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The Sunday TimesPlus

6th April 1997



X-ph iles of Colombo

What is the reason for the third grade English films shown here? The National Film Corporation's eternally changing policies , reports Jennifer Paldano

PosterSex written all over: a bill board
Been to a local cinema lately? Has the experience left you bewildered? The feeling is mutual. Frequent film-goers are fed up with the 'muck' being shown at some of the 'prestigious' cinemas in the country. An evening of family entertainment at a cinema seems to be out of the question today.

A glance at the film ads in a daily newspaper will reveal the amazing number of so called 'X' rated movies.

Who is responsible? Is it the theatre owner or the state-run National Film Corporation? Enthusiasts of 'quality' films and blockbusters are wondering about the plight that has befallen not only the cinemas but also the local film industry. Gone are the days when theatres were packed to capacity, despite movie goers having viewed the film at home. Take, for instance, the film Jurassic Park which was shown at Liberty for nearly ten months and at outstation cinemas for nearly six months.

True enough, the theatre owners have their grievances. The National Film Corporation is constantly changing its management, resulting in abrupt termination of policies. Until recently theatre owners were able to import quality films under import liberalisation. But once the Film Corporation Act of 1971 was reinforced, trouble began for the cinema owners. The NFC in a bid to save the Sinhala cinema clamped down rigid procedures on the importation of films. Earlier the NFC was given only 10% of the earnings and 40% went to the supplier. But today the NFC is demanding 20% and this has left the suppliers dissatisfied with only 30%, demanding more. The Motion Picture Association consisting of some of the major film suppliers has refused outright to deal with state bureaucracy. As a result, the theatre owners are not supplied with block busters and Hollywood films.

"Under import liberalisation the industry did improve. Cinemas updated their equipment and sound system. But suddenly the NFC stepped in and decided what films were to be shown. We don't import films anymore because it is a loss for us and our suppliers are refusing to give quality products unless they secure high profits. Thus we are forced to find recourse in the NFC. We have only two alternatives. Either accept any 'type' of film offered by the NFC or close down the cinema and send our employees home," said Imtiaz Cader a director of the Liberty Cinema.

The NFC has its own suppliers of films and judging from the current quality of English films shown at our theatres it seems that they are not known for quality. The theatre owners complain that the corporation doesn't understand the economics of showing a film. All cinemas are supposed to pay a tax to the local government, including an entertainment tax and a levy. The owners have to also pay the supplier and the NFC out of their profits and only the rest remains with the owner.

The NFC claims that certain restrictions have to be enforced if the Sinhala cinema is to be resurrected from the precipice. Thus local producers and directors were offered concessions. This saw virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry producing films of course with the back up guarantee of the NFC. If the NFC envisaged an improvement in the quality of films, it certainly did not happen. The people are educated and possess a mature sense of aesthetics, thus a film that is considered 'crap' is rejected by the people.

According to Ranjith Weerasinghe, Vice-President of the Film Exhibitors Association, the NFC supplies them with not only low quality films but also delays in providing them with a change.

India and Pakistan have done away with a state owned body. Sri Lanka's film industry is being pulled down the precipice by the rigid rules of the NFC. In most countries all films do not enter the doors of a cinema. Films are rejected, if the quality is poor. But in Sri Lanka any poor quality Sinhala film or rejected English film is shown at the cinemas.

Red tape and bureaucracy, typical of governmental institutions ails the NFC today. Usually the NFC decides to change a film when the cinema owner reports that attendance has declined to 10%. But today the cinemas are virtually empty from the date of screening. Under these circumstances the NFC is satisfied importing cheap films which are near 'porn' . There are a few cinemas 'notorious' for the screening of such films. But when some of the so called 'decent' cinemas patronised by families start showing 'X' rated movies, the public is shocked. Young patrons including men and couples are many, but the prestige of the cinema is at stake.

The Liberty Cinema is currently facing this predicament. The management says it has no alternative. Thus the billboard clearly indicates that the film has been supplied by the NFC. Theatre owners like that of Liberty say that there is more at stake than merely maximising profits. Cinema owners also look for prestige. Prestige associated with showing quality movies and entertainment for the whole family.

"I think the NFC doesn't deserve a cent of what we earn. We are only victims of red tape and inefficiency" said a spokesman for Majestic Theatre.

Popular actor Lucky Dias emphasised that the NFC's moves had neither benefitted the theatre owners nor the Sinhala film industry. It only caused the industry to deteriorate, with anyone and everyone venturing into the industry.

"Every successive government embraced cinema to only sit on it and when their tenure is over all of us are left in the lurch. The NFC and staff are redundant. We need a workable workforce appointed. Mr. Gamini Weragama, the newly appointed General manager of the NFC is a man who knows much about the industry and his efforts are genuine. There was a time when I opposed those who suggested that the NFC be closed, but later I came to my senses to agree with them. With Mr. Weragama, the industry at least has a ray of hope," said Lucky.

Mr. Gamini Weragama himself agreed that there was a crisis in the industry, a common phenomenon in almost all countries, he said. Despite the NFC providing cinemas with X rated movies, Mr. Weragama emphasised that people patronise such films because such films are not shown on TV. The paradox is that while the cinema owners claimed that the NFC was responsible for the importation and distribution of such films, Mr. Weragama said that since the cinemas are running at a loss with the invasion of television, their only alternative is to import such low quality films. One wonders who is fooling whom.

Unless the two parties arrive at a consensus, it is obvious that the public is going to be deprived of quality Hollywood movies and expected to watch 'third-rate'ones.

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