Why did all the old cinema houses die out?


The Ghana movie industry back in time boasted of cinemas as ways of recouping their money. Cinemas served that generation well because they were a source of entertainment. The movies are aired on weekends and weekdays and there were notices from GTV reminding viewers of the times they would be aired.  Ghana used to boast of many cinemas.

We had the likes of Rex Cinema (behind the Accra hockey pitch), Orion (Kwame Nkrumah Circle), Opera (Accra Central), Oxford (Accra New Town), Royal (Adabraka), Globe (also Adabraka), Roxy (Circle-Adabraka road), Orbit (Kaneshie), Casino (Tema), Vision 66, Regal (Osu-La road), Picorna, Plaza (Mamprobi), Palladium cinemas (Accra Central) and Sid Theatre (Dzorwulu).

In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the older folks I have spoken to during my research recounted the joy these cinemas brought to them.  Not only did the older folks get to watch movies, they also attended concerts and shows backed by live bands.  One elderly man describes those memories as “unforgettable.” He added that those days created a platform for husbands and wives to bond and have their special moments. Not only did the cinemas arouse passion among patrons, the movie producers also were rewarded for their efforts in production as they recouped the money invested.

What my two years’ research reveals
In my two years of research before writing on this topic, I found  that, in Accra, Roxy cinema and Sid Theatre  are the only ones in existence. As for Roxy cinema, part of it has been converted into a restaurant while the other part is being used as a cinema for football experience. Sid Theatre, privately owned by Alhaji Sidiku Buari, had collapsed. In its place is a plush building for rental as a cinema hall.

My research also revealed that not all the more than ten cinema houses that operated then in Ghana were owned by Ghanaians. A few were owned by a group of Lebanese business people called Captans. These Lebanese owned the Opera, Orbit, Oxford and Orion cinemas. 

Another elderly man recounts that the cinemas showed not only Ghanaian movies but foreign ones as well. He recounts that there were days the cinemas could get so full that people queued for tickets and waited for the next slot to also have their turn. He remembers watching movies like ‘Hercules Unchained,’ ’10 Commandments,’ ’10 Gladiators,’ cowboy films, Roman and Indian films.  It was a lot of fun, those days! he muses.

One Mr Lawrence Eshun recalled how film stars like Bruce Lee, Li Fu Tsu, Ma Feng, Swan Peng, Jackie Chan, Amitabh Bachchan, Sri Devi, Dharmendra, Sunil Patel, Anil Kapoor all from China, and how India became a household name thanks to the many cinema houses in the country at that time. “Those days, the only Ghanaian movies one could watch were ‘Road to Kukurantumi,’ ‘Love Brewed in African Pot,’ ‘Harvest at 17,’ ‘Genesis Chapter X’ and a few more. It was mostly Chinese and Indian movies, and they had good stories to tell, unlike today’s [films],” he added.

What happened to the cinemas?
While I was talking to some selected people who shared their cinema experiences with me, a part of me wanted to experience a bit of those days, so I set out to find out what had become of our cinemas. Four or five decades down the line, we as Ghanaians cannot even boast of these cinema halls. Many have pointed fingers at various governments in power; others attributed this state of affairs to our poor maintenance culture as a nation. The other category of people informed me that the cinemas were not generating enough revenue and had had to be sold off by government. How sad!

For instance, Alive Chapel used to occupy the Orion cinema till it moved out and, unfortunately, squatters took over. Orbit cinema is currently the home of Kaneshie market; Rex cinema is presently home to a chain of shops; Regal cinema on the Osu-La road was sometime ago  converted into a church but is now the  home of a trading enterprise owned by a company that deals in curtains. Churches springing up occupy some of them. That’s the end of the once- vibrant cinema experience.

Attempts at resuscitation
Mr Dodoo, once the caretaker of Regal cinema at Adabraka, tells me that he has made some effort towards technological advancement in the cinema arena, but his major problem has been low patronage.

‘The sound here has been upgraded with the help of my sons, but the problem is that the cinema is an open space and it is not convenient when it rains. Also, the seats are still wooden and most of them have been destroyed as a result of exposure to the sun and rains,’ he further explained.

‘Part of the once-vibrant cinema has been sold to be used as a restaurant. I have complained to the Ministry of Tourism and have written to them for assistance and the response I keep getting is that the cinema is not doing well enough to justify  pumping much money into it,’ he reiterated.

Mr Dodoo says he is doing his best. To make the place a little exciting, he rents it out for stage plays and comedies and charges as low as GHȼ1.00. He admits it is low, but is meant to attract many to enjoy the old cinema experience.

The 76-year-old man gladly agreed in my interview to take charge of the old facility because he was once a beneficiary of the old cinema experience and he felt sad that the cinema is not what it used to be. He called for private entities to come to the aid of the Regal cinema.

