The private sector is generally hailed for its efficiency, innovation, the engine of growth and prime driving force behind the economy of Sri Lanka.There are exceptions to such performance. The private sector of the film industry in Sri Lanka is one such.
Since up to 1972, the private sector missed out on the opportunities based on mistaken and dogmatic assumptions that they knew the consumer demand best. Based on this “know how” they flooded the country with foreign films: 80% of screen time was foreign by 1971. Their discriminatory behaviour attracted state intervention in 1972: it was left to a state enterprise to awaken the dormant and suppressed demand by a series of interventions. The result was a virtual explosion of annual cinema attendance- from 30 million in 1972 to 74.4 million by 1979.
The sector then went into a virtual self-destruct since 1979, as the attendance plunged. In 2001, the private sector, fed up with the antics of the National Film Corporation lobbied the government harnessing the support of favourites of President Chandrika Kumaranatunge, making “promises” and assurances that they, not the NFC, were the key to the development of the film industry. The result was the privatization of film import and distribution, neutering the NFC which was left as name sake.
Nine years have elapsed since 2001. Data in respect of film attendance for 2009 has come in and the solitary figure is damming and frightening. At the time of privatization of film distribution and import in 2001, the annual cinema attendance in Sri Lanka was 17 million: by 2009 it had fallen to a mere 7.2 million. The number of cinemas has dwindled at the average rate of one closure of one cinema per month, to a mere 147. The nine years of privatization has seen a total of 111 cinemas closing shop.
This is an alarming state of affairs, for the country, the government, the National Film Corporation, the film distributors who took upon themselves the resurrection of the cinema in 2001, the producers and above all the cinemagoers.
Sri Lanka had imported all films from India, the United States and England until the first Sinhala film was produced in 1947. The domination by imported films gradually receded to 80% by 1965 as nationally produced films displaced the imports. This percentage stayed the same till 1972. Subsequent events were to show that this percentage did not reflect full demand of the market for nationally produced films- it was the level to which the key distributors allowed that fulfillment.
The oligopolistic of the then importer/distributor system permitted only a token presence to the domestic cinema, allocating only 20% of the screen time, while 80% was allocated to foreign, mainly Tamil films.The distributors saw more profit in importing and distributing Indian and Western films than in promoting distribution or production of domestic films besides a token participation.
The consequential unrest and agitation by the domestic film production industry arising out of the domination of the imported film eventually resulted in state intervention in the form of the State Film Corporation (SFC) in 1972.
Among other things, the Corporation was charged with the task of being the monopoly buyer-importer-distributor of films in Sri Lanka. The SFC obtained outstandingly dramatic results in achieving the primary objective of all film business- that of satisfying viewers by more than doubling annual cinema attendance and earning a steady, if not an enlarging profit within the first seven years of its existence. This was in a context where the economy was in a virtual state of siege, hemmed in by government procedural constraints and foreign currency limitations which would seem absurd in today’s context.
Even though the SFC did publicize the achievement at that time, the salient aspects of the performance had not been ‘picked up’ by analysts, noted by commentators, and evaluated in sufficient depth. Thus the awareness of the attainment has gone ‘unnoticed’ and even ignored. Beyond the general held view that there was some success during the first seven years for that period to be hailed (and continue to be described as such) in the Sinhala press as the ‘Golden Age’ of the Sinhala cinema, the views expressed elsewhere did not show a full appreciation of the extent, the context and the dimensions of the success achieved. Even when there was a specific focus on the subject, as in the chapter on ‘State and the Cinema’ in Dissanayake and Ratnavibhushana (2004), the views articulated showed ignorance of this aspect, and hence were deficient, misleading and even erroneous.
The distinctive, if not seeming impossible accomplishment of the first phase of the SFC, commencing 1972, was seen in the massive increase of cinemagoer or consumer ‘vote.’ The increase in film attendance by more than twofold was propelled by its early innovative interventions. That feat, along with its associated tripling of film grosses, is something that eluded the pre-SFC private sector.
This inability was despite their avowed commitment to satisfying the ‘consumer’ and the fervor and conviction with which they announced their virtually infallible, ex-cathedra ‘knowledge’ of what the cinemagoers wanted before the Film Commission of 1965.
Despite the subsequent, repeated assertions by the private sector to have known the pulse of the consumer best (and certainly better than a state organization), the achievements of the SFC was also the best evidence that the demand from the consumers (filmgoers) went unidentified and ignored by the private sector. This was, ironically, to the detriment of their own profit making objectives.
The launch of the SFC initiatives was based on a broad plan of action evolved during the early stages of the SFC. There were no precedents to go on and the SFC board had to devise the plan of development on its own.
The SFC did have the advantage of the film scene immediately before its advent being examined thoroughly by the Royal Commission of Inquiry of 1965. In that report, the existing workings of the film industry had been scrutinized in detail and recommendations made to resolve the issues confronting it. However, there were no specific, detailed guidelines as to the solutions to the problems identified nor were there any indications as to the sequence involved in implementation of solutions.
SFC had to generate measures to be implemented to resolve the problems and issues in each area. A set of priorities had to be decided upon as well as all interventions could not be launched simultaneously.
The final result of the deliberations was a broad plan of action devised at an early stage of the SFC, involving the four key areas of import, production, exhibition, and distribution. Interventions, were comprehensive as they were detailed, dealing with almost every aspect of each key area. Some had to be launched ahead of others even as other areas were prepared for commencement of measures at a later stage.
There were other outcomes as multifaceted as the initiatives. Of the most significant effects in each area of import, distribution, exhibition and production, the most critical impact was where it mattered most – on the audience (consumer). They responded overwhelmingly by more than doubling admissions from 30 million in 1971 to 74.4 million by 1979. One of the means this was achieved was via a larger choice of imported Indian films at one third the cost of 1971. Systematized film procurement, which evaluated each film, shown in Tamil and Hindi in India, whether they were successful or not, had been implemented.
This achievement of increasing attendance by halving the quantity of imports and 7/8th reduction of expenditure incurred in 1971, shows the success of an astute bargaining process aided by the selection procedure which targeted failed films in India which could be a success in Sri Lanka, at a fraction of the prices paid for successful ones. Combined with this selection process, substantial savings were affected by maximizing the advantages of monopoly buying.The outcomes were unprecedented and unique. This result was without any precedent anywhere in the world. That was in 1979.
This achievement was subsequently destroyed by NFC Chairman Anton Wicremasinghe. The peak annual attendance declined from 74.4 million when he took office to 29 million when he left office 10 years later as the longest-serving CEO of the NFC.
Having got into the saddle in 2001, a hapless private sector now are mere onlookers as the film industry continues its collapse in a downward spiraling self-destruct reminiscent of the NFC. What is left is the ever decreasing pool of cinemagoers, most of who are young lovers who go to make love, not to watch films (!)
Can the private sector in film ever fulfill the promises made to itself and the President Chandrika government when the then President’s favourites were harnessed to tout and ultimately achieved the privatization?
Will the privatization remain what it is: a set of “Broken Promises”?
(The writer knows his ‘onions’ on this topic as a well-known film industry who has worked here and abroad. He has directed many films. He could be reached at