Sri Lanka’s most experienced filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage spoke to TV Times on the future of film industry in Sri Lanka and the world over specially after the COVID-19 pandemic. He says that the post-Covid19 entertainment world would be completely different from the period before that. Vithanage with huge experience not only on filmmaking but also [...]


‘This is the darkest winter in cinema’: Prasanna Vithanage

‘Reintroducing tax benefit provided by 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa government to producers would provide a major boost to our cinema’

Sri Lanka’s most experienced filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage spoke to TV Times on the future of film industry in Sri Lanka and the world over specially after the COVID-19 pandemic. He says that the post-Covid19 entertainment world would be completely different from the period before that. Vithanage with huge experience not only on filmmaking but also on the entire system from distribution to release internationally says that government has to provide reliefs including tax benefits to the investors and packages to survive the industry while everyone in the industry must find ways for resilience. He reiterates that filmmakers must not depend on traditional film screenings but must find alternative platforms, specially digital platforms for the future cinema. Excerpts;

Prasanna Vithanage

What should be the way out for cine  ma industry from present pandemic?

Prasanna: This is a global issue and this is a global pandemic. So any answer to the local film industry is connected with the global industry. If we take an example, according to some theatre owners theatres have not been opened for about 70 days. So the theatres are closed for more than two months. So the people who live on this industry including theatre owners, those who work there, film producers who invested are all in a huge crisis.

But we should not forget that everyone is affected due to this crisis. All other industries are affected. I think film release is bound with the international releases. Right now the cinemas are opened only in South Korea and some provinces in China. There are two industries that have influenced on us. They are Hollywood and Bollywood. India has given permission for post-productions. But no theatres are open yet.

We have many storms to face and this tragedy happened while the Sri Lankan industry was struggling after the attack on the Easter Sunday. This is not only for the local industry, but a common problem for international major filmmakers. They are also facing the same problem. The pandemic is global and the answer also should be global.

And no major American films  are released yet because the funds come not only from America but all over the world. Until this situation is controlled no American film will be released. So our releases are also connected to this. To sustain or continue Sri Lankan film industry, we need other industries to standup and function as usual.

Anyway with the present situation in Sri Lanka we would be able to open theatres early as July.

Q: How should the revival  can take place?

Prasanna:  Let alone boosting at least to survive our cinema needs a package. At least for year or one half year, reliefs should be given for the electricity bill and on the entertainment tax paid to the Provincial Councils. That should be divided between the theatre owner and the producer. This could help the theatres to survive.

Most importantly, the tax relief given by Mahinda Rajapaksa Government after he was elected in 2005, would be a major support to survive at this moment. Then Mr. Rajapaksa as the Finance Minister introduced a scheme where those invested over Rs. 25 million on films were given tax breaks. While we had requested the previous government through the National Film Corporation, that the amount be increased to Rs 30 million, but it was stopped. If the present government could reintroduce the tax relief to the investors it would be a major boost to Sri Lankan cinema.

These are the main things that need to be done immediately. In order to attract patrons we should give reliefs too. Why I say this is, after the attack that happened on Easter Sunday, April 21 last year there was a practice where theatre owners had to send the patrons back from their theatres as they could not provide protection.

The management could not be given the guarantee on their safety. But now theater owners should ensure that the theatres are safe places to hang around. For that reason, there should be facilities like hand washing, sanitizing and other safely measures etc. And the theatre goers should be given incentives to patronise cinemas. Maybe ticket rates should be reduced on week days. To face this situation at this moment, producers, artistes and exhibitors must all unite.

Q:  What changes would be there in the entertainment world in the post-COVID 19 era compared to the pre- Covid 19 period?

