I am a lover of the arts, especially a fan of cinema, who is totally saddened by the state of our dead Cinema Industry. Due to many socio-economic and political turbulences the country traveled through, the Cinema Industry took a severe beating and has not recovered and has no signs of recovery either unless a paradigm shift takes place in all quarters that impacts the industry.I am writing this article with some hope of igniting a dialogue that may help identify a possible action plan that can be viewed favourably by those who make decisions in the right quarters. With the smattering of knowledge and experience I have of Social Marketing, I decided to ‘peel the onion’ and see if there’s any hope for the industry to blossom in the near future. This article is only a personal introspective of a (hopeful) positive outcome.
First things first. Where are we, with regards our Industry?
My interpretation of the current situation is that our cinema industry is like a rudderless ship (rather an ‘oar-less’ canoe!), with no national vision, strategy or action plan, just drifting along a small canal with muddy waters. There appears to be many interested players living on the banks of this canal, fishing for existence and exploiting the meagre catch of small fish. Unfortunately none of them seem to be interested in cleaning up this canal or widening it to help bigger boats or barges to traverse freely.
So where exactly are we? The industry lacks a strategy, both in the short term and the long term. It lacks visionaries to develop one. It is fragmented between those who are genuinely interested in salvaging the industry, who have neither support, clout nor the voice and those who are short term benefactors just clinging on to the establishment for their selfish existence and benefit. Torn between these two are the true artists, creative and talented, with no funding or an appreciative audience for good cinema. Just the thirst and hunger to do good cinema.
I am going to examine the Marketing Communications (Marcom) mix of this pathetic situation which could provide a framework to be analytical and objective in identifying the gaps and opportunities. Let me attempt this arduous task.
The Product – The Current Sri Lankan Cinema Industry
Since the birth of Rekhawa, our Cinema Industry steadily went uphill with an abundance of talent in the departments of acting, directing, cinematography, editing, music et al. We also had a rich culture of cinema goers who were able to appreciate the multifaceted films which were produced at the time. Be it a love story, a period film or a classic, we had ‘Stars’ and ‘Character Actors’ who were able to keep the local Cinema at its peak. Even then the industry had two streams of cinema which were classified as commercial films and parallel cinema, just like what we have today. There were the Nidhanayas, the Kolomba Sanniyas and the Sandeshayas co-existing, appealing to the diverse cinema goer, scintillating them, as each of those genres of film touched a nerve of the film loving public equally sensitively. Basically, each of these genres entertained and stimulated the mind and soul of the audience. These films traveled on an axis of entertainment to intellectual stimulation so beautifully and creatively. Technology was never the driver of a film but the rest of the attributes like the plot, the screen play and of course needless to say, the abundance of ‘stars’ made these films larger than life.
Today, the product is very different.
Firstly the industry has no state patronage, at least in the form of a clear policy or a framework to salvage the product from the bottomless pit it has fallen in to. The industry has got politicized totally, directly or indirectly. The films produced can be easily categorized in to four segments. Namely, the chest beating ‘Sinhala-ness’ in the form of period films, which are forcibly shown to the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists who are converts themselves. Next segment is the so called (yuk!) commercial films which most often fall in to the Comedy film category that hardly makes anybody laugh unless tickled. Then there are a few others which cannot be labeled as one or the other, which appear and disappear like ships in the night. Nobody knows, nobody cares! The fourth category is the only hope we have with a handful of young talented directors who either make movies only to win awards or to be screened out side of the country, because they don’t feel appreciated and / or the films they produce are not allowed to be screened in this country. This is the alternate or parallel cinema segment which caters largely to a niche market and most often alienates the masses.
The current product also suffers from the lack of depth in scripts and screen plays. The country does not have a film school or an academy to nourish these crucial aspects of the industry. It’s not for the lack of students, but sadly, due to the lack of a vision.
The industry suffers from a lack of funds for potential good directors. I personally know how some young, talented directors have pawned and sold their meagre possessions for the love of cinema and are currently stuck without funds to complete their productions. Nobody cares for them, nobody helps.
There were strategies developed under the guidance of the then visionary Chairman of The National Film Corporation, Dr D B Nihalsinhe to collate a bank of film scripts by veteran script writers with loans organized for the production of the same. Not so long ago the late, great Dr Tissa Abeysekera too initiated a similar concept when he was chairing this august institution. These facilities seem nonexistent today. If it does, it definitely does not exist for the right talent! The right, transparent process and procedure is not in place for sure.
