Is Silverbird’s demise the end of cinema in Kenya?

I am what you would call a movie buff, meaning, I take my movie watching quite seriously. I am the kind who does the whole hog – the popcorn, the large soda, a nice pre-booked and central location in the cinema to watch – I take movie watching seriously. Its been good in Kenya to be a movie buff for the last decade or so when we first started getting releases coming a few years and then a few months after prime time in other global markets. In the last few years, we have become accustomed to getting movies at the same time they are released in London, New York or Tokyo. In addition, the deluge of cinema halls that opened up over the last decade in Kenya, and especially in Nairobi, have made me and lots of other folks a spoilt lot – we took it for granted. Until now that is.

This week saw the Silverbird Cinema chain in Kenya come to grinding halt. This was covered today in two of the major dailies and over 100 employees are now unpaid and unemployed. The signs were pretty obvious as far back as April 2011 when they stopped bringing in new movies for sometime whilst the competing Fox Cinema chain continued to do so. I will not forget going to the Westgate Mall in Westlands and finding the whole massive Silverbird facility completely shut down last month. Yes, the writing has been on the wall. Silverbird was going down. The really sad thing though is that I believe that most Kenyans (who can afford it?) would rather spend a decent amount of money watching a movie at a good cinema rather than the Kes. 50.00 pirated (and low quality) DVDs that are now available on every street corner in Kenya.

It seems that no one really knows what happened to Silverbird Cinemas in Kenya but the news reports today seem to imply that there was a funding crisis and possibly mismanagement? Their facilities were without a doubt world-class and everyone can attest to the fact it seemed like they were onto a good thing. I have no doubt in my mind that someone, or, some business is going to pick up the pieces, either wholly or partially and revive it. Movie buffs like me will gladly pay the premium and still go to the movies to watch that next big blockbuster, on time, on quality, in wide-screen 2D or 3D. Meanwhile, we will need to contend with fewer cinema screens for the time being, and even fewer movie choices as a result. I certainly hope its not the beginning of the end of cinema in Kenya but it may well be just that.

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  1. Ngach
    June 10, 2011 at 11:42 am — Reply

    I think it all went downhill after Numetro sold to silverbird.. someone better buy them out fast, we need those big screens! On a lighter note… found out about this on http://www.cinemas.co.ke – cracked me up!

  2. June 10, 2011 at 11:49 am — Reply

    Just seen another post at http://kenyanpoet.blogspot.com/2011/06/death-of-cinema-in-kenya-signs-were.html on the same issue. In Tanzania, the movie theatre at Mlimani City Mall gets overflown with even people sitting on the ground. As for Kenya, I think that most people are an emerging middle class, people whose parents could not afford such , but they themselves can.
    They have grown up pirating movies, when they get to the point they can afford, they find theatres charging over Ksh 300 for a seat at a 2 hour movie. They believe they are been overcharged and have options, as you all point out.

  3. supremegream
    June 10, 2011 at 11:51 am — Reply

    I saw this coming some two years ago or so. I remember watching Jackie Chan and Jet Li movie at Prestige Plaza and there were only 3 of us in a 600 seater theater. They were too comfortable with such an audience paying 500 for a ticket without confectioneries, than an one that would pay half that amount for a full house.

  4. June 10, 2011 at 11:53 am — Reply

    I wonder what could have happened. Silverbird Cinemas is still waxing strong in Nigeria and Ghana. I wonder what could have happened in Kenya

  5. Stuna
    June 10, 2011 at 12:09 pm — Reply


    From another movie buff: I gather that there was a dispute between the Kenyan minority owners and the silverbird investors from Nigeria as the local management refused the foreign shareholders any executive posts so they decided to pull out and took out a court injunction to stop them from operating until things were sorted. It is unfortunate but I would imagine another investor will take over all facilities or the share of the Nigerian investors. Whats interesting is the that the sole supplier of movies is actually fox in Kenya hence you notice some movies are only shown in Fox Theatres and not in Silverbird. However its quite sad given that now the only decent place to watch a movie is Sarit centre due to the quality of the facility. Moreover, the quality of sound and picture was superior at silverbird cinemas!

  6. Suhayl
    June 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm — Reply

    Nyali Cinemax is the best movie experience in Kenya – hands down!

