Nairobi — To prove that East Africa in general is not a movie production backwater, Nairobi recently hosted the Africa Movie Awards (AMA) nominations ceremony, dubbed the Oscars of Africa, which brought together industry players from stars, producers, script writers to government and professional associations officials.
The event held at the Ole Sereni Hotel in Nairobi was the first in the region and had the local movie industry abuzz. For a long time now, the region's Savannahs and urban slums have been a feature of a number of Hollywood productions, some of which have won international awards.
Recent productions are The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardener, Hotel Rwanda, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Out Of Africa, To Walk With Lions to mention but just a few.
However, despite the fine weather, talent and a ready audience, behind and in front of camera, the region's movie industry is still playing catch up to other parts of Africa, especially West Africa and South Africa. This has allowed West African productions, particularly Nigerian and Ghanaian, to dominate the market.
Nigerian movies are so entrenched in East Africa today that they have changed the perception of Nigerians locally. Previously stereotyped as international conmen thanks to their movies, Nigerians are seen as ordinary fallible people who will do anything to make money and live a life of worldly comfort from using black magic to killing or even defrauding others.
Nigerian words such as "Oga" (chief) and "Chineke" (My God) have become common in Africa. Apparently, Nigerian films on witchcraft and black magic have been blamed for the spate of albino killings in Tanzania.
Since Nigeria is not that far ahead of other regions in terms of moviemaking technology and given the fact its productions dwell on issues that East Africans can easily identify with, why have producers able to emulate its success?
"The secret of Nigerian moviemakers lies in the ability to always find away of weaving a captivatingly story from the most mundane of issues," observes Ojiambo Ainea, a Kenyan actor.
With themes ranging from domestic violence, to witchcraft and crime, these movies resonate with many viewers in sub-Saharan Africa. "In the past, many Kenyan directors for example, focused on themes that were too academic or plots that were too complicated to be executed with the available knowhow and equipment, or to relate to the common man easily," Ainea further notes.
The popularity of Nigerian and Ghanaian movies today is attested to by the fact that every television station in the region that wants to improve viewership is airing them. This has not only turned these West African actors into millionaires but have also made them huge celebrities across the continent.
When the famous Nigerian actress Rita Dominic visited Kenya last year to mark her country's 50th Independence celebrations, she was swamped by autograph seeking fans and media people soliciting interviews.
But in East Africa, especially Kenya, the plight of actors is the opposite. Most are paid peanuts and have to supplement acting with other jobs.
Also, most producers prefer recycling actors fearing that new faces will not have the same impact on audiences, which greatly affects talent growth.
The growth of actors has also been hampered by the fact that most producers still prefer the small screen to the silver screen.
"One of the biggest hindrances for the Kenyan movie industry is a poor distribution network," notes Ainea. "There is no developed mechanism to deliver the movies from the production houses to the market."
He cites the example of Toto Millionaire ,which was on the Kenya Airways in-flight screening programme immediately after its release in 2009, but is yet to hit the market, two years later.
"Apart from distribution issues unlike in Nigeria, we are a strong association of Kenya movie makers and actors that can lobby for their cause," Ainea adds. In Nigeria the actors and directors guild ensures that the government controls piracy and that all foreign movie shoots hire local staff.
Through the lobby groups the industry declined to pay taxes until the government addressed piracy.
"Most Kenyan actors and directors prefer television movies because unlike in film where one has to do the marketing, in TV there are sponsors and sometimes the media house will pay," he says.
Ainea suggests that Kenyan producers should learn from Ugandans who usually popularise their movies by running subsidised promotions in learning institutions, which greatly improves awareness.
"The Kenyan industry is doing so badly that when Multichoice Africa, the owners of DSTV pay TV, decided to run Kenyan movies on the Africa Magic channel, they were done in less than two weeks," Ainea.
One of the major boosts for the Nigerian movie industry has been its ability to tell a simple story easily identifiable with the common man using simple and inexpensive equipment in the shortest possible of time.
However, Tanzania and Rwanda, though not at the level of West or South Africa, are the biggest success story in the region.
Rwanda for instance, has managed to create a formidable movie industry in a period of 15 years through methods that could be used as a prototype by the rest of the region.
The 1994 genocide has been one of the most prominent themes in the Rwandan movie industry.
"Rwanda has the highest number of movies per capita movies produced in the last 15 years in sub-Saharan Africa with at least one major film being shot every year," says Eric Kabera, the founder of the Rwanda Cinema Centre.
"One of the things we do in Rwanda is we have mobile movie units that ensure people in the countryside are as updated about new movies as their urban counterparts."
Rwanda Cinema Academy, the first of its kind in the region, identifies and trains talented young people in film production by inviting renowned moviemakers from around the world as guest educators.
Apart from running the cinema school, Kabera is also the organiser of the now six year old Rwanda Film Festival that runs for two weeks every June.
"The first week we go around the country screening movies and the second week we are in Kigali interacting with various industry players from around the world," he explains.
Kabera became the first Rwandan to locally produce a feature film when he released 100 Days in 2001. The movie narrates the gory story of the genocide.
