Cinema Blues

Uncomfortable seats, and the marijuana and cigarette smokers ensconced, feet perched on the back of the chair in front of them, shouting at the screen. Ridiculous prices at the concession stands, and unlikely feature doubles. Mysterious, sticky fluids on the ground, where you have no choice to sit if the theater is crowded.

These are familiar irritations found at any or all of the cinemas currently in operation around the Caribbean. Years ago though, cinemas were much more than a cheap, convenient place, where an unemployed escapist could do just that. Escape. Those were days when the cinema was a place for families, and, where couples went on their first dates. This was where the public found most of their entertainment. Prior to the 1980’s, going into the cinema business, was a surefire way to make money. In the Caribbean, television was far too expensive to be afforded by the public, so the cinema was a profitable business to enter. More recently however, cinema owners are struggling to keep the islands’ cinema industry afloat. Their complaints are many, and, by far the largest competitor is the video rental operators, and their blatant, unchecked piracy industry.

“The video clubs that are now operating in the Caribbean, pirate movies without any conscience,” says Zaid Ali, managing director of Globe Cinemas in Barbados. “If we advertise a movie, sometimes the week before or the week of the movie’s opening, the video clubs will have it in their stores. How is that possible?” Adding insult to injury, the video clubs capitalise on the cinema’s advertising, by releasing a film at the same time. There are many theories as to how the club owner obtains copies of films prior
to their release. There is a consensus among industry sources suggesting that the video club owners are fed copies of the films from people who are either distributing, or are directly involved with the production of films. When a film is released in the United States, the studio, or distributor of a film, will produce video cassettes of a film to be part of the promotion of a film, and they are sent out to various members of the industry. Any person who regularly rents tapes from a video club, can tell you, that several times throughout the course of the film, a message will run across the top of the screen, “This tape is for promotional use only. If you have rented or purchased this tape, please call 1 (800) NO-COPYS” But hardly anyone calls says Ali.

“All the video clubs that rent pirated copies of films can be sued. We have complained to the distributors, we even called the head office of Miami, but the response is always that nothing can be done.” John Ellis, of U.I.P., one of the largest distributors of films in the Caribbean, says the responsibility for prosecuting the errant video club owners, is not that of the distributor.

“The responsibility for the protection of our film’s copyright, belongs to the producers of the film and The Motion Picture Association in America. Sooner or later they will do something, as the drain is killing the regional industry.” “It’s not that the distributors don’t try to prevent the piracy, but the government’s in this region have a tendency not to be very interested in protecting the cinema industry,” says an owner based in Trinidad. The government removed the license fee for video club owners, and they don’t pay V.A.T. However, the cinema patrons has to pay V.A.T. on his cinema ticket. And we can’t even increase the price of the ticket. While video club owners can give better offers in their clubs.

So many films for ten dollars etc. “Government does not prosecute the video club owners, even though they know they are breaking international law,” he adds.

“There is nothing we can do. We have to take our licks,” says a commiserated Ali. The Motion Picture Association, of America, has successfully won cases in England, Brazil and France, but nothing has yet been done about the Caribbean.

Three years ago, there was a hint that the Caribbean was next
on the list, but that hope for relief has not been realized. The
Association apparently does not have the man power or the resources
to circle the globe, annihilating video piracy. Until they do,
piracy will continue unchecked. And it has. If the Motion Picture
Association leaves the problem much longer the situation may develop
into a culture of piracy that may never turn around. Piracy in
Eastern Europe, the Middle and Far East and the world in smaller
numbers, including the Caribbean, has escalated to a point where,
even if the Motion Picture Association was capable of fighting,
where would they begin? There is also no sign of the “battering”
from video pirates easing up in the near future. The problem is
so rampant that it can easily overwhelm whoever decides to eventually
take on the challenge. More cinema’s have closed in the last fifteen
years, than they have in the whole history of the cinema industry
prior to the video invasion. The famous Roxy cinema, in Trinidad,
was one of the more recent casualties. It had stopped being used
as a cinema sometime in the eighties, but it was sold to Prestige
Holdings Inc. and now houses that largest Pizza Hut branch in
the Caribbean. Other cinemas are being converted into office complexes
and Church Halls. In Barbados the Vista, The Empire, and a Drive-In
situated in Wildey were all closed during the early eighties,
leaving only two cinemas and one drive in operation. Over the
past year, The Astor Cinema, the oldest cinema in Trinidad, was
recently sold to a church, and the Vistarama on St. Vincent Street,
in Port of Spain were both closed within six months of each other.
It is rumoured that the island’s only remaining drive-in, the
Kaydonna in Valsayn, is going close it’s doors soon.

The closure of so many cinemas in recent years, has been credited
to more than just the video clubs and piracy though. Government’s
ambivalence towards the cinemas has helped along the death of
cinemas. From the eight, twelve or fifteen dollar price of the
cinema ticket, must come utilities, V.A.T., water, and a large
percentage has to go to the distributor, to cover the importation
and promotion of the film. Under these conditions the cinemas
cannot afford to show films that cannot guarantee a large box
office, so smaller films, dramas and romantic comedy’s have difficulty
finding a screen where they can be shown. Even when a film does
not do as well as expected, the results are disastrous moreso
in this region than anywhere else. In America, there is far more
berth for mistakes, and the recovery of a flop than in the Caribbean.
If a film does not do well in the Caribbean, the cinemas have
problems meeting their obligations. In addition to all these other
tribulations, many of the cinema’s are in urban areas, this does
not afford the cinemas much space for parking, and crime is a
factor that many consider. Not just in the case of car stealing,
but personal safety getting from the cinema.

But some of the blame may fall on the shoulders of the cinema
owners. Speaking with a young avid cinema lover Martin Daniel,
his greatest complaint is that of the state of the cinemas. “It’s
as if the cinema owners don’t care whether or not the inside of
the cinema is presentable. It’s true that the public abuses the
cinema, but I find it hard to believe they can’t find the money
to upgrade the cinema, especially in the case of the larger more
popular cinemas, where there is always a crowd. “The cinemas
smell dank and dusty, and you have to cope with people who sit
next to you and smoke in the non-smoking sections without discretion,
blowing smoke into your face. Complaining to the manager is also
useless as there is usually no security. These practices have
been allowed to continue for so long that now it is just expected
at all cinemas,” he says. “Often the quality of the
film is not very good and the sometimes you get rhe impression
that the projectionists employed by the cinemas don’t know what
they are doing. The concession stands are usually unpresentable,
over priced and a nuisance to get service. It’s much safer to
stay home and rent a film for $2.50 or $5.00, or to watch cable,
than to brave the night to go to the cinema. “Despite this
I am a dedicated movie fan, so I can bypass much of it. It would
be understandable for others who are not as committed as myself
to just chose not to attend.”

The problems facing the Caribbean cinema’s in combination,
provide an uphill battle for the owners. If things continue, it
will not be long before they disappear all-together. The shame
of this whole episode is that unless something is done to support
the industry soon, a unique entertainment experience will be lost.
There is nothing to compare with the feeling a cinema gives you,
whether it’s going with friends and laughing until your sides
hurt, or going with your mate and holding hands in the dark. To
lose the cinema as a doorway into the fantasy movies create, would
be a great loss.

First Published: executive Time April/May 1996

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