The commercialization of scripts and lyrics is a recent and quickly growing trend in the Ethiopian entertainment industry. This booming frontier offers new and more lucrative opportunities for creative writers as well as a wider range of options for audiences, but it has some downsides, too.
Growing competition for audiences and better scripts, lyrics, or poems has driven market prices up; straining producers and industry financiers who say they are still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as disruptions due to security issues in various parts of the country.
Enterprising writers offer scripts for all types of video production – from YouTube videos and television to cinema and theater.
Short YouTube productions are often the domain of writers just starting out their careers, although a content creator can offer as much as 10,000 birr for a short script meant for videos running less than 10 minutes.
The prices quickly climb in proportion with the scale of production. A junior writer can get up to 20,000 birr for the script to a single episode of a television show, while the biggest names in the industry earn up to ten times that.
Film scripts sell for similar prices, with the average screenplay fetching around 100,000 birr although it can go much higher. Industry insiders say the prices for similar scripts was less than 30,000 birr five years ago.
Elias Fantahun owns and manages Eliana Film Production, a firm that has overseen the making of more than a dozen films for the big screen as well as theater productions such as Kemegarejaw Jerba.
The industry veteran observes the rising costs for scripts are heavily inflating production costs, but acknowledges that the growing costs are often justified by the quality of the scripts.
“Renowned writers use their name as a brand,” said Elias. “Their scripts drastically raise our production costs. But the movies also usually fetch good revenues.”
He relates that his production company routinely dedicates time and resources to redeveloping screenplays purchased from junior writers as a way to cut costs.
“We sometimes have to rewrite some of these scripts up to five times before we’re happy with the final product,” said Elias.
He recognizes that a good script is crucial to success, but laments the converging growing overhead costs in the industry.
Even well-established producers like Eliana, who have experience, equipment, and expertise, struggle to contain production costs. The firm spends around 700,000 birr on an average production, but industry entrants with less know-how in cost minimization often spend between one and two million birr on similar-scale projects.
“Producing a movie is very expensive and difficult nowadays,” says Elias.
The country’s recurrent security problems play a part in the problems facing the movie industry. Road closures and safety concerns have closed off audiences outside of Addis Ababa such as those in Bahir Dar or Mekele, according to industry insiders.
A smaller audience translates into lower revenues, pushing producers to screen their films as frequently as possible in the capital to make up for the losses. Alem Cinema on Africa Avenue (Bole Road) remains the center of the Ethiopian film scene, where moviegoers can often be seen queuing up for tickets.
The movie industry is under particular pressure as script writers prefer to write for television productions more and more, according to Elias.
“Television stations offer consistent business,” he said. “They also pay better.”
He disclosed that although advertising income has fallen, Eliana Film Production buys sitcom scripts at high prices to remain competitive.
“We buy these expensive scripts because the audience expects much from us,” said Elias.
Industry experts estimate total viewership in Ethiopia at around 40 million viewers. It is undoubtedly a lucrative market, which has only grown more lucrative in years. The COVID-19 pandemic birthed a new potential audience for television as people turned to at-home entertainment options during lockdown.
Television stations have responded by spending big to keep these audiences, sometimes shelling out close to half a million birr for the production of a single episode.
Among the biggest players in the Ethiopian subscription television market is the South African-based Multichoice and its DStv satellite television service. The company has been present in Ethiopia for more than two decades, but has enjoyed a boom in business in more recent years.
In 2021, DStv launched Abol – a channel dedicated wholly to Ethiopian content.
Ezana Woubishet is head of communications at Multichoice Ethiopia. He explains the satellite television provider secures the procurement of scripts for local productions using two distinct methods.
Under the “commissioning” model, Multichoice presents an idea for a script (which can be adopted from other sources, such as books) to a writer, who develops the script and hands it back over to the production company. This model grants full script proprietorship to Multichoice.
Under the licensing model, on the other hand, the writer generates, writes and presents the script to the production company. Upon approval, Multichoice enters into an agreement with the writer. The agreement is renewed every thirteen episodes, and often includes clauses that prohibit the publication of the production in question on social media platforms for the duration of the contract.
Crucially, Multichoice owns the right to the production during the contract period, but the ownership is transferred back to the writer at the end of the period.
Wondmagegn Lema is a renowned writer, director and producer of films and television shows. Productions on his portfolio include Zetenegnaw Shi and Sene Ena Segno, a television series.
He argues that scriptwriters are only now finally receiving adequate compensation for their hard work.
“They say the biggest writers sell scripts for up to 200,000 birr, and make it seem like it is a lot of money, but it isn’t,” said Wondmagegn. “It takes a lot of knowledge to write a film script. The writer invests a lot of time and energy.”
However, he laments what he sees as a lack of scriptwriters in Ethiopia.
“The new generation prefers film production to writing. There is no focus on content and books,” said Wondmagegn. “Ethiopia’s film industry is at a stage where it desperately needs more scripts to feed the growing market.”
He observes a lack of life experience and indifference to reading are negatively affecting the industry.
A shortage of seasoned writers is, however, far from the only problem.
Despite the recent transformation, experts continue to criticize the scriptwriting business for its lack of opportunities for emerging writers. Personal connections, critics say, influence most transactions involving scripts while the lack of a formal pricing system leaves writers to the whim of arbitrary payments lacking any sort of professional evaluation.
For film producers like Elias, the absence of copyright laws and their enforcement mean larger audiences online but no form of income from the viewership.
“Most people watch the movies on platforms that do not charge [prices],” said the producer. “This means the writers and producers do not get anything.”
Elias argues the only way forward for the Ethiopian film and entertainment industry would require professionals to work closely together to navigate these challenges.