Storytelling has taken many forms in the world. One of the most successful and well-rounded form of storytelling is through motion pictures. The past 10 years in particular, have rung up some huge changes for television and film in Ethiopia, perhaps greater than in any other single decade. Globally, we have moved from the weekly watch to an all-night binge; as seen with the rise of Netflix from an online DVD rental service to the world’s biggest streaming and social media platform, finding our own little corner in the world to hang-out in, discuss the shows we loved, hated and obsessed over; while locally, our film industry has been growing in an assured but slow manner.
The Ethiopian film industry, although mostly guarded by a few select genres, has seen a rise in the past decade, with cinemas often selling out. The craft has seen somewhat a diverse bloom with some movies making it in the international arena. On the other hand, the industry has had obstacles in recent years, with movies being pirated before they get a viewing in cinemas, or the unprecedented global pandemic that has heavily decreased the number of movies being produced and released.
Halted by the global pandemic, the industry faced a major setback that threatened its trajectory. Luckily, channels like Kana, introduced the drama genre on a bigger scale, to a point where local dramas were being overlooked by the public. Taking inspiration from the eastern series that gained popularity on Kana, local filmmakers started to tackle heavy hitting stories formatted in a TV series, made to be viewed through television channels and streaming services like YouTube.
“Well before the pandemic, Kana movies heavily influenced the film industry, I could say about 80 percent of production was hit heavily by it. Only 6-8 well produced and well promoted movies made it in the industry. And then the pandemic hit, which was not at all good for the industry, and then Canal + and DSTV dramas started coming into the picture, which as you could imagine would have major effects on the industry,” said Wondemagegn Lemma, producer of a well-known satirical sitcom ‘9negnaw shi’, recalling the obstacles the film industry has faced in the past couple of years.
Although the closing of cinemas might have halted the film industry, it has instigated the TV series industry, with sitcoms and drama series gaining more viewership than ever before.
Wondemagegn recalled how hard it was to make the shift from movies to TV series and how in the end it all panned out for the better.
“The public’s reception is obviously better when doing a TV series, because films require the audience to make trips to the cinema, while TVs offer entertainment from the comfort of their homes. Even the time it offers to portray one’s message is different; films offer 90 minutes, while series offers multiple episodes through which one could convey an array of messages across and a weekly engagement with audiences is obviously better,” said Wondemagegn, reflecting on how hard the cinematic industry is and how filmmakers are resorting to cheaper and less hustle filled routes, such as selling their movies on streaming services.
The film industry might have been garnering popularity, but fans were noticing content recycling that seemed to have been using the same formula as the romantic comedy genre. Nonetheless, filmmakers kept on producing movies that felt washed and recycled, and the public still appreciated the contents including the under budgeted films released on YouTube sites like sodere.com.
“YouTube films might compromise on quality, whether it is the story or the production, but movies made for cinemas in general put a lot of effort, the equipment quality as well as the hours put into it is a lot. But some movies are made for YouTube consumption and then sold to cinemas, in those instances, the quality would most likely be compromised,” said Wondemagegn.
TV series offer something new. A commentary on current events, satirical takes on social norms, political views and the images of the perfect Ethiopian family. It gave the public more nuanced characters, which explored deeper topics that would get conversations going amongst viewers.
“The emergence of foreigner owned channels in Ethiopia might have had a significant effect, in that, filmmakers chose to debut their works on these channels rather than hustling away at cinemas. Sitcoms started gaining popularity, shows like 9negnaw shi and Menletazez showed that there were audiences for social and political satires. The sitcom frame started with Betoch, painting the picture-perfect Ethiopian family and Gorebetamachochu, portraying the hustles of being young. But, 9negnaw shi and Min litazez strayed from this formula to deliver a purely satirical content that helps reflect on the audience,” said Wondemagegn.
This unexpected shift is not just a local phenomenon, film industries all over the world have taken a big hit after the pandemic, with audiences choosing to stream movies from the comforts of their homes rather.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended the content pipeline, halting film production and shutting down cinemas. Normality like not to be returned very soon, though production has restarted in some countries including Ethiopia and the industry has adopted remote-work protocols where possible. But the virus creates uncertainty, and the biggest short-term risk seems to be consumers’ dwindling confidence in physical venues. The only times cinemas fill up is when there is a big budget superhero movie people have been following for years. The likelihood of audiences investing in a new story has dwindled over time.
Whether it is film or TVs, Ethiopian storytellers are mastering the art of reflecting the society through quality motion picture. The television era is well underway for the country with shows amassing a cult following upon their releases. The industry could only go up from here. “TV shows made for the new popular channels that require subscriptions is panning out to be more profitable for filmmakers, although sponsor-based shows have slow money, it still beats films where the threat of movies being stolen looms over every work,” concluded wondemagegn.