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Decision to centralise film distribution is ill-advised

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 29 June 2018 00:10


  • This article responds to an article entitled ‘Film Cooperation (sic) takes over from private distributors’ published in the Daily Financial Times on 20 June

By Annemari de Silva

The decision taken for the National Film Corporation (NFC) to take over distribution from private distributors is perhaps well-intentioned, but it is ill-advised.The justification for centralisation is that private distributors have given more airtime to international films than local productions, thereby discouraging the local film community. 

Although this imbalance may be true and needs to be addressed, centralising distribution is not the means to do so. It is likely to cause more harm than benefit to film culture in Sri Lanka. If the true intention is to support the local film industry, then many other alternative measures can be taken without resorting to centralising pop culture.

The decision regresses film culture in Sri Lanka back to the 1970s when the NFC was first incorporated. Its original mandate to encourage local film in Sri Lanka responded to the needs of the time but surely, the current needs of local film producers are radically different from what was happening half a century ago.

The Minister claims that distribution was held by ‘a monopoly’ until now, but that is simply not true. From the date of its inception in 1972, it was actually the NFC that held the monopoly over film distribution in Sri Lanka until 1999. Then a circular was issued by the Treasury Secretary empowering four private companies to also participate in distribution. In this sense, the Minister is correct to say that distribution power has been held unfairly amongst very few players - an oligopoly rather than a monopoly. However, it is simplistic and unconstructive to argue that this limited distribution power has been the sole, or even main cause of a declining local cinema. An incorrect correlation has also been made between the closure of several cinema halls and private distribution. The closure of cinema halls, not just in Sri Lanka but worldwide, is rather a symptom of a growing home theatre culture. It began with VHS (film cassettes) and then VCDs, DVDs, etc. Since the turn of the 20th century, movie piracy has grown, enabling audiences to watch movies at home by downloading or streaming it. This growing ‘online’ culture gave rise to a completely new economy of paid-for media streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. Globally, the entertainment industry adapts continuously to meet technological advancements and corresponding changes in consumer behaviour. In the Sri Lankan context, the link made between private distribution and cinema hall closure is reductive and ignores other factors of the modern digital age.

Compared to the international scene, Sri Lankan film halls have done a surprisingly good job of countering this at-home consumption culture and attracting people to theatres. Sri Lanka is now on par with international standards, often having movies released here well ahead of other developed countries. Theatres are able to keep their ticket prices at competitive rates because of these efficient business strategies. In addition, these companies are adept at responding to the needs of their audiences. Although some halls may generally only show Hollywood and Bollywood films, other halls within the same circuit will capitalise on their reputation as halls showing Sinhala or Tamil films, as in the case of Regal Cinema and Concord Cinema. They create niche markets and stimulate an alternative film culture.

In comparison to these private companies, Sri Lanka’s experience with State-owned enterprises has been a tale in caution, burdening the economy with enormous losses. In 2016, Sri Lanka Railways, an essential service with inelastic demand,incurred a Rs. 6.8-billlion loss – how then would a non-essential service, such as cinema, fare? This does not bode well for how the NFC may perform as the sole distributor of films.

Much needs to be done to encourage local films. However, this does not have to be done by a nanny state – the film community itself is perfectly equipped to do so. And indeed, they are doing so. For example, Prasanna Vithanage’s‘Silence in the Court’, 2016, created a radical shift in Sri Lanka where, for the first time, a local documentary was given screen time at major film halls. This intervened in the idea that documentaries were not lucrative and encouraged local documentary-makers. 

Recently, King Ratnam’s‘Komaali Kings’ (2017) was a hit and screened at a major film hall for months. The success of a locally-made blockbuster Tamil-language film has set a new precedent for Tamil film culture in Sri Lanka (which has otherwise been dominated by Kollywood films) and has encouraged young Tamil-language film-makers. 

Both of these films performed well ultimately out of their own merit. By forcing theatres to show locally made films, no one gains anything – local film-makers are not creatively challenged, film-goers are robbed of what they’d perhaps prefer to see on-screen, and the businesses themselves (whether public or private) are bound to incur losses. The saying ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ is apt in this situation. You can control screen-time all you want, but you have no control over whether film-goers will be patrons.  

Finally, it has been well-documented that when State institutions with oversight on media are centralised, they negatively impact freedom of expression. This was the case (again in the 1970s) when major newspapers such as the Times of Ceylon were nationalised. This has been the case for the film community as well. Both the National Film Corporation and the Public Performances Board (commonly referred to as the Censor Board) have been manoeuvredthrough the past 20 years to prevent the screening oflocal films critical of those in power (not just government, but also judiciary, police and others). These incidents do not warrant unfettered privatisation or deregulation,but should at least serve as serious tales of caution when making rash decisions about centralising institutions affecting freedom of expression. 

If the aim of this distribution decision is truly to encourage local film-makers in Sri Lanka, there are alternative mechanisms that are surely less regressive than centralisation. Agreements could be struck with film halls or circuits about allocating time for local films, especially regular main screening times.The profits made from international film screenings would cushion these companies, enabling them to experiment with possibly less profitable screenings from up and coming new local directors. Theatres could also screen local short films prior to a feature film, as Sri Lanka did in the past. 

Alternatively, distribution rights could be expanded to other players to encourage creating niche and alternative theatre cultures, or existing circles of film festivals and film clubs could be given support by the State to promote local films.Alternative digital strategies could also be tapped into, either online or even lower-tech mechanisms such as screenings on national television networks, to ensure that local film-makers reach audiences otherwise inaccessible. 

The State could also actively support the inclusion of Sri Lankan films in international film festivals and competitions, and sponsor film-makers to study at specialised schools. There are many, many other avenues to consider before taking such a drastic step as centralising pop culture.

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