filmmakers in 10 countries, along with detailed analyses of the continent’s largest industries, in South Africa and Nigeria, the study highlighted the fact that “most efforts supporting the film industry in Africa have been focused on production,” according to Ogunyemi. Without bringing the same level of scrutiny to distribution and exhibition, he said, industry analysts have ignored the weakest links in the cinema value chain.

Pointing to the “powerful example” of China, which has grown its theater network from just 1,000 screens two decades ago to more than 50,000 today, Ogunyemi noted that “a major expansion of theatrical exhibition is among the most viable paths to developing a robust domestic film industry.”

While acknowledging that the scale of Chinese growth is much harder to replicate in Africa, he held up Nigeria as a telling case study in the transformative impact of building a strong cinema network. A flurry of private investment in the early 2000s revived the long-dormant theater industry; since the first multiplex was built in Lagos in 2004, there are now 142 screens across the country.

That in turn has had a ripple effect across the industry. While Hollywood films dominated the Nigerian box office just a few years ago, local share grew to 20% by 2015 and 33% by 2017—in turn spurring a production boom by filmmakers looking to move beyond the country’s low-budget “Nollywood” fare and aim for theatrical releases.

More screens alone, though, aren’t always the answer. While screen penetration across Africa makes it the most underserved region in the world, Ogunyemi pointed to the relatively robust network in South Africa – with 782 screens, more than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa combined – as an example of how even existing networks fail local filmmakers.

“Hollywood films typically receive prioritized access to existing screens, limiting the opportunities for African films to play,” said Ogunyemi. Not having access to a level playing field creates a vicious cycle. Facing limited screen slots and short theatrical runs, South African filmmakers – already operating on razor-thin margins – invariably invest less in P&A, further hampering their movies’ performances, and reaffirming the belief among exhibitors that “local films don’t do well,” said Ogunyemi.

African exhibitors, he suggested, need to rethink everything from how they support and promote local film to how they price their tickets, which in most countries are beyond the means of the typical mass-market consumer.

Most importantly, they need to work together. “Africa’s extensive market fragmentation is worsened by the near complete absence of formal frameworks for collaboration on film production and distribution,” he noted. Looking for a way forward, he pointed to the example of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this year. Joining the 55 member states of the African Union into a free-trade zone that removes tariffs on 90% of goods, the agreement includes a provision for intellectual property that could transform collaborations in film, TV and music across the continent.

“As access to finance is constrained, and distribution is both limited and dominated on all channels by international content, developing effective means of collaboration across African countries must become a burning platform,” said Ogunyemi.

Pictured: Dayo Ogunyemi