East Africa film sector is small and underdeveloped compared to Africa’s highly successful Nollywood which currently ranks third behind Hollywood in Unites States and Bollywood in India.Perhaps the Chinese popularity will soon displace Bollywood and Nollywood.Just like in Western countries, pirated copies of all feature films that were released this years are online. Many are in high resolution, often sourced from screeners with copies being send out to reviewers or award judges for events like Kenya Film Awards, Uganda Film Awards or Tanzania’s Bongowood awards. Observers found a 346 percent surge in piracy across East Africa after films are nominated for awards. In three out of the past five years, 78 percent or more of regions’s nominated movies leaked online.With leaks rampant during awards season, it is worth exploring how films are pirated, and whether illegally downloaded films may serve as free advertising for studios and distributors.Piracy trackers estimates that “Bongowood screeners accounted for 47 percent of the illegal downloads tracked” in first half of 2016. Nine movies nominated for 2016 awards were circulated online before becoming available for retail purchase.These groups who release this films online offer peer to peer downloads or streaming, funded by ads or one off subscriptions. In Kenya, the film industry known as Riverwood ranks second in the region behind Tanzania’s Bongowood, leaked films often first appear on invitation-only sites before spreading to public venues where anyone can access them.For the 2016 Riverwood awards, voting members received DVDs and half of them reportedly got stolen, another 13 nominated films were distributed as “cam” copies, and only three weren’t leaked.
In Nigeria, forty five films even leaked before they opened in theaters. Half of all Nollywood nominated movies leaked from screeners well before Nollywood night, and 18 were online before opening in theaters. To combat piracy, screeners usually have forensic watermarks, an invisible stamp in every frame. Industry lawyers send out demands that leaked films be taken off infringing websites and omitted from Internet search results.Still, East Africa film industry seems somewhat complicit in the practice.The incidents that have happened this years prompted the major studios to announce they would stop sending out movies to juries and reviewers. But the experiment will be short-lived. In an effort to maintain good relations with critics and awards voters, there is no option for the industry but to return to distributing screeners.The industry wants to control distribution, but too often, their penchant for promotion enables piracy. While leaks can be from manufacturing plants, distribution chains or just a camcorder smuggled into a theater, poorer quality makes these copies less desirable, the most reliable source continues to be the film industry PR machine itself. And aside from review copies or award show screeners, an increasing shift to online distribution means an increasing supply of possible sources for piracy.Furthermore, a movie leak does not necessarily impact the bottom line.In fact, leaks may act as a source of publicity.In my view, a leak predating a theatrical opening generates free PR that might increase the theatrical audience and that people who downloaded it would also be eager to see it in the quality envisioned.No doubt the costly marketing, advertising and promotion campaigns for big-budget films are far more sophisticated than a simple leak that generates attention. Nonetheless, considering the crucial role PR screeners play in promoting East Africa films, the industry might see piracy as a cost of doing business, if neither the number of movies made nor their profits are dented by piracy whether in Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania, the leader in the industry.