Lest we forget, the GAMA Films Theatre, another cinema operated by GAMA Films, was also vibrant till it collapsed. The reason? I can’t tell. It is refreshing to know that after a while, I saw adverts run on TV3 about GAMA Films Theatre bouncing back as the “new” executive theatre. The advert suggested that the new executive theatre was open to people who want to premier their movies.

I recall going for a movie premier there about a year ago. My remarks? For the fact that it cannot accommodate a large audience, it’s all right for a cinema. So at least we can be grateful for the new executive cinema in addition to Sid Theatre and Roxy cinema.

Technology sets in
My research also pointed to the fact that the sale of VHS, which hitherto was a prerogative of the rich, boomed in Ghana thanks to our Nigerian counterparts. Many Ghanaians at the time purchased video decks and colour television sets from their trips to Nigeria, all in a bid to enjoy the VHS experience. There was no real need anymore to patronize the cinema houses, with the introduction of the VHS and the video deck as one could watch whatever one desired to watch in the privacy of one’s own home.

So, in effect, technology brought advancement, but with a corresponding lapse in the cinema industry which at the time was still showing black and white movies. Movie producers began to cash in on the new venture; their Nigerians taught them… movies on VHS. First, it was one VHS cassette for a movie, then the Nigerians brought in the sequels, so we started having  Parts One, Two, Three and at times Four, all to make money or keep the viewer in suspense (I’m not too sure which of the reasons holds.)

Out of all these, compact discs or CD’s also came into play after our Hollywood stars and Nigerians had taught us the red carpet experience for a movie premier. To accomplish that, there was the need for a cinema that could accommodate that experience and that was the birth of Silverbird cinemas.

Silverbird cinemas became the craze as they were also located at the Accra Mall. Silverbird in Ghana partnered Silverbird in Nigeria so, obviously, movie premieres on red carpet were adopted.

For almost a year the Silverbird cinemas reigned supreme, especially when one had to premiere movies and have stars take pictures with their fans. As the Silverbird slogan says, it is indeed a whole new experience descended on Ghana.

The movie house experience
After being at the top for a while, movie houses were introduced to Ghana. As to who initiated the move I can’t tell because I am still trying to find out. To clarify this part I wish to explain what a cinema house is and what a movie house is (if there is a difference).

Oxford Learner’s Dictionary says a cinema is a theatre or a building where films are shown for public entertainment. Collins Dictionary defines it as a place where people go to watch movies for entertainment. Wikipedia defines a movie house as a movie theatre or venue, usually a building for viewing movies (films). Wikipedia elaborates that a movie house can  interchangeably be labeled as a cinema, movie house, film house, film theatre or picture house. So, in effect, both terms can be used interchangeably.

These movie houses do not give the red carpet experience that the cinemas provide, and neither the interaction with other movie watchers; all they give is privacy for the two to watch. Movie houses have now become the new craze and have provided jobs and many are cashing in. In my next piece, I will bring readers some “gory” as well as interesting stories of what these movie houses are offering that these cinema houses are probably not watching.

Recommendations
In a chitchat with some old folks, they expressed regrets at the turn of events in the movie industry, blaming past and present governments for the poor state of cinemas in the country. According to some of the older folks, government should do its best to open more cinema halls which can generate income for the country as well as provide employment for the youth.

They appealed to the current government to try and refurbish at least the Orion and Regal cinemas to serve as historical monuments for the country. “They could also be used as tourist attractions to preserve our culture,” remarked one elderly man. “Our grandchildren would also learn about how we the old folks led our lives,” another old lady remarked.

Whether we like it or not the old cinema houses will always be part of our history as Ghanaians. It is understandable that technology has come to stay, but should it wash away what we have? Can these cinema houses not be refurbished   with state-of-the-art technological gadgets to make movie viewing enjoyable?

In this age when many Ghanaians have become sports fanatics of the English Premier Leagues, Italian Serie A, Bundesliga, UEFA championship and Spanish La Liga, money could be generated from these cinemas, if they were vibrant. Technology is an added value, not a value for destroying what we have.

Refurbishing these old cinemas will see older folks in our society also having a recreational centre and giving them a sense of belonging as many of them seem not to be comfortable with our technological area, which is fast-paced.

Lastly, Ghanaians are known to have bad maintenance culture.  It is sad to see that we do not know how to preserve the valuable things we have in this country. We rather tend to destroy, instead of preserve. The irony is that many of us spend huge sums of money to travel to the Western countries just to admire their tourist sites. We are impressed when we visit their old cathedrals, old cinema houses and town halls. We even boast that we have visited such places.

Have we ever asked ourselves how the pyramids of Egypt came to be among the Seven Wonders of the ancient world?  Many travel to Egypt just to see the pyramids. The Egyptians preserved them to tell the history of their nation. I am not sounding pessimistic, but I sometimes wonder how the pyramids of Egypt would have been preserved if they were in Ghana!

In any case, the thrust of the matter is that, as citizens of Ghana, we owe it to ourselves and the generation yet unborn, to learn to preserve a little of our history. What do we stand to gain if we destroy it all now?

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