An article that celebrates Africa’s rich cinema heritage published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK notes that the continent’s first film show was in Johannesburg in South Africa in May 1896, but Durban can claim the first permanent cinema.
Other African countries followed suit. And since then, African cinema has flourished.
And here in Malawi, back in the days, there used to be Apollo Cinema in Blantyre, Five Star Drive-in Cinema at Moneymen and Drive-in Cinema in Lilongwe where lovers of the big screen used to spend their weekends with their families and loved ones.
After a long break, Cine City Cinema was opened in Blantyre, but it did not last long as it closed down early this year following technological challenges. The owners needed almost K156 million (US$ 300 000) to upgrade from analogue to digital.
The move could have not made business sense since the numbers in patronage did not justify such an investment.
This May saw the coming in of M Cinema at City Mall in Lilongwe. The facility is owned by Manowood Limited, a subsidiary of Nollywood Cinema in Nigeria.
With K117 million invested in the project, managing director Udokpolo Nathaniel argues that there is steady response in terms of patronage.
“There is marginal increase as patronage is better than when we were starting. So yes, business ikuyenda pang’onopang’ono [business is picking up slowly],” says Nathaniel.
With three halls each showing three movies a day, the cinema believes it is struggling, among others, because of lack of a cinema culture.
“The idea of people going somewhere to watch movies is quite new in Malawi and as such, many are yet to adapt to this. But of course that is also somehow as a result of the mindset of people that we only show Nigerian movies. But we have a wide range of movies, including those from Hollywood and Bollywood and are all latest.
“Other than that, we think the other reasons is advertising and publicity, which we think we have not done much. In response to this, people should know that we have slashed our prices by 100 percent,” he explained.
On average, M Cinema records about 30 people a day. On a good day, the number swells to about 50.
Television broadcasting lecturer at the Polytechnic, Jolly Ntaba, differs with Nathaniel, arguing that Malawi has a rich cinema culture.
“If you take a walk around the townships, you will find a lot of fully packed video showrooms. It is the formal cinemas that are having problems with patronage,” said Ntaba.
He argues that the problem with the formal cinema is that most movies are shown at night and location targets audiences who have a car to get there. This hinders a majority that does not have cars.
He adds that technological advances have also contributed to the low patronage in most formal cinemas.
“People have home theatres, DStv and these are in HD. They can get a big screen so they would rather stay at home and enjoy the experience, than go to a cinema,” said Ntaba, himself a former TV presenter and producer.
“But also publicity is a problem with the cinemas. The cinemas don’t even have space in newspapers where they can advertise what movies they are screening. So that is hard for movie cinema patrons to know what’s cooking in the cinemas,” said Ntaba.
Filmmakers Association of Malawi president Ezaius Mkandawire said the problem is that Malawians perceive going to the cinema as a past-time of the elite.
“But another thing is that now people feel at home when they watch movies that resonate with their social set up. For example the time Shemu Joyah launched The Last Fishing Boat the patronage exceeded 600,” said Mkandawire.
He added that unless Malawians start producing more movies, the cinema industry will stagnate.