By Tashi Dorji, Kuenselonline
The Bhutanese audio-visual industry has undergone a phenomenal growth in the past decade. It can be best gauged in the prolific releases of music albums and local films with each passing year. This year the film industry released 25 local productions, the highest so far.
It can also be seen in the investment in recording equipments, cameras and other gizmos that cost millions of ngultrums. And with money in the making, more and more people are entering the rapidly evolving industry.
Some people already in business contend that despite its growth it has not yet gained an industry status.
The fact is the audio-visual industry has changed many lives for both professionals in the business and numerous part-timers.
As of June this year, the trade and industry ministry had issued 115 audio-visual licenses out of which 96 were operational. The enactment of the Media Act this year also came as a silver lining for those in dilemma to enter the business as it created “an enabling environment,” said the chief industry officer of the ministry, Dhanraj Subba.
The motion picture association of Bhutan (MPAB) has 45 registered members today and “we are getting more applications,” said general secretary Kinley Dorji. While the association got about four to five applications in the past, this year it has already received an unprecedented 12 applications, indicating a boost in the eagerness to invest in the industry according to the general secretary.
The first Bhutanese movie to be made was “Gasa Lamai Singye” in 1989 when staged folklore dramas were popular. It sank without a trace. Till 2001, the industry witnessed a sluggish production rate with 11 more movies.
Soon after, the trend accelerated and by the end of last year Bhutan had produced about 60 movies. However, the maximum number of movies produced was this year with 25 movies already produced (three are under review), according to records maintained by MPAB. The first Bhutanese film festival was started in 2001.
The MPAB does not have records on audio production but with every movie having an audio version of its songs and with increasing number of other production, a similar trend is expected. “The industry has witnessed a phenomenal growth rate since 2000,” said Kinley Dorji. “The technology used in making movies is also becoming more advanced and the quality of movies has also improved,” said Wangchuk, who produced “Chorten Kora”.
Those in audio-visual business claim that their venture is not an industry today. “We are not recognised as an industry,” said Tshering Gyeltshen of Triple Gem Media and Infotainment.
“We are in the process of appraising the government for industry status,” said general secretary Kinley Dorji of MPAB. “We have created an emerging business platform but we don’t have an industry status.”
Government officials disagree.
“They have an industrial license and it means that they are seen as an industry,” said Dhanraj Subba. The Bhutan Infocom and media authority (BICMA) told Kuensel that the concern was never voiced out. “The issue has never come to us,” said Wangay Dorji. The debate over industry status, those in business believe, would enable them to avail certain additional perks from the government.
A paper presentation by Tshewang Dendup on the audio-visual industry said that “one of the immediate gains after obtaining industry status would be easier availability of financing and loans for productions”. The paper adds that in the past, Bhutanese producers sold their businesses and mortgaged their property to avail loans for the production of their films. Wangchuk who made “Chorten Kora,” which cost him Nu. 5.6 million, said that he had to mortgage his personal property to get a loan from Bhutan Development Finance Corporation Limited.
Today, Bhutanese filmmakers cannot avail loans from the financial institutions based on the strength of the movie nor can they keep their production equipment as security to get the loan.
Kinley Dorji said that getting an industry status would also enable them to get some tax holidays which some prioritised upcoming industries enjoy. Once it gains industry status Kinley Dorji said that MPAB would have a committee that would study the proposal of the movie, review the script and recommend the financial institutions to provide loans.
Today government support for the film industry is in the form of entertainment tax exemption, which means they don’t have to pay tax from the sale of tickets while screening movies.
Licensed audio-visual houses can also claim custom duties and sales tax exemptions while importing audio-visual equipment. The revenue and customs have a list of audio-visual equipments eligible for exemption. However, they have to pay the annual income taxes.
In the past movies were sponsored by the Dzongkha Development Authority on the grounds that films played a major role in the preservation and promotion of the national language, Dzongkha.
A Bhutanese movie today is made with an average budget of about Nu. 2.00 million, said Kinley Dorji. Each movie on an average employs about ten skilled technicians, double the number of unskilled manpower and about 15 actors. It takes an average of one to two months of actual shooting. Editing, recording and other final touches take a month more.
Going by averages, with 25 movies already made this year, about Nu. 50 million had already been pumped in by investors.
The film industry has also sparked a new trend lately. A lot of people who used to be part timers are resigning from their jobs and entering the business, said Kinley Dorji.
Inadequate expertise, lack of movie halls, limited market, lack of professionals in the field of animation and graphics and difficulty in financing are some of the concerns gripping the film industry.
Kencho Wangdi of Kilkhor production, who wrote the scripts and songs for “Kilkhor”, said that the lack of movie halls was one of the major deterrents in the movie business. With the only movie hall in the capital, Lugar theatre, booked in for several months in advance, he is releasing his new movie, “Nge Sem Nge Sem”, in Phuentsholing.
Kinley Dorji said that screening movies in the dzongkhags were a problem because they had to get permission from the dzongkhag authorities on top of a blanket permission from the National Film and TV Review Board, which should actually be enough. He added that in many places movies had to be screened in makeshift tents. “Thimphu can easily accommodate at least two more movie halls,” he said.
The lack of production equipment was one problem. Today, only about five film production houses had proper equipments.
In the audio sector, piracy was the main concern. A lot of pirated Bhutanese audio cassettes, CDs and DVDs have recently flooded the market, especially in the Indian border town of Jaigon.
“The Bhutanese films industry has only one way to go. It will grow,” said Kinley Dorji.
“Bhutanese movies have a lot of external market potential,” said Tshering Gyeltshen. Some Bhutanese documentaries have received international acclaim and “Chorten Kora” was a hit in Arunachal Pradesh, India.
However, some skepticism remains. “The domestic market is small, the number of movie makers are increasing and with the public demanding quality, the future is certain for us,” said Kencho Wangdi.
BICMA is planning to develop a “National ICT Development Fund,” which is expected to give financial and technical support to the audio-visual industry among others if the Fund comes through, said Wangay Dorji.