  7. idris
    June 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm — Reply

    Just back from movies and was saying the same to some guys who were trying to put me off from going to the movie and buy the pirated dvd. May be those are the people who don’t really appreciate them at all.

  8. peter
    June 10, 2011 at 5:40 pm — Reply

    I lyk watchin movies alot though the price is too high.I never went to silverbird but I always go to 20th every once in a while,and I think its still expensive coz its never full house or more than half.They should make it cheaper as supremegream says and not be comfortable with lacklustre attendance.
    they should charge cheaply and get mass attendance.In US piracy is there but prices r really cheap so many guys can afford to go to the movie places.

  9. June 11, 2011 at 4:54 am — Reply

    *shamelessly* meanwhile figure out what is showing in the remaining cinemas by visiting flix.co.ke on your mobile.

  10. Franklin Nnebe
    June 11, 2011 at 8:49 am — Reply

    I think Silverbird and Fox and NuMetro are following the wrong business model. They charge high because the costs of buying rights to distribute western blockbusters are high. This works for that tiny sliver of middle to high income Africa that are willing to pay high prices for tickets but not for the 90% that live on per capita incomes of less than $1,000 a year.

    Most of the cinemas should visit the streets of Africa and visit Nollywood (nigerian home video industry) to understand what people watch and what they are willing to pay for and build their viewing and pricing around that. If they did then you would see Cinemas showing dramatic African movies mostly.

    You would pack theatres because tickets would cost anywhere between 50 cents and $1 (40-80 KES or 75 – 150 Naira) since obtaining screen rights would be cheap and they would make money from the teeming African youth who would want to see movies in large format and with friends and dates. They would also sell lots of drinks and snacks and make money there too as well as from advertizing.

    For movie producers it would be a way for them to separate the wheat from the chaff (so to speak) by using the cinemas to market their movies. The great movies will stay on rotation and encourage people to buy the DVD/VCD version, the rubbish ones will fade to black literally.

  11. June 13, 2011 at 4:26 am — Reply

    From another movie buff. i think with all these pirating on the street such businesses suffers and will continue to suffer a great deal, but i believe there is a genius who will come up with a brilliant idea(s).

  12. June 13, 2011 at 10:46 am — Reply

    @ Franklin, those are great ideas!

  13. June 14, 2011 at 7:42 am — Reply

    I concur with Nnebe. Just to tweek it a little, what cinemas can do is offer a blend of both. Have the low cost movies on off-peak hours to get the masses, then have prime hours for the ‘high-end’ movies.
    After all, it is business and if that is what brings in the money and fills the theatre,it is worth a shot.

  14. June 21, 2011 at 5:20 am — Reply

    “I have no doubt in my mind that someone, or, some business is going to pick up the pieces, either wholly or partially and revive it.”–That’s what I think too.

  15. June 21, 2011 at 4:19 pm — Reply

    it seems that there are new owners of some of the silverbird cinemas and that they are reopening this friday….
    (keep checking flix.co.ke to see the schedule)

  16. June 22, 2011 at 12:20 am — Reply

    I was rather scared when I saw it, because am a fan of the cinemas and I like when I can get my nieces and nephews out on a saturday and watch cartoons on a nice huge screen, it is just different. I hope we can find a permanent solution to pirating so that good businesses can thrive, then they would even consider better rates

  17. Bonnee
    September 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm — Reply

    Am assuming, Peter, that you have never been to the U.S., as there is some discrepancy between your words and the reality of this situation:

    “In US piracy is there but prices r really cheap so many guys can afford to go to the movie places.”

    Although there is some piracy in the U.S. it is very little. Besides for one family I know (the husband of whom works for a large U.S. airlines) I had never seen pirated movies until I came to Kenya.

    As for the price of movies — U.S. movies are WAY EXPENSIVE!! The last time I was there (Christmas season 2010) a movie was $10.00. At the current rate of exchange that is approximately 9,400/. When one adds the snacks (which usually come out anywhere from $5.00 – $10.00), going to the movies is a whole LOT OF $ and that is not cheap by anyone’s interpretation.

    American’s go to the movies because we have a great appreciation for the quality sound, large picture, and quality of picture. All of that is lacking in a pirated movie where (sometimes) you can actually tell that it is being copied from an actual picture screen in a theater. 🙂

    As for this, Stuna —

    “…there was a dispute between the Kenyan