At Lagos retreat, video clubs get black spot

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PROCEEDINGS at Syndicate Four, one of the brain storming sessions at the just concluded Movie Industry Stakeholders Consultative Retreat, organised by the Ministry of Information and National Orientation recently, went on smoothly untill the matter of video rentals came up.

From there onwards, it took all the wits actor/producer Ralph Nwadike could garner to bring some degree of normalcy to the gathering of respected movie practitioners.

Honourable Barnabas Ejiefo, an official of the Video Club Owners Association, VCOAN, stirred the hornet's nest when he declared to the already charged room that "whether practitioners like it or not, video club rentals have come to stay. If we can't work out an arrangement that will see everybody working for the good of industry, then we (club operators) can't help it. If you stop us from operating in the day, then we will operate in the night," Ejiefo declared. He got applauded for his frankness. But then, the mortar fire started.

Marketer Aina Kushoro fired the first salvo. He blamed both the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB) and Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) for "giving legitimacy to video club operators, knowing full well that they pirate works of producers. Not only that, they are feeding fat from our works and nothing is being given as returns to us."

Ejiefo further annoyed the house by revealing that video club owners buy films on release at Idumota Market just like any other person and rent it. "We buy sometimes up to 10 copies each and I must tell you, we increase the sales of producers. In a country where films are produced everyday, people can't afford to buy at the rate the movies are coming out, so they rent. An average movie can't sell more than 10, 000 copies and we buy a large percentage of that figure. So, producers should recognise our role in the channel of distribution and accommodate us in the scheme of things. Producers and video club operators are not enemies, so there is no need to fight."

He debunked the claim that members of the association are involved in piracy activities. "No member of VCOAN is involved in duplicating the works of producers. We are a respectable association, abiding by the rule of law as stipulated by both the censors board and the NCC."

Ejiefo however blamed the two government parastatals for "registering everybody in the business of rentals. Every small kiosk is a rental shop now because the NCC and NFVCB have registered them. We as respectable members of the association can't do anything about it; we are powerless because we are told that we can't raid such outlets since government has registered them. We are not the problem but these small outfits that operate independently."

Actor and producer Francis Onwochei was so infuriated by Ejiefo's assertion that he suggested a mass action against the clubs in the event of government's refusal to ban them. "If I see my movie in their hands, I will get physical, that I assure you. We have worked for pirates all these years, it is time for a mass action."

He suggested a more punitive action against copyright infringers. If a pirate is caught and the punishment is a glass of cold water, he will keep on stealing." He canvassed a stiffer penalty for apprehended pirates.

Mr. Kushoro Aina, a film producer and marketer described the video club operators as the "real pirates. I started out as a video club operator before I branched out into film production and marketing. During my days as a video club operator, we used to go to producers and asked for their rights to hire out their films. Now, did you hear their member (Ejiefo) say that they buy films at Idumota

(a market where home videos are sold) That is criminal. You just make money from somebody's works... the government should do something about this menace."
Ejiefo in an interview with The Guardian during the short recess said VCOAN indeed made efforts to reach out to the producers, "but their demands were above what we could pay. Imagine one of them asking for N150, 000 (one hundred and fifty thousand naira) for the right to rent the film alone. He also wanted a part of what is realised from the actual renting. It is outrageous. That was how negotiations broke down between the two parties. When producers realise that video club operators are not their enemies, we would be ready and gladly too, to do business with them."

He called on government to properly organise the video club sub-sector if they have the interest of the industry at heart. "If not, nothing will stop us from operating as I said earlier on. We have come to stay as a member of the chain of distribution," he boasted.

Mrs Loretta Njoku, acting director general of the Nigerian Copyright Commission, said practitioners should not cry foul over the video club matter, as they are the "architect of their own misfortune."

She said producers' woes began when they seemingly rejected the commission's Video Club Rental Regulation, which according to her would have put in place a structure that will check the activities of the club operators. "We registered over 1, 000 video clubs and cleared 400. In the regulation, producers are expected to have rental jackets available, but up till now, no producer complied. We are the architects of our problem. If the video rental jackets come on board, some people will be left high and dry."

The rift between video club operators and producers dates back several years. The latter have constantly accused the operators of rental shops of piracy. An allegation, VCOAN has denied over time. Things came to a head last year when a body of producers called the Joint Action Committee on Film Control (JACOFIC) took it upon themselves to checkmate the perceived piracy activities of video clubs.

Raids were carried out regularly on outlets that failed to register with JACOFIC. Members of VCOAN were being locked up by the police at the instance of the body that is formed mainly by producers belonging to the Association of Theatre Arts Practitioners (ANTP).

The censors board waded in and put a stop to the activities of JACOFIC. And with this latest development, the end of the perennial rift between producers and video club owners seems not in sight.