Creating cinema experiences will bring back grandeur | Daily News

Creating cinema experiences will bring back grandeur

C-19 impact on cinema industry
Chandran Rutnam and the Director with Jacqueline Fernandez
Chandran Rutnam and the Director with Jacqueline Fernandez

Despite the country gradually opening, the Sri Lankan Film industry is facing one of its biggest challenges with no silver living evident in the horizon in the near future.

The film and cinema industry plays a vital role in the country’s economy. Sri Lanka is a much sought after film shooting destination. Many international and award winning movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Elephant Walk, The Purple Plain, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Bombay Velvet and Kannathil Muthamittal, were shot in many prominent parts of the island, and showcasing the beauty of the nation.

State Film Corporation officials say that over 45 cinema halls are up for sale while the others are still waiting in hope that the industry would recover and the audiences would return. “If not they too would keep their ‘screens’ shut forever.”

However in contrast to the South, cinema halls in the North have not faced closure as the owners expect a faster return to normalcy. “The reason for this is that Tamil films shown in these theatres pull large crowds and there are many days these halls run with the ‘House Full’ tag,” an industry veteran said.

They also opined that even today the local commercial cinema continued to lift storylines and plots from Indian films and almost produced carbon copies of Indian Cinema. “Indian movies are shamelessly reproduced sometimes even without changing a single scene. In some, only the language has changed to Sinhala and these too are causes for the downfall of the industry.”

They also say that the downfall of the Sri Lanka industry can somewhat also be attributed to the mega tele dramas. “One cannot only blame TV, videos, cable TV and tele dramas for the downfall of the industry. If there are quality films people still like to go to the movie theatres and watch them.”

The Sri Lankan celluloid industry started in 1947 with Kadawunu Poronduwa produced by S. M. Nayagam of Chitra Kala Movietone.

From film to digital

One of the Directors/ Producers Sripali Hettiarachchi says that when Malinda Rajapaksa was the President of the association, he ensured that a tele drama had to end after telecasting 200 episodes. “However this is not practiced now and some of the dubbed foreign telegrams are keeping people glued to the TV especially from 7 30 to 9 30 p.m. “This is also creating family problems as well.”

He said that one must offer a bouquet of flowers to Swarnawahini for announcing and taking a policy decision not to air a single foreign tele drama.

He opined that technology has helped the local film industry to lower their budgets and cut production times to a great extent. “I think one of the best things that happened to the local cinema was the introduction of the digital camera. With it, the film negatives and reels ‘went out’ of the industry and the numbers of supporting teams/ camera crews too reduced.”

One of the other important things that came with the digital camera is the slowing of costs and time in many aspects. Today there was also one tele drama entirely shot from a popular phone model.

Daily News Saturday Spark also spoke to some prominent and influential personalities who shared their thoughts on the current film and cinema industry.

Can blame Covid-19 - Chandran Rutnam

International filmmaker and film location scout for foreign productions Chandran Rutnam said that this year and last, several local productions and foreign intended filming in Sri Lanka have been halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and how will the production cost be recovered?

In the last two years, some major Indian film productions were scheduled to be shot in Sri Lanka, but due to the pandemic, the opportunity was lost. I feel this is a good time to see how we can plan and promote the country as a top and feasible destination for international film shoots.

A good marketing strategy and planning is very important as we are gradually going back to normal and shooting in major film industries is taking place.

Q: Currently, how is the film industry fairing after three lock downs?

My Company has two local Sinhala film productions to be released but we’re held back due to the uncertainty of the Delta variant. We cannot take a risk at this time.

We cannot just blame the lockdowns and Covid for the demise of the local film industry. It is much more than that. The structure for the production, distribution and exhibition of films is disgraceful and must be modified and liberalized like that of the rest of the world. If that is not revised, it will be the demise of the magical feeling of going to a cinema and enjoying the experience on the big screen.

Industry depends on C-19 containment - Thushan Meemanage

Thushan Meemanage, Co-Founder, Director/CEO at Scope Cinemas says that the COVID-19 pandemic substantially impacted the film industry; the cinemas and movie theatres were closed for months and many blockbuster movies that were expected to be released last year were delayed indefinitely.