Prasanna:  I think Post-COVID-19 entertainment world will be different from the pre-COVID-19 entertainment world. During the lockdown people have got accustomed to the digital media or matured with digital age. During this curfew period many people have got attracted to watching films on the digital media. They have got used to a habit of watching movies on Youtube, on Netflix and other local and international digital platforms daily. So what I am saying is that people would prefer to use these digital platforms and watch films from home even after situation is over. People will make the decision between watching a movie at a theatre to get the theatre experience or to watch it at home. Definitely there will be demarcation. What I suggest is that we have to accept this digital platform as a reality and producers should work to gain more space on international digital platforms and earn money to recover their investments. It could be Iflix or Netflix. If we don’t accept this as a reality it would be hard to survive in this industry.

A scene from the movie ‘Gaadi’

Q: What should be the role of film makers to get used to these new  plat forms?

Prasanna:  We should be enterprising enough to explore the digital platforms. There are many positive signs have appeared during this lockdown period. There had been a huge interest in cinema and also on local cinema.  This is specially among the younger generation. They have watched many old films via digital media through their phones and laptops. There are also several local digital platforms. During this period subscription of Netflix increased by nearly eight million. This is the best example. There are some other digital platforms like Amazon and Hulu which are yet to be popularised in Sri Lanka. There may be films in future which would ne purely made for digital platforms.

Q: Do you seriously think that theatre owners could survive this pandemic?

Prasanna: I was told by some theatre managements that nearly 75 percent of the audiences didn’t return to the cinema after last year attacks. But when ‘Lion King’ was released the audiences returned to the theatres. This shows the difference that foreign films can make on the local film industry and the spectators. But there was a drop again, but by December 2019 they were recovering. Two huge blows have come one after the other and it would be so hard to survive for some theatres. According to some of those involved in exhibition and screening, a number of theatres in Sri Lanka would be closed.

And some theatres would be closed for good. But some of these would not be purely for the pandemic. They were to be closed anyway.

Sajitha Anuththara in a scene from the movie ‘Gaadi’

Q: What about the foreign film festivals as you are the best person to talk about that?

Prasanna: While this pandemic was spreading in Wuhan, I was in Europe. I was at the European festivals with my film ‘Gaadi’. After that it the world was engulfed with the pandemic, major festivals have been postponed or cancelled. Over the last two months I was to attend at least ten film festivals and they all have been cancelled or postponed. They have started online film festival but I didn’t agree to give my film ‘Gaadi’ because it had not been released in Sri Lanka. This is mainly because of the piracy issues.

But this is life and this is the biggest crisis after the Second World War and some say this is the darkest winter. The repercussion will be seen not now but from now on. All the festivals will be affected and the recession will be adversely affected for funding of the festival and investing for films. But we have to keep our heads above and we have to take this challenge.

We cannot deny that it is going to be dark and hard but at the same time we have to accept the reality and we have to work out ways to go forward. That is how the life goes on and our motto should be to overcome challenges. While this curfew was on I was able to complete my new script and I am preparing for the production. We are not going to give up.

Q:  What do you think about the move “We are One” where all major film  festivals have  come together to have an online film festival  on Youtube?

Prasanna:  It is a great opportunity for all film lovers. I don’t think they will screen any new films because of the piracy. But it will be a great platform for all film lovers. Otherwise the films that are to screen would not be easily accessible. Now we have opportunity to watch these films. It is a great achievement. So this is the resilience.

Q: How safe is releasing films online specially due to the piracy?

Prasanna: When a film is released digitally, naturally there will be piracy. So we need tougher laws and safeguard producers and their rights. Piracy is a crime. We need tougher laws against piracy. Specially in our part of the world we have a let loose policy regarding intellectual property law.  There are so many shops all over the country which sell pirated DVDs. We have to find ways to protect the industry.

Q What about your newest film Gaadi?

Prasanna: What I have told the distributors that whenever the theatres are opened to release the film. There is a line up and once the screening starts, I am ready to release the film.

  •  Filmmakers must get ready for digital platform
  •  Govt. must intervene
  •  Many theatres will be closed but industry has to survive
  •  There was a major interest on cinema during the lockdown

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.