In the eight years that I have lived in Sri Lanka, I have enjoyed some brushes with the local movie industry, making two very brief appearances in films directed by Somaratne Dissanayake and produced by his wife Renuka Balasooriya. Soma and Renuka are real pros like the dozens of actors and technicians they employ, but it was always a struggle raising the finances for a new project.
As well as many local productions, Sri Lanka has provided the location for Hollywood blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Tarzan, The Ape Man and Bridge on the River Kwai. But as we all know the island has been through some extraordinary times in recent weeks. While the impact on local film and TV production isn’t high on the priority list amid a looming famine, Sri Lankan industry insiders say it will take years for the creative sector to recover from the current crisis.
“It’s impossible to even fathom a timeline for the country to return to normal — or the survival of the film and TV industry during that time. Economists predict it’ll be at least three to four years before the country can breathe easy. “It’s beyond anyone’s comprehension how much of the industry will survive until that moment”, explains Kalpana Ariyawansa, co-director of Dirty, Yellow, Darkness (2015). Inflation and the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee has increased production costs tenfold. Costs for catering, lodging and equipment rentals have risen massively from pre-pandemic days.
The nation isn’t new to crisis. During the civil war, the film industry declined as people stayed away from cinemas and television viewership rose. There was a recovery of sorts as the war drew to a close, with a new generation of filmmakers earning international acclaim. After the war, film production marginally improved with 30-40 films being produced annually, but with the twin blows of COVID-19 and the economic crisis, this has slowed to around 10.
“The industry was merely surviving: just hanging by a thread,” Vimukthi Jayasundara said in an interview with the ‘Hollywood Bible’, Variety. He is also concerned that the sector has suffered from insufficient investment into digital infrastructure.
“Although Sri Lanka has an open economy, our cinema is ‘closed’ due to outdated policies and lack of attractions for new investments: Sri Lanka has no special treaty or co-production agreements with any other countries,” adds Jayasundara.
Ariyawansa told Variety that Sri Lankan cinema has been on a steady decline for more than 20 years, and with an ever-shrinking number of cinemas, return on investment for big-budgeted movies is a long shot.
As a result, mini- and micro-budget films with no real production values have mushroomed and are released in their dozens, without making a significant run at the box office.
An honourable exception would be Dissanayake’s Tsunami which had a very big budget by Sri Lankan standards and boasted state of the art CGI and vast sets recreating the impact of the tsunami. There was a glittering premier at the swanky Galle Face mall in Colombo – but COVID struck and many Sri Lankan cinema lovers never got the chance to see it on the big screen – or my 10 second appearance as an international TV news reporter.
“Though the pandemic put a substantial dent to the industry, it’s fair to say it wasn’t beating expectations before,” says Ariyawansa.
Despite the problems of the local industry, high profile international productions have continued to use Sri Lanka as a location. Recent projects include Michael Winterbottom’s Greed, Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy, Tiger Aspect/ITV series The Good Karma Hospital and Indian drama 800, a biopic of Sri Lankan cricketer Muthiah Muralidaran. However, it’s unlikely that international productions will return soon and local productions are stalled as well.
While there was once hope for the industry emerging from the pandemic, the extent of the economic crisis is throwing doubt on a recovery anytime soon.
An all but absent cinema industry amid the backdrop of political and economic bankruptcy makes it “difficult to use the term ‘normal,’” says Jayasundara, “because we don’t know when things will return back to ‘normal’ anymore. At the moment, our ‘new normal’ is ‘uncertainty’ because at this juncture, no one is sure whether new investments are possible or not.”
By Michael Gregson