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CINEMA-JAMAICA: Gloomy Future for Jamaican Movies

Howard Campbell

KINGSTON, Mar 25 1997 (IPS) - Jamaica’s tiny film industry is being threatened with extinction through the lack of investors, fearful of putting their cash into local productions.

The failure of the last two locally-produced movies to win distribution outside Jamaica has scared off potential investors who are concerned that they may never recoup their money.

Not since 1971, when “The Harder They Come” won critical accaim, has any Jamaican film made an international impact. Others, such as Children Of Babylon, Countryman and more recently, Klash, have all failed to get off the ground.

“You take a big chance when you go into something like this today,” says Lucien Chen, a boxing promoter who funded the low budget Marijuana Affair in 1974. “You need big stars to help sell a film ,and we can’t afford that.”

Marijuana Affair, which starred Bahamian-born actor Calvin Lockhart, took a look at the drug scene in Jamaica during the 1970s. But the film was never picked by an overseas firm for distribution. “It’s growing dust somewhere in my office,” said Chen.

Although he lost heavily on his first film project, Chen joined group of local businessmen to fund the production of Klash, another low budget movie, two years ago. The result, so far, has been similar to Marijuana Affair.

“I hear Klash might be distributed by May,” said Chen. ” It is a better film than the Marijuana Affair; it had a better script, but still something was missing.”

Jamaica’s film industry has had a problem with funds, despite the success of The Harder They Come. Investors simply refuse to take the plunge in light of the poor track record of local films and they point to the fact that the applause for The harder they come did not translate into box office dollars.

Aaccording to Perry Henzell who wrote the movie’s original screenplay, it took him 15 years before he could repay the people who invested in the 12,500-dollar low budget film.

Fear by investors of not recouping their money has also been a major obstacle. They have never had any major selling points, like big name stars. Klash had an American actor Jasmine Guy (A Different World) and Giancarlo Esposito (Jungle Fever) but a worn-out plot and substandard acting has made it a hard sell.

“If this movie doesn’t click, it will be even harder to get funding,” Chen warned.

That’s bad news for writers like Trevor Rhone who has had to put projects on hold due to reluctant investors. Co-author of The Harder They Come and writer of the comedy Smile Orange, Rhone’s current work is limited to stage productions. “Why would someone invest in a movie when you can build some townhouses and make money off it?” Rhone has asked.

Lennie Little-White, who directed Children Of Babylon in 1979 has stayed away from big screen projects since. He believes that should the government be more lenient with private sector companies looking to get involved in films, it would be a step in the right direction. One big help would be tax incentives for movie investors, he said.

“They would receive a relief from taxation if the film makes a profit so the investor would get a total write-off of the money they put in,” said Little-White.

There is a hitch, however, because most movies – unless they are a mega hit – don’t see a profit for four or five years. That’s something, says Little-White, that Jamaicans have never understood about the film industry.

It’s not about overnight success. “Like books and records, it (the film industry) is intellectual property and most times you are not going to see the benefits immediately. It’s a long term thing,” Little-White explained.

But Jacqueline Neath, head of the film offices at Jamaica Promotions (Jampro), the government agency in charge of marketing Jamaica’s films, thinks that the local film industry’s best bet of succeeding at the moment lies in the area of location. “It’s the lifeline of the industry,” she said.

Because several of Jamaica’s movies in the 1970s and early 1980s had musical themes, overseas distributors were willing to take a chance on them. That’s not necessarily the case anymore.

“Reggae music was on the rise back then but it’s not a novelty anymore,” she said. “We are dealing with a completely different market now.”

But while she is an advocate for getting companies to film movies here, Neath admits that there are problems in that area as well. “The question of Jamaica being a safe place always comes up. There are projects coming in, but we have to be constantly reassuring people that Jamaica is a safe place to film.”

Little-White, producer of the popular television soap opera Royal Palm Estate, disagrees with Neath. He thinks that there is sufficient creativity here to put out quality films.

“There are still a lot of people in this country who believe we can’t build or conceptualise,” he charged, while taking a swipe at Jampro. “They have a cock-eyed position that is short-term,” he added. “They have always shown the local film industry scant regard.”

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