Cinema culture in Uganda has come a long way, from the days of fancy Drive-in cinema in the 1960s, to the dark 1980s when the city only had cinemas in name.
Bakayimbira Dramactors’ Charles James Senkubuge noted that with the political turmoil of the 1970s through the 1980s, sustaining cinemas with content became so hard that many of them including Norman, Neeta and Dungeon cinemas switched to other businesses.
Norman cinema became present-day Watoto church, while Neeta was at the current home of the Ebonies, Theatre La Bonita. The Drive-in cinema was located where the container yard in Nakawa sits today. Gerald Ssebowa says young people loved the Drive-in because of the experience of staying in one’s car and parking near a loudspeaker…
“Cinema was vibrant then, you could easily find a hall in almost each major town,” says Ssebowa, adding that what made it the major thing could have been the fact that there was just one TV station which was state-owned, yet not many Ugandans owned TV sets at the time.
“We should also appreciate the fact that cinema was relatively affordable,” he says.
Then, he was a state attorney earning Shs 1,300 per month – enough for him to pay bills and also have fun such as going to the movies. With the change in politics and expulsion of Asians that owned a number of these halls, the cinema culture suffered a great deal.
Innovative Ugandans tried to revive cinema through makeshift video shacks in the suburbs, and while the halls and their translated movies became popular among downtown people, they were also associated with drugs and school dropouts.
The window stayed open and inviting for possible entrants, which saw Cineplex join the market in the late 1990s, starting out on Wilson road with a modern cinema hall.
The cinema, which later shifted to the swankier Garden City mall, reshaped the definition of “an evening out” for many as a night at the movies returned on the menu. Countless blockbusters have come to Ugandans through Cineplex’s big screen over the years.
As they enjoyed the monopoly, Cineplex expanded from Garden City to Oasis mall to tap into Uganda’s love for new things, as well as accomodate more halls for 3D, Indian and 2D pictures. But as more cinema halls sprout all over the city and its suburbs, Cineplex seems bent from the pressure as audiences move to newer, cheaper options.
Cineplex Garden City was closed earlier this year for alleged renovations, but a source in the company said it was as a result of rent arrears. Cineplex proprietor, Marion Etiang Busingye, confirmed they closed because the traffic of people coming into the mall was not translating into patrons in the cinema halls.
And the halls at Oasis mall (the Hub) are not doing any better when I visited two weeks ago, for instance, regardless of which movie was showing – blockbuster or not – the halls were eerily empty, the waiting lounge was deserted and the toilet water had been disconnected!
Plus, with competition from the HAM towers-based Cinemax, which has benefited from its strategic location near Makerere University Acacia mall’s Century cinema which is benefitting from Uganda’s ‘newness’ factor and its screening of major football leagues as well as Metroplex’s Cinema Magic in Naalya, which is by far the most active on social media, and now a new cinema recently opened in Ntinda, Cineplex is in trouble.
“At the moment we are many players but this hasn’t translated into a national coverage we are mostly competing for the Kampala market which is not becoming bigger,” Busingye says, adding that with new entrants, the small market is being divided up, thus the small numbers at cinema halls.
At the beginning of the year, Cinemax was struggling with a catalogue of films that were as old as three months, although right now, they are front-runners when it comes to premiering new flicks alongside Century cinema.
All the cinema halls have special offers to entice movie lovers, but still, the turnout is never overwhelming, since many Ugandans with the bibanda (video shacks) background look at spending Shs 10,000 or more on a movie as a huge sacrifice, compared to buying the D at Shs 1,000.
Busingye admits that piracy is playing a key role in the downfall of cinema.
“We’ve talked with UCC, asking them to take action but nothing has been done yet.”
She says with such high levels of piracy, it is not only cinema that will suffer, but also the budding film industry. To make matters worse, many of the businesses pirating movies are licensed, and some of their stuff even finds its way to national television like UBC’s Star TV, Bukedde and NBS.
But even when the times are grim, cinema owners have found various ways of making some money out of their halls. During the World Cup in June, Century cinema was screening the different games, at Shs 5,000. Cinemax, on the other hand, has been running a comedy night on Wednesdays, in addition to renting one of the halls out to festival organizers.
But Cinemax has been profiting more from their 5D ten-seater theatre where many of those that visit come for the experience than watching a film. However, Busingye still has hope.
“With the new technology aancement, new things that people can’t get in the comfort of their homes will [come] and they will have to come to the cinema again,” she says, adding that even the atmosphere one gets in a cinema can’t be matched by watching from home.
Source : The Observer