Q: How will the industry recover in the next two years?

Many cinemas closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and blockbuster movies being postponed. As a result, the entire film industry suffered tremendously due to the indefinite postponement of these movies. However, at present Hollywood movies are being lined up for the next 12 months.

The recovery of the Sri Lankan film industry depends on how the country controls the Covid-19 pandemic, the biggest issue faced by the film industry of Sri Lanka. Before COVID, Sri Lanka had over 200 screenings and this has significantly dropped. The government must take immediate measures to control the situation and assist the cinemas by restructuring repayment of their loans and providing tax holidays.

Further liberalization of film distribution would play a vital role in developing the film industry. All the markets with successful film industries of the world have liberalized the film industry. Cinema is an art and needs the freedom to perform well, it’s a fundamental requirement of any art. Further, there are only two risk-takers in the film industry, mainly film suppliers (local film producers and foreign film importers) and film exhibitors. Those two parties should have the ability to make decisions about the film industry, unfortunately at present there are third party interventions in the decision-making process. It must be eliminated and for that purpose, film distribution must be liberalized. National Film Corporation (NFC) should only play as a regulator.

Q: Movie premieres get a lot of attention from movie-goers, and due to the restrictions, it’s hard to have a premiere. How will the movie be promoted?

A: If Sri Lanka can control Covid-19 successfully, premieres could be hosted for our movie-loving film goers.

Q: Due to covid-19, how bad has the local cinema industry suffered?

A: Since last March only a few local movies have been released, and no profits were made. The production cost couldn’t be recovered due to the inability to screen the movies.

Q:How long will cinema take to recover, and what will bring cinema-goers, despite online streaming sites showing the movie simultaneously?

A: It all depends on the ability to control C-19. Once controlled, the cinema industry would start to perform very well despite all online streaming services. The state of the art cinema experience can never be replaced, with a home cinema system.

Cinema revenues plunges by 80% - Sashini Bandara

Sashini Kiriella Bandara, Acting CEO Savoy Cinemas said that the COVID-19 pandemic substantially impacted the film industry; the cinemas and movie theatres were closed for months and many blockbuster movies that were expected to be release last year were delayed indefinitely.

Q: How will the industry recover in the next two years?

A: The Cinema and Entertainment industry is a segment that has been hit hardest by the pandemic. Almost 40% of Sri Lankan cinemas have closed temporarily/permanently during the last 1 1/2 years. Cinema revenues have plunged by almost 80% this year and it’s likely that the lost ground will be recovered only in the medium term; nevertheless, we can anticipate that the cinema and entertainment industry will return to normalcy once the kids return to school.

It is a time for the Sri Lankan cinemas to rethink their strategy and ensure quality content is screened at theaters. It’s important that we lower the movie screening time period from the traditional 50-75 days and adopt some of the global practices.

We experienced this with the Tamil titles such as the movie “Master” released in January at Savoy Cinemas including our Signature Tamil release centre – Concord-Dehiwela. Our properties had to screen extra show times, back to back just to ensure that patrons had an opportunity to view the movie given the 50% capacity restriction.

Perhaps having two parallel releases of our Sinhalese content will ensure that content already produced will have an opportunity to be released before the content gets outdated.

Savoy cinemas have an exciting Sinhalese lineup with some of Sri Lanka’s a veteran/popular movie directors and producers. We hope to bring this content on screen at Savoy Premiere Wellawatte and Savoy 3D Cinema equipped with real Dolby Atmos and at Theaters Island wide.

Savoy cinemas which are under the EAP distribution network has also partnered with Ceylon Theaters in distributing content and Ceylon Theaters holds some of the exciting and landmark cinema properties such as Regal – Dematagoda, Regal - Colombo, Majestic Cineplex in addition to the presence in the cities of Gampaha, Jaffna and Nuwara Eliya.

Establishing the right health and safety practices at cinemas, maintaining standards as well as constantly educating the patrons of this process will build confidence and bring people back to cinemas.

