Though I only recently became aware of the fact that Burkina Faso is a hotbed of film production, I was completely unsurprised to learn that the nation’s movie industry is deeply troubled. The primary culprit, as you might surmise, is piracy; as cinemas have vanished with the proliferation of affordable DVD players, the markets in Ouagadougou have become flooded with $1-per-disc knock-offs of the latest domestic releases. Burkina Faso’s government lacks the resources to enforce copyright laws on a wide scale, and so pirates risk relatively little by peddling illegal copies of movies.
Yet the situation may not be as hopeless as it seems. During the Burkina Faso’s latest film festival, a Nigerian journalist visited a pirate’s shop in Ouagadougou. She came away from the experience thinking that if the film industry is willing to be pliable on price, the pirates might well prefer to go legit than continue to exist in the shadows:
The video seller explained to me how his business worked. He would prefer to sell legal copies of the films, he claimed, but he didn’t know how to get them. When he went to Lagos, he would go to the market and buy films from the marketers. He didn’t know how to contact the producers personally. He had one legal copy of a Ghanaian film that the filmmaker had brought personally to Ouagadougou, which sold for three times as much as a pirated film. He went to Lome to buy pirated films brought from China, and if there was a video, such as a recording from a television programme, that he wanted more copies of to sell, he would take it to Lome. From there it would be taken to Lagos and reproduced there…
Pirates seem to be reaching much wider markets than the current legal distribution networks have been able to reach. If there were some way for producers or legal marketers to partner with the pirates and turn their business legal, they would instantly reach a far wider audience than they currently have access to. Burkina Faso’s model of the holographic seal (which the National Film and Video Censor’s Board in Nigeria is also trying to implement) is one way to go. On the one hand, this seems positive, that the artists are actually seeing the profits and not struggling with pirates. On the other hand, I wonder if the lack of piracy limits the proliferation of their product to other markets in Africa, and if the dramatically different price between the legal and the pirated materials discourages people from purchasing legal copies.
The pricing issue is key. We assume that over time, the market will set the appropriate prices for goods. But what if that time horizon is so great that an industry collapses before the market can determine the right level? This is something I worry about right now in my own field; apologies to whoever determines such matters, but there is no way the Kindle version of Now the Hell Will Start should cost $13.
I’m not totally convinced that every film pirate in Burkina Faso would come in from the cold if offered legal copies of movies at cut rates, but it’s worth a shot. Everyone seems to know where the pirates operate, after all; it’s just a matter of the film industry swallowing some pride and admitting that the present course is untenable. If it does so, then today’s pirates might become tomorrow’s ordinary salesmen.