By Namini Wijedasa
As film destinations go, Sri Lanka nearly has it all. From rolling hills to verdant rainforests, and sandy beaches to historical ruins, a range of locations accessible within hours of each other. The workforce is educated and genial, the costs are low. And Sri Lanka is today the most peaceful nation in the region.
But, despite several famous films having been shot here over the past few decades, the country has failed to garner the attention it merits from international moviemakers. Now, film production and distribution companies are calling for a coordinated effort to reverse this trend. That would require more than advertising. It would need a well thought out strategy supported by tax incentives for filmmakers.
The companies–there are several–promise it would be worthy investment. “Everybody knows about how beautiful Sri Lanka is,” said Chandran Rutnam, internationally renowned filmmaker and Chief Executive Officer of Film Location Services. “Now, we have to make Sri Lanka film-friendly.”
Like others in the industry, Mr. Rutnam called for rebates –a percentage refunded of the total amount spent on producing a film in the country. “My advice is to try and get concessions from the Government,” said the man who was involved in films such as ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ and ‘Indochine’. “How do we get them? I don’t know.”
Sri Lanka is beautiful. This is no longer enough. “The whole island is a film set,” said Sandya Salgado, Director and Business Strategist at Film Island, a new film production company. “But the world over, everyone is looking for incentives. We have no incentive packages, no proposition, other than saying ‘Come and shoot here’.”
Sri Lanka cannot compete if it does not get its act together. “We must have a sales pitch that is devised professionally, systematically and strategically,” Ms Salgado said. “Moreover, everybody must sing from the same hymn sheet.”
Most other destinations have film commissions. Sri Lanka does not. A film commission is defined as “a quasi-governmental, non-profit, public organization that attracts motion media production crews (including movies, television, and commercials) to shoot on location in their respective localities, and offer support so that productions can accomplish their work smoothly”.
Of late, Sri Lanka Tourism (SLT) has been trying to help. In May, it rented a pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival in France and invited film production companies to participate. They did so, at their own cost.
The country has not capitalised on opportunities arising from the making of vastly successful international productions here, admitted Paddy Withana, SLT Chairman. These include ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, which won seven Oscars in 1958. There was a lack of understanding and knowledge about the benefits of film-induced tourism. His organisation could play the role of facilitator, helping with transport, accommodation and air fare.
But the main concern of production houses remained the absence of a film commission to represent the industry robustly, Mr. Withana said. “The conditions are conducive now,” he reflected. “Things will get better. There are some films being done and we must encourage more people to come.”
One of the local production companies currently handling a foreign shoot in the South of Sri Lanka—a reality show—is The Film Team of which Gopi Dharmaratnam is Marketing Director. He bemoaned the absence of a one-stop facility to handle everything related to moviemaking.
“After we have carefully read a script ourselves to ensure it conforms to our social, cultural and religious values, we put it to the Film Corporation which issues a letter,” he said. “With that letter, we must go to every authority and Government institution ourselves to get approvals.”
The Corporation charges a fee of Rs. 75,000 and also assigns an officer to stay with the film production team till the end of a shoot. But this officer is not even empowered to tackle approvals at local level. A coordinating body was a dire need, Mr. Dharmaratnam said.
American filmmakers would come to Sri Lanka “without batting an eyelid” if the country just had a film commission. It was a good time to push ahead. With the dawn of peace, even insurance premiums that were exorbitant during the war have dropped significantly. There was the potential to attract Indian moviemakers to Sri Lanka. The Film Team handled the productions of such films as ‘Bombay Velvet’ (for which a sprawling set was erected in Tissamaharama) and ‘Midnight’s Children’.
Ms Salgado stressed the importance of injecting new blood into the industry. And the best way to have these entrants trained is to expose them to a foreign production. For instance, the Film Team has negotiated with the French company filming its reality show in the South to hire ten Sri Lankan interns. Such exposure is unmatchable.
“We have to develop a full crop of different service providers in art, construction, design, makeup, production and so on,” said Ms Salgado. “The host country must have teams of people ready to hire out. This is a fantastic way to develop the country from a financial as well as a qualitative perspective.”
It might take time, but Sri Lanka must start somewhere. Put in place the right systems and processes, the companies urge, introduce training courses. The private sector has an opportunity to participate. A one-stop-shop was vital. “We often go from pillar to post to get approvals,” Ms. Salgado sighed.
Ms Salgado also visited the Cannes Film Festival with a team from Film Island. More than 150 people visited the Sri Lankan stall, she said. Crucially, it was a collaborative effort between SLT, the Sri Lankan Embassy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the private sector. “The interest now must be pursued,” she said. “Somebody needs to take the baton and run.”
The industry requires an association to speak in one voice. That is being considered but there has been little movement. And apart from SLT, the Government has also done nothing substantive to help the cause of production companies.
Yet, against the odds, most production companies in Sri Lanka are currently doing work. “That doesn’t mean you can sit back and relax,” Ms Salgado warned. “We have to be forward thinking. We have a good thing going. How can we make it better?”
Simple things can help. The Film Team built Bombay in Sri Lanka to shoot ‘Bombay Velvet’. Nobody went to India and highlighted the fact that the box office hit was filmed in the neighboring island; and that others should try it too. The Government must consider this industry to be a revenue earner and recognize it at policy level.
And once films are shot and done with, the sets of the more famous productions could be promoted as tourist destinations. A classic example of how this can be done is seen in New Zealand, a country that now generates hefty incomes from offering tours of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ set near Matamata in the North Island