YANGON — More than 80 years after the funeral of a leading politician of the pre-independence era became the subject of Myanmar’s first foray into the world of the cinema, the country’s once illustrious film industry is dying a slow death of its own, say industry insiders.
Captured with a second-hand camera, the footage of the funeral of U Tun Shein, an early campaigner for Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule, set the stage for a proud cinematic tradition that survived both the political upheavals of the twenties and thirties and the devastation of World War II, but never quite recovered from the policies of the socialist era.
The golden age of Myanmar cinema lasted from the 1950s to the 1970s, when local filmmakers produced more than 80 movies a year. But as poverty and political repression deepened in the decades that followed, the number of films that were made declined steadily. Today, despite some improvement in the political and economic climate, the country produces barely a dozen films each year.
Meanwhile, movie theaters are disappearing fast. Many once-famous cinemas in Yangon are now construction sites, while elsewhere in the country, would-be moviegoers have long since lost the venues that in the past offered them an escape from their everyday lives.
“According to our data, there are only around 20 cinemas left in the country,” said U Lu Min, the chairman of the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization (MMPO). “In my hometown of Aungban, in southern Shan State, there is no cinema now.”
Until the 1980s, there were hundreds of movie theaters in Myanmar. But the nationalization in the mid-1960s of all forms of media, including movie production, eventually began to take its toll on the country’s filmmakers, who were increasingly pressed into service as propagandists. Like the movie houses that screened them, movies had become state property.
Although Myanmar officially abandoned socialism in 1988, the military regime that seized power that year continued to exercise strict control over the media and retained ownership of state properties such as movie theaters. Before it handed over power to the current quasi-civilian government in 2011, it sold off some of this property to cronies, but even now, most of the remaining movie theaters are publicly owned.
A New Lease on Life
As the owner of most of the country’s cinemas, the government has until recently shown little interest in making them more attractive to investors.
“For the past 10 years, the government limited leases on cinemas to one year,” said U Lu Min. “But that wasn’t long enough for businessmen to recover their initial investment, so now it has been extended to five years.”
But while this move has helped the established theater operators—notably the Mingalar Group, which runs three of the most famous cinemas in Yangon, the Thamada, Mingalar and Thwin—it has so far not brought in any new investment.
Meanwhile, as technology changes, the cost of transforming one of Yangon’s old-school cinemas into a modern movie theater has become prohibitively expensive. According to U Lu Min, who says the MMPO and the government have both urged cinema operators to switch from analogue to digital projection systems, bringing in new equipment would cost at least 300 million kyats (US$300,000).
“When cinema operators do a cost-benefit analysis, they just decide it’s not worth it. That’s why most are shutting down,” said U Lu Min. “In Southeast Asia, Myanmar now has fewer movie theaters than any other country. Thailand alone has more than 800.”
This dearth of theaters means that new films now have to wait at least a year before being screened, dampening filmmakers’ enthusiasm for taking on new projects.
“On average, it costs about 100 million kyats [US$100,000] to make a movie here, or double that if we shoot on location overseas. But with audiences shrinking the way they are, we can barely break even, much less make a profit,” said film producer Daw Aye Aye Win, whose Lucky Seven Film and Video Production Company accounts for nearly half of Myanmar’s current cinematic output.
“As a rule, movies are screened for just three weeks here. How can we recover our investment in such a short time? This is why so few movies are being made these days,” she added.
“If the film doesn’t attract big audiences, it may not even get three weeks—it could be dropped and replaced with a foreign film.”
Just Not Funny
Ironically, the production companies’ efforts to hold onto audiences may only be making matters worse. Critics say that by relying too heavily on tried-and-true formulas and popular genres such as comedies—which account for two-thirds of the movies now made in Myanmar—the local industry has lost much of its appeal.
“It’s no mystery why this industry is declining. People are just not that interested in comedies these days. The stories are almost all the same, the acting is bad and production values are really poor,” said Daw Ei Phyu Aung, the chief editor of the entertainment journal Sunday.
Foreign films offer much better value for money, she added.
“If you want to go see a movie these days, it will cost you about 10,000 kyats per person by the time you pay for a ticket, transportation and snacks. For that kind of money, most people would rather watch a Korean film.”
Even U Lu Min conceded that quality is an issue that needs to be addressed if the Myanmar film industry is to turn itself around.
“I agree that the quality of Myanmar films is falling,” he said. “There are many reasons for this, including the lack of cinemas, producers cutting costs, people having other options for entertainment. Poor film quality isn’t the only reason the industry is in decline.”
Despite the steady pressure on the film industry, however, U Lu Min said he expects this year and next to buck the trend toward fewer movies (only 15 were produced in 2013, down from 17 the year before).
Although he was not specific about what he based his confidence on, he did offer one source of hope: “I want our president to promote our industry as Obama has supported Hollywood.”
This article first appeared in the June 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.