Like the plot in an old-fashioned movie, cinemas in Africa are making a third-reel comeback after years of worrying decline. In many countries south of the Sahara, digital technology, strong investment and modern theatres are bringing about a major revival of movie-going, ending years of cinema closures. But this good news for film-lovers also comes with a drawback: the new cinema complexes tend to give precedence to Hollywood blockbusters rather than films made by African directors.
In the 1980s, a wave of cinema closures began to unfurl across the continent as rundown picture palaces were turned into auto repair shops, supermarkets, restaurants and even churches. The survivors were a number of privately owned venues and cinemas inside international cultural centers. Today, continent-wide figures for the industry are sketchy, but cinema owners say the sector is making a comeback. It is being driven by demographic demand and digital technology that provides immediate, low-cost distribution, compared to the expensive business of printing and trucking around reels of celluloid.
"The demand is there," says Jean-Marc Bejani, the CEO of the Majestic chain, which has opened three cinemas in Ivory Coast's commercial capital Abidjan in the past two years. Next year, Majestic will open three more in the coastal city's working-class Yopougon district. A senior manager in the oil industry, Bejani threw himself into the movie business on discovering that there were no cinemas left in Ivory Coast. The success of Majestic's venture came fast, with 75,000 tickets sold for a single screen in 2015, and 175,000 in 2016, when all three new screens were in use.
"Before this, the movie theatres were old and technically outdated, with films being shown three months later than in Europe," Bejani said.
"I wanted high definition pictures, with 3-D, comfortable seats and films coming out the same time as in France."
"I come often," said schoolgirl Marie Benoit, standing in front of the bar selling soft drinks and popcorn inside a Majestic cinema as smart as any European multiplex. The young girl had for years lived in a city with no big screen. Canal Olympia has applied a similar high-tech approach to its bid to conquer west and central Africa. Since 2016, this subsidiary of global entertainment group Vivendi has opened six cinemas in Cameroon, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea. The group's aim is to construct several dozen multi-role complexes in the coming years. Work is already in hand to build three new venues in Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
"A middle class is developing in Africa ... with a desire to be entertained," Corinne Bach, the head of Canal Olympia, said.
"It's a lot of work to get people used to going to the cinema, notably youngsters who have never been before," she added. "The first results are encouraging."
To succeed, Canal Olympia is betting on mixed programming of American, African and European films, notably the productions of the Canal+ Group, another Vivendi company playing a major role in cinema as well as television. The new venues are intended to host concerts and popular shows, as well as being available to hire as business conference centers, to make the network economically viable. But in a number of countries, old cinemas are being upgraded or reopened, including half a dozen in the Angolan capital Luanda, the CineKin in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Normandie in Chad's capital N'Djamena, renovated in 2011.
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