A Sad Cinema Scenario
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019


A Sad Cinema Scenario

By Yeni AUGUST, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.8


Burma’s movie industry is in decline while an illegal video business booms

In the heyday of Burma’s film industry about 80 movies were produced annually, enjoyed a golden heyday, some of them jointly with foreign production companies. But that was 50 years ago. Today, the industry is in the doldrums, with very few films making any money, cinemas struggling to survive and artistic standards at an all-time low.

How did this sad state of affairs come about? It’s a question that occupies movie-goers and makers alike. Even the regime’s information minister, Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, lamented at last year’s “Myanmar Movie Day” that Burmese films had yet to meet a “certain standard.”

Most agree that the troubles plaguing Burma’s film industry can be traced back to the nationalization in the mid-1960s of all forms of media, including movie production, and their subsequent manipulation for propaganda purposes. Even cinemas came under state control.

A new state-run authority, the Motion Picture Corporation—later changed to the Motion Picture Enterprise—assumed oversight of all stages of movie production, from the import of celluloid film to the distribution and screening of the final product.

Financing, however, was another matter. Producers received no state support and were expected to raise the necessary budgets themselves. The state taxed gross proceeds at 20 percent.

Nothing has changed over the years. If anything, government control of the industry has tightened. The amount of red tape has increased, and censorship remains a major obstacle. Not o­nly the theme and story line of a proposed film have to be approved, but a close watch is kept o­n producers, directors and actors to make sure they stick to government regulations.

Stiff penalties await those who step out of line. Former students who took part in the 1988 uprising are the target of close scrutiny, and several prominent producers and directors—including Maung Moe Thu, Tin Soe, Aung Lwin and Zarganar—were convicted by a military tribunal o­n charges relating to their support of the pro-democracy movement.

Veteran actors recall with nostalgia the golden years when films were plotted and produced with meticulous care and with adequate budgets, shooting schedules and proper contracts.

A typical film today is completed in around 20 days at a cost of 60 million-100 million kyat (about US $45,000-75,000). “Unlike their predecessors, today’s actors, directors, script writers and producers are not taking their professionalism seriously,” lamented Maung Moe Thu, the well-known editor, writer and director.

Even when a movie makes it to the screen it still faces a fight to fill cinema seats. Cinemas are often ramshackle flea-pits, where rats run wild. A cinemagoer wrote last year in the Rangoon weekly journal The Voice that “rats would run over the feet of the audience and some people even lost their shoes to the rats.”

Small wonder, then, that a steep decline in cinema attendance has been accompanied by a boom in the production and sale of black market videos. The trend, which extends back to the 1980s, has brought cinema deep into rural areas where public screenings were previously a rare occurrence.

Videos have actually now surpassed movies “in terms of scope and size as the major form of public and private entertainment,” according to veteran Burmese researcher Tin Maung Maung Than. In an article, “Myanmar Media: Meeting Market Challenges in the Shadow of the State,” he attributed the success of the video industry to its lower costs, shorter production period, simpler technology and higher rate of return.

Another, economic factor accounts for the boom in CD and DVD production and sales. It’s simply cheaper to play a video at home than buy a cinema ticket—Mite Tee, o­ne of Burma’s most popular film directors, told the Rangoon journal Weekly Eleven that even people in the movie industry couldn’t afford to go to the cinema regularly.

By the year 2000 music and karaoke CDs and MTV-like videos had virtually taken over the entertainment scene, and the arrival of DVDs with the introduction in 2003 of new digital technology took an even tighter hold o­n public taste. Increasing numbers of viewers slipped a CD or DVD in the machine rather than watch government-sanctioned “entertainment.”

Yet the new industry couldn’t escape the same censorship restrictions that governed movie producers. All aspects of the video business, including filming, copying, distributing and hiring are subject to the provisions of a 1985 Video Law.

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