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Treat film-making as business

Filmologist Amarnath Jayatilaka is someone who calls a spade a spade. Having spent more than three decades to promote the local cinema, he takes a look back on the deteriorating facilities at film exhibiting centres around the country.



Amarnath Jayatilaka: Vision for the future.

The cinema has become a thriving business all over the world except in Sri Lanka. The development of cinema has been stalled by economic, political and other factors. Around the world 65-70 countries have their own national cinema. The largest number of English films is made in England. While the United States of America produces about 500 films, India produces about 700 films annually. All these films are made for the theatrical presentation", said Amarnath Jayatilaka in an interview with the Daily News Artscope.

He is now in the process of making his dream-film Prempooja - a musical love story between a Sri Lankan youth and an Indian girl following a dancing course at Shanthinikethan in India. It will have six songs and dances depicting the Indo-Lanka cultural ties. This film is to be shot in cinemascope with stereophonic sound. Bhadraji Mahinda Jayatilake's script is based on Amarnath's story and concept. His latest film Bheeshanaye Athuru Kathawak (A drop in the reign of terror) will be screened in the NFC/MPI combined film circuit shortly.

He sees a great connection between the film theatre and exhibition centres spread throughout the country. In order to attract the filmgoer to the cinema, film exhibiting cenres have to be upgraded. He says that those who come to the cinema hall expect comfortable seats, clean toilets and snack bars. Meanwhile, projectors and sound equipment have to be upgraded to compete with television.

In order to resurrect the local cinema industry, Amarnath believes that all films should be presented on the wide screen or the cinemascope format with stereophonic sound mode. Many improvements have been made with ultra stereo, dolby, digital, Sony Dynamic Digital Sound and Lucas Film THX. These allow the viewer to hear surround sound heard in nature. For instance, we hear different sounds from different directions. That means we are surrounded by sounds. According to Amarnath cinema has tried to introduce surround sound imitating nature. When there is surround sound, the viewer becomes a part of the action unfolding on the screen. "This is how cinema exhibitors attract filmgoers in many parts of the world", he said.

The veteran film director says the main challenge to the cinema is coming from television. The expansion of the home video system adopting VHS, VCD and DVD forms poses another threat. The local film exhibitors have not given much thought to the availability of home video systems in which DVD films can be projected on to a wide screen. Sometimes, this is done with surround sound system. Even in Sri Lanka these facilities are available to those who can afford the high cost of equipment and installation. On the other hand, satellite disc antennae provide an easy access to see films made in any part of the world.

System

Amarnath sees there is something radically wrong with the system. As far as the film industry is concerned, Sri Lanka had an old-fashioned and corrupt system. Up to now nobody wanted to develop the cinema. However, when the death knell of the local cinema was sounded, the state monopoly on the film distribution was removed. Today the National Film Corporation has to compete with many private sector organizations such as Cine Entertainment Ltd., EAP Films and Theatres Limited, MPI and Lanka Film Distributors.

He is quite happy to note the agreement between the National Film Corporation and the MPI to release films jointly. Amarnath views it as a favourable arrangement that could be expanded to other areas as well. He says that only such a course of action could save the local cinema industry.

Paying a glowing tribute to EAP Films and Theatres Limited for its massive expenditure incurred in modernizing the film exhibition centres, Amarnath hailed Savoy cinema in Wellawatte as the most up-to-date hall in the country. He said the EAP Films and Theatres had taken steps to modernize 15 other cinema halls. Meanwhile, the company keeps on producing Sinhala films and looks forward to attract more filmgoers to the theatre. On more than one occasion, Amarnath has castigated the National Film Corporation for not looking after the film industry for the past 30 years.

The film exhibiting centres deteriorated to such a low level that even the buildings were not whitewashed for ages. As a result the average filmgoer distanced himself from the cinema hall and became a television addict.

The non-availability of the wide screen format and the stereophonic sound system in many cinema halls had a debilitating effect on the cinema industry. Today, however at least six exhibiting centres are equipped with modern facilities.

