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Myanmar's Rat-Invested Cinemas Seek
Subject: Myanmar's Rat-Invested Cinemas Seek Salvation in Private Hands
Myanmar's Rat-Invested Cinemas Seek Salvation in Private Hands
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- A night at the movies in Myanmar isn't exactly
Rats and roaches compete for bits of food under the wooden seats, scuttling
over the sandaled feet of moviegoers too intent on making out blurry images on
the screen to pay them much mind.
The smell of urine from the lavatories wafts into the theater, but none of
overhead fans that could clear the hot, sticky air work _ or if they do,
they're shut off to save money.
Viewers crunching potato chips and sunflower seeds, who would be merely
annoying in a better cinema, make it impossible to understand the dialogue
playing over the antique sound system.
The films? A typical one, a 7-year-old romance titled "Love in a New Style,"
with local stars Kyaw Thu and Soe Myat Thuzar, had a happy ending that almost
never arrived when the much-screened copy jammed three times in the
Cinemas in Myanmar, also known as Burma, were taken over by the military
government in 1968 and run under then-fashionable socialist policies by
Nowadays, the theaters that aren't in ruins are gross dumps. But a handful
been transferred into private hands and have renovated, giving crowds a good
show in clean, comfortable surroundings.
"No matter what, there's nothing like watching a good movie at a theater on a
big screen," said film buff Khin Marlar, 25, emerging from a rundown
the capital's outskirts. "But it will be good if more cinema halls are
transferred to entrepreneurs."
That's happening as the present military government, which has abandoned
socialism and gradually opened the economy over the past decade, tries to get
out of the movie business.
Authorities recently announced that 57 cinemas, mostly on the outskirts of
Yangon or in the provinces, would be opened to bidding by private
entrepreneurs, with opening bids sought between $6,000 and $28,000.
Three decades ago, Myanmar's 400 movie theaters were popular public places to
seek diversion. The better ones in Yangon were cooled by air-conditioning -- a
rarity in much of Southeast Asia at the time -- and well-maintained with
fashionable sofa settees.
Now, besides the ravages of nationalization, surviving cinemas suffer from
problems known to theaters everywhere -- competition from television, and the
popularity of videos.
Myanmar filmmakers used to produce around 80 movies a year. Now, they turn out
about a dozen. One problem is the shortage of foreign currency needed to
purchase expensive imported film stock.
The shortage of foreign exchange also makes it impossible for the
import foreign movies from the United States, Hong Kong and even India. Most
cinemas still in business are running at a loss, almost empty.
On the other hand, cinemas leased to private firms are thriving.
"Despite the popularity of videos, movies remain the best mode of
entertainment," declared Zaw Min, the head of Mingalar Co., currently
three cinemas in Yangon and two in Mandalay.
Before entering the business, Zaw Min visited cinemas in neighboring countries
to get a grasp of the modern entertainment business.
"The condition of the state-owned cinema halls was miserable," said Zaw Min,
sipping Chinese tea. "Hair-stuffed seats were irreparably damaged, projectors
were too old, paint was peeling off and the ceilings were riddled with termite
It took up to six months to renovate the old cinemas. He imported new
projectors from Hong Kong and Singapore, installed Dolby sound and modern
lighting, and set up a generator to help the show go on during frequent
municipal power cuts.
Now, he's got queues of customers stretching into the streets, though the
ticket prices -- equivalent to about 25 cents to 50 cents _ are much higher
than the 7 cents to 15 cents at the old cinemas.
Instead of low-budget local fare, they can see "Titanic" or James Bond
the latest Jackie Chan offering.
"Local movies with popular actors and actresses are still a big market," Zaw
Min said. "People of different age groups watch Myanmar films, while audiences
of Western films are mostly from the educated classes."
But Zaw Min is not showing much interest in the new privatization, which
focuses mostly on Yangon's outskirts.
Outside the capital, Zaw Min says, his prices are too high and cinemas just
can't compete with video parlors, where customers pay as little as 1.5 cents
for a spot on a bench to watch a video, often in someone's home.
Aung Min, a manual laborer who could expect to bring home 55 cents on a good
day, says there's no contest.
"I'd never go to a cinema," Aung Min said. "There's a video parlor right near
my home, and it's a lot better value."
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