Movie premieres get a lot of attention from movie-goers but due to the restrictions, it’s hard to have a premiere. How will a movie be promoted?

The pandemic has accelerated consumers’ transition to digital consumption and triggered disruptive change, as much as global conferences. Training has shifted to digital forms of streaming and still manage to keep the audiences engaged, this will be the case of Movie Premieres too. The lower digital costs and the use of analytics to target the specific audiences that are interested in cinema will help sustain the industry even without a physical movie premiere in the grandeur it once had.

At our key Sinhala Release Center – Savoy Premier, Wellawatte (Roxy Cinema, Previously) we’ve hosted Sinhala Movie Premieres under strict health regulations. Even though the number of patrons at the premiere almost halved due to regulatory restrictions, others have been able to access and popularize movie premieres to a wider audience through digital modes.

Q: Due to C-19, how bad has the local cinema industry suffered?

The industry has been hit hardest by the pandemic, almost 40% of cinemas have closed temporarily/permanently over the last 1 1/2 years. As movie exhibitors, despite the revenue loss Savoy Cinemas had to incur colossal operating costs during the pandemic period so that the cinema equipment is maintained continuously. The premises had to be cleaned, sanitized and pest controlled so that the patrons have safe and secure locations to watch their favorite movies.

The Group supported the local/Sinhalese movie industry quite intensively through financing quality local movie productions and investments have been dilapidated given the prolonged cinema closures whilst we bear the interest cost of financing.

Savoy Cinemas, being a subsidiary of Ben Holdings Group, have managed to secure all our theaters and provide employment to the entire team even during the entire period of cinema closure. Also, policy decisions have been put in place to ensure that smaller theaters in the EAP Circuit settle their past dues systematically rather than penalizing them. This way, we could ensure that everyone in the industry sustains this period.

Q:How long will the cinemas take to recover, and what will bring cinema-goers online streaming sites, showing the movie simultaneously?

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated and amplified ongoing shifts in consumers’ behavior, pulling forward digital disruption and forging industry tipping points that wouldn’t have been reached for many years. We have seen most of the blockbuster movies being released on digital platforms during the year. The movies play exclusively in cinemas before they can be accessed on other services. The recent changes to the Hollywood business model of significantly shrinking the window of time screened at theaters; the reduction was to 17 days from around 40 days previously. In Kollywood, the best of Tamil content will screen in cinemas only for a maximum period of three weeks and the investments are recovered as the patrons visit cinemas during this window.

Therefore, more than just the release of content, creating cinema experiences will bring back the grandeur of the industry back.

Red tape in releasing films - Dr. Sir. Kumarage

Chairman Charith Cosmetics, Dr. Sir. Clarence Kumarage one of the major producers along with Parliamentarian Wijedasa Rajapaksa of the popular film Nidahase Piya DS (Father of Independence) a 2018 biographical film and the 1313th Sri Lankan film said he sees no future ‘audience market’ for the local film industry for a long time. “This is not only because of Covid, but also because of lack of film halls and other issues.”

“I am a successful businessman and I had a passion to speak and educate the younger generation on the struggle for independence and this is why we produced this film. This was not profit oriented. But after the successful production of the movie the red tape we faced to release it drives us away from re producing future films.

“The industry is at its lowest and decision making people in AC rooms should now do a fresh ‘brain storming session’ and come out with solutions to bail out the industry.”

Australian example

Versatile film personality Asoka Handagama told the ‘Daily News’ earlier that Sri Lanka can adopt what most other countries such as Australia follow to bail out the industry.

“The Australian government has instructed large-scale companies to issue a token to the employees. Once the token is produced at the theatre, the employee receives a ticket to watch the movie.

The company settles the ticket fee. We know very well that the Sri Lankan government has fund issues. But they can follow a creative procedure to boost the industry.”

The token must not be money, lest the employee would exhaust it elsewhere and the objective would not be achieved. A token worth Rs 500, for instance, will suffice. In such a backdrop, an employee would most likely bring along a family member or two.

This means a little more cost for the companies, but would be considered a Corporate Social Responsibility move.

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