Commenting on the multiplex cinema opened in Colombo recently Amarnath said it was another significant event in the local film industry. He laments however it was rather belated because it should have been done more than 25 years ago. Referring to the situation in the west, he said Belgium has a multiplex cinema with facilities to screen 30 films simultaneously. A similar multiplex is available in Burmingham. These multiplexes have snack bars, restaurants, children's play areas and shopping malls to attract the whole family. He is hopeful that more multiplex cinemas will come up in Sri Lanka. In fact, a multiplex cinema is being built at the Millennium City in Athurugiriya. He insists that this trend will have to go on if we are to sustain the cinema as a business. Production of films is another aspect we have to look into, Amarnath says. Due to the government monopoly no long-term plans were formulated in the past. "Although the NFC had a research division, I'm not aware of any work done there", he muses. "Apart from that, we are still using outdated equipment. We don't have a full-fledged film studio. Before the NFC was set up, we had five studios turning out Sinhala films regularly. However, three of them were closed down and the remaining two studios were burnt down during the 1983 riots.

Monopoly 

Cinema can flourish only if we can cater to the family audience. If we continue to exhibit "Adults Only" films, we will be shutting down the cinema for children. We must produce films for the whole family if we are to survive as an industry. Except the EAP group nobody else has given sufficient thought to this area.

Video parlours and the burgeoning video industry have posed another challenge to the local film industry.

Video cassettes and video compact discs are readily available even on the pavement. There seems to be no censorship over them.

As a result X-rated video cassettes and VCDs have flooded the market almost throttling the cinema industry.

The decision of exhibitors to raise the admission fees has further reduced the number of filmgoers. With most cinemas abolishing the gallery and the second class, the working class has been badly hit. If you look at it realistically, who can afford to pay Rs. 150 - Rs. 165 to see a film? On the other hand, the decision to do away with the gallery and the second class had dealt a severe blow to the cinema industry in Sri Lanka.

In the West the biggest box office hits are universal or family films. Titanic, Chicago and Harry Potter were the highest grossing family films in recent times. This does not however, mean we should make only family films.

In the developed West, they make four types of films: Universal or the U certificate films are for the whole family. PG 13 films are for children with parental guidance. The restricted or the R certificate films are for adults over 18. The X certificate films are for Adults Only. The Indian Board of Film Classification does this classification. In Britain the British Board of Film Classification handles this. In Sri Lanka this responsibility lies with the Public Performance Board.

The unrestricted inflow of VHSs and VCDs has led to a sharp increase in crime. Some of these videos show how to rob banks and become rich overnight. Promiscuous sex and blood-curdling violence are the recurring themes in them. When the younger generation is exposed to these videos, we cannot expect them to be good citizens in the future, Amarnath says.

As far as the Sinhala cinema is concerned, the private sector should formulate a plan to resurrect the industry. Most of the recent Sinhala films turned out to be flops because of their oft-repeated crude jokes and humour. It is time that film makers realized that they have a powerful rival in the teledrama sector.

Tragic

Viewers flock to watch teledramas as they can be viewed in the comfort of their homes. It is tragic that some Sinhala filmmakers try to copy these teledramas and their style.

Naturally filmgoers do not come to see them. We have to make films with the wide screen and stereophonic sound in view. In other words, the story of a film should be something that cannot be shown effectively on television. For instance, the blockbuster Devdas is a beautiful musical film that can only be enjoyed in a modern cinema hall. Some Sinhala film directors have tried to entice filmgoers by producing the so-called art films. However, art films have been failures at the box office. Modern-day filmgoers are not prepared to go into a cinema hall and see the misery of the real world depicted on a reel. People go to a cinema mainly for entertainment. This is the secret of success in Hindi films flooding the market.

This does not mean we have to copy the Hindi film formula. Local film producers should be a little more innovative to give the filmgoer something new without copying Hindi or Tamil films.

In the 1960s film critics condemned entertainment films as "escapist". However, after four decades, the wheel has turned full circle.

Amarnath cautions that art films should be made to a selective audience. Similarly, entertainment films should be made for the whole family. Meanwhile, whether you produce an art film or an entertainment film, the production cost is almost the same. "The local film industry should be considered as an untapped economic resource. If we can produce films for the international market, it will earn the much-needed foreign exchange", he said.

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