Hillywood, as the country's movie industry is known, has grown since then, and there are several internationally acclaimed movies that have been partly shot in Rwanda such as Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes In April and Beyond The Gates.
Kabera was in Kenya at the invitation of the newly established Trademark East Africa as a panelist in a moviemakers' convention to share the Rwandan experience and how it can be replicated in the region.
"Films in particular and arts in general can be a solid social and cultural tool for creating unity among the East African member states," he observed. "For instance, through film, Kenyans could be informed that there is a region called Nyanza in Rwanda as well."
After interactions with their Nigerian counterparts, Kenyan productions houses are gradually changing to simpler storylines and plots with mass appeal.
One of the most prominent drivers of this transition have been the Nairobi-based Jitu Productions.
Also as one of the best known marketers of Kenyan movies in the country under the name Jitu Films, the company located in downtown Nairobi has been trail blazing in marketing to create a sustainable connection between producers and consumers.
"Besides the perennial problem of the distribution network in Kenya, formulating a low price per disk without a DVD company in the country is very hard," explains Alex Konstantaras, the company's director. "Since we burn our disks abroad, we have to pay import duty and other costs that which eventually pushs prices upwards."
The company has struck a deal with four major supermarkets in the country where their DVDs are sold at a promotional rate of Ksh300 ($).
To maximise returns, Jitu Films have made a record 24 movies which they intend to release one per month for the next two years.
"Besides this there is also the obtrusive Kenya Films Censorship Board whose requirements are prohibitive for producers," Konstantaras notes. "Apart from buying expensive stickers, there is also the Ksh100 per minute censorship fee that one has to pay the Board for every movie."
Although television stations are supposed to pay censorship fees for the locally produced content that they air, they usually don't, which means they keep all the profits -- which explains why every producer want to do TV series.
KFCB banned Otto The Blood Bath, a Jitu Films production, from showing in Kenya on the grounds that "the film was too horrific even to an adult and was showing dead human characters for too long."
However, the film is quite mild compared with the content of some Hollywood horror movies that are in circulation in the Kenyan market.
Ironically Otto The Blood Bath won Best EAC Film 2009 during the 5th Annual Rwanda Festival.
Konstantaras suggests that to generate interest in local movies, media houses should bombard the masses with local productions up to the point where they have no option but to start watching them.
"It worked with Nigerian movies and I don't see why it should not work with local movies," he says. "After interest is generated, the government should assist in strengthening the distribution infrastructure by reducing taxation on items and processes related to the movie making industry and helping in the fight against piracy."
The individual players can then employ the Nigerian model of using middlemen to get the movies to the shopkeepers and supermarkets.
Jenny Pont, head of Pontact Productions, which have been involved with the production of In A Better World which won the Global Awards in 2010, concurs with Konstantaras and adds that one of the reasons the Kenyan industry has lagged behind is because until a few years ago it only tackled heavy topics like girl-child education.
Besides organising local mechanisms to enable the industry to generate growth from within, Pont says that marketing East African locations could be another way of boosting the movie making business here.
When foreign production houses come to Kenya, they not only provide employment opportunities for the communities around the shooting locations but also hire local actors who get the necessary exposure and an opportunity to develop their talent.
Most often than not, however, movies that would have ideally been shot in any of the East African countries end up going to South Africa -- like the The Ghost and The Darkness -- not because the scenery is in appropriate but because of poor marketing.
"While local promoters rely on word of mouth to learn about upcoming movies looking for African locations, South Africans have reliable consultants permanently based in Hollywood," Pont says.
This coupled with the huge tax rebates offered by the South African government to foreign production companies makes the country a favourite destination in Africa.
The Kenya Film Commission, the government agency established in 2006 to co-ordinate the industry, says that although they understand that Kenyan moviemakers face a myriad problems, most are beyond the commission's mandate.
"Issues like taxation and charging shooting locations are formulated at the Ministry of Local Government level," explains KFC chief executive Peter Mutie. "As a commission we can only lobby on behalf of the industry but there isn't much that we can do."
Mutie was speaking during a Kenyan movie stakeholders' forum at the National Museum in Nairobi recently. But there has been a significant shift in the recent past.
The Kenyan government has since introduced a policy that requires local TV stations to screen at least 40 per cent local content, through which most media houses have embraced local productions in a big way.
Malooned, Rugged Priest (launched last week) and From A Whisper are examples of Kenyan films that have attained international recognition.
Unlike Kenyans, Tanzanian audiences appreciate their local movies giving an impetus to Bongowood producers to churn out more titles every year. Like the Nigerian movies whose trademark is Pidgin English, the sophisticated Tanzanian Kiswahili gives such productions a national identity.
Ugandan moviemakers have made a mark for their love of action movies. Who Killed Captain Alex is one of the most popular Ugandan action movies in the recent past, having taken Kampala movie halls by storm last July.
To keep the industry alive, all the East African countries have annual film festivals where movies from the region and the world are screened.
International movies stars are also invited to give talks and conduct workshops where they share global experiences.