There is no audience to appreciate good cinema. Too much of ‘mediocre to terrible’ films have been produced in the recent past; the audiences have forgotten how to appreciate a good film and differentiate from the ‘crap’ that’s been dished out. There are no seminars organized for school children and youth to inculcate the art of appreciation of good vs bad, rationality and emotionality in film critiquing. There were times when there were workshops and seminars countrywide to discuss film and its derivatives. Without bringing these good practices back, we will have a generation of soulless beings.
The industry doesn’t have stars any more. Sorry to be blunt, but I am not sure who or what we have instead. We need younger Swarnas, Geethas, Malinis, Vasanthis, Veenas and Anojas back in our lives and definitely not in Parliament or on political stages! We need to find potential character actors and stars, nurture them, train them and project them right.
We need to create ‘products’ that entertain and stimulate the mind and soul. The establishment needs to understand this if we are to resurrect our Cinema.
Positioning of the ‘Product’ with the right segmentation is crucial. With the country having a youth population of about 20%, the product can be easily developed and promoted to suit this segment first. It is also important to re-launch the brand ‘Cinema’ akin to re launching of any commercial Brand. Carrying out some serious consumer testing of youth perceptions and attitudes towards what they look for in cinema would definitely help.
The re launching process of brand ‘cinema’ needs to be done scientifically, for sure.
The Place – Cinema halls or DVD’s?
Writing about the condition of our cinema halls itself is a waste of one’s energy and time. Sadly it is a chicken and egg story. If there are no cinema goers, how can theater owners maintain the theatres? Unless and until the cinema industry resurrects itself, the quality of the theatres will continue to be in the pathetic state it is in now.
In the interim, will it be a possible route to produce films for the DVD market, just until the cinema industry gets a boost? This is just a wild thought that has been crossing my mind. The total distribution system and structure needs to be revisited.
I do remember how the Film Industry went up in arms when there was a suggestion to import GOOD foreign films. I believe the islander mentality still prevails with fear of competition and globalization invading an already dead industry. I strongly believe if we change our policies towards import of award winning, quality films, it will pave the way to achieving two things in the short term. Firstly, the concept of going to a theatre will be developed and made popular. Secondly, it will also create a culture where people will start discussing cinema as an art form and the dormant strains of appreciation of art will develop and resurface.
The price in this instance has many dimensions. The price one pays for a production of a movie, the price of a ticket to the movie and the price the distributors make as revenue and profit and of course the invisible price the country pays to develop a rich and dynamic cinema culture for the new generation.
With regards the price of a production, it seems exorbitant for a single producer to bear. The trend now seems to be a consortium of producers coming together and chipping in with the total cost. It may be a worthwhile cause for some of our big corporates to look at helping some of the young talented directors to produce their dream movie. I must pay tribute to Cargills for coming forward to help such a director with his second production when he was desperate for funds. Thankfully his movie Karma is now being screened thanks to the funding of Cargills.
With regards the price of a ticket, I doubt it plays a crucial role in the decision making process. The entertainment starved potential viewers, especially those belonging to the middle class, need some form of alternate means of entertainment in addition to watching TV and its mindless, soulless portrayal of tele-dramas and Super Stars.
The price structures will have to be looked at carefully if the government decides to import quality foreign films and thereby re structure the distribution strategy where the taxation and profit margins will have to be re computed.
Young Sri Lankans spend thousands of rupees buying DVD’s. This market can be easily enticed and tapped with the right strategy and promotion of the film goer concept.
Film promotion is an art form on its own. Most often the directors and producers of today’s cinema, scrape the barrel to even complete the films they undertake, most often getting stuck, unable to even order the re prints. This means they have nothing left to spend on the promotion of a film. This too is a serious issue for the handful of committed directors and producers. They end up putting together some notional promotional plan which does no justice to the product.
Developing a targeted promotional and communications strategy almost never happens in Sri Lanka. The need for one is not even known and considered a necessity by most.
One such example comes to my mind which I wish to share here. Machang was a fantastic movie produced and directed in Sri Lanka in the recent past. The ‘communication strategy’ was pasting cheap looking ‘JVP look alike’ posters all over the country with the word Machang written on it! This was not the positioning the film should have had since it was a fantastic psycho social dilemma that Ubarto, the director had brought to life. Most people didn’t even know it was a movie and those who guessed so, never went for it as they thought it was some third rate film that was doing the usual rounds. My heart sank when I saw the mistake the producers had made; it sank further after I saw what a wonderful movie it was.
