TV videos steal the show from Kenya movie houses

Kenya is a pushover for new Western technology, and the prosperous elite has suddenly taken massively to video as it did to television all those years ago. Now the inevitable row is beginning between the purveyors of video sets and the cinemas, which are losing a great deal of business. And the government may soon step in because it is losing millions of Kenya shillings every year from declining entertainment tax.

For a third-world country, the figures are startling.There are some 75,000 video cassette recorders in Kenya, a bonanza for Japan, which sells most of them. Two years ago, there were 35,000 recorders. Since then, about 100 video cassette libraries have sprung up in Nairobi and Mombasa, with thousands of cassettes available. Some films are available in cassettes even before they get to the cinemas.

Before video appeared on the Kenya scene, both the English-language cinemas and those catering to the large population of Indians were doing a good business.

But the cinemas say that in 1979 some 7 million people flocked to theaters. This had dropped to 6.5 million last year. The Asian cinemas -- and Asians are probably the biggest buyers of video sets -- are worst hit. The two big Nairobi Asian cinemas, the Globe and the Embassy, sufferred spectacular losses, the former's attendance figures dropping from 125,963 in the first half of 1979 to 88,536 in the second half of 1980.

The Kenya Film Corporation, which controls the cinemas in Kenya, says the government lost about half a million Kenya pounds (about $1.17 million) in entertainment tax last year.

The cinema theaters say there are some 350 million Kpounds ($822 million) tied up in the 50 cinemas throughout the country, employing about 1,000 people directly and 3,000 people indirectly.

Competition among video libraries has brought down the price of renting a cassette to one Kenya pound ($3.25), with perhaps eight or 10 people watching the film.

The case for video is well argued. You don't have to go out at night, using expensive gasoline to go to a cinema, or defy the high crime rate. Instead, you watch in the comfort and safety of your own home.

Kenya's strick film censorship laws, to which video films are not subject, are flouted nightly. Many video libraries have "blue films" under the counter, for a slight additional cost.

The cinemas also suffer because many video films are brand new and are screened before they reach the cinemas. One commentator says he saw the film, "The Boys from Brazil," (with Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier) first on video.

Many video films getting into Kenya are of poor quality and obviously pirated. Many infringe the copyright of original filmmakers and distributors.

Some sections of the Kenya press have taken up the cudgels against video and video cassette importers, especially for moral and legal reasons. Films are imported without the official permission of their producers and without payment of royalties to them.

The Sunday Standard has pointed out that Kenya is a signatory to the Universal Copyright Convention and cannot allow such piracy. The newspaper says the moral implications are even more important. Recorded feature films bypass the Kenya Board of Film Censors and normal restrictions do not apply. "Anybody of impressionable age is exposed to feature films which are full of sex, blood, and violence," it commented. Porno films can easily be imported and duplicated.

Finally the point is made that Kenya has imported these recorders at a massive sacrifice of foreign exchange. A video cassette recorder costs in the region of Kpounds 500.

Kenya, which is paying the total proceeds of its coffee crop to import oil , cannot afford this "rich man's luxury."

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