Communications in all forms have totally changed now. Audiences are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable. Social media has replaced traditional media. But unfortunately, not too many of our directors and producers have moved with the times in the social media landscape. I cannot stress the need for a fully-fledged integrated communications strategy for the success of a movie.
Unfortunately, those who are patronized by wealthy producers manage to get noticed through sheer noise and quantity of gross visibility which one can’t miss even if you were blind! But that’s not strategic communications for sure!
Another aspect of promotion is in the area of awards and recognition the industry needs. Not awards for the stooges, but to those who clearly deserve them. The professionals are demotivated with the kinds of juries and award ceremonies that take place today. There is no incentive for innovation and creativity. If you toe the line with what is expected by the powers that be, one would be rewarded many times over. This is a recipe for disaster, to say the least.
People & Process
The element of ‘people’ falls in to many categories when it comes to the Cinema Industry: those who impact the industry directly and those who impact the industry indirectly.
Firstly, there should be someone who loves and cares for the industry heading the related Ministry and The National Film Corporation. Not someone who wants to surround him or herself with rising stars and fallen stars and do nothing much for the industry. That person should have a vision, a strategy and a plan of action with time lines and measurement criteria. The leader of the land should hold them accountable (!) There’s remote chance that the rest will fall in to place if at least there is a mapped out strategy and accountability.
I like to propose a short term strategy to ignite the industry. Can the country recall some of our great directors of both today and yester year. Just to name a few, directors such as Dr Dharmasena Pathiraja, Dr D B Nihalsinha , Sumitra Peiris, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Vasantha Obeysekera, Asoka Handagama, Prasanna Withanage, Boodee Keerthisena, Vimukthi Jayasundera etc and give them a fund to produce ten outstanding films. Give them all the support that the nation can give and let us see what they come up with!
Let us create a momentum amongst the cinema goers to embrace our great film directors who have given us so much in the form of quality cinema all these years. This is when we miss our one and only immortal Tissa Aabetsekera who would have chipped in no small measure for a sustainable strategy that may have worked.
Let us cajole Geetha, Anoja, Swarna, Sangeetha, Nadeeka, Neeta, Sriyani, Vasanthi, Veena to come back with Kamal, Sanath, Ravindra, Tony, Saumya and Mahendra etc. to do us proud, once again. This may sound like a project for the Golden Oldies. However, I am confident that there is quite a bit of life left here, if only one could harness. Once the momentum is set, the rest of the ‘wanna- be stars’ can slowly come in to the industry.
A platform to invite fresh thinking script writers can be arranged with awards and recognition. A foreign panel can be brought down to train and develop fresh talent in this department. Whatever is done though, it needs a long term strategy and commitment to sustain the plan.
I took the trouble to write this because I am yearning to see a resurrection in the world of cinema in Sri Lanka. It’s easy to criticize but a lot more difficult to act on it. I, as a mere cinema lover can only share some thoughts and shed some light on the issue. I may be scorned at by some, it really doesn’t matter. I did what my heart guided me to do.
Let me end this article by suggesting a possible way forward, which I know will be viewed as totally controversial. Nonetheless, here it is in a nutshell. …
Re Position, Re Brand, Re Launch Brand ‘Cinema’
The new basket of ‘brand cinema’ should have the correct mix of all the flavours. Nobody will be interested if it does not make money. Just a few quality films will not be profitable individually at the outset, but the industry as a whole can be made profitable if it is managed properly. Making quality films will help create a good image for the country internationally, which is also crucially important.
Under this new brand, the industry could be re- structured as a semi-government Production and Distribution Corporation or a listed company. (Telecommunications and TV stations, cinema equipment hiring companies and individual theatre owners can be major shareholders).
In addition to recreating and managing the ‘brand cinema’ profitably, this company should be responsible for organizing regional Cinema events such as Film festivals, workshops for new comers, offering scholarships to participate in international film markets such as Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice etc The company must also take ownership to restructure and modernize the theatres around the country. Since the company should be profitable it is important that all the checks and balances are put in place for its profitability and sustainability.
This is a mammoth task that can be done with the right kind of will and championing.
Over to you, decision makers and well-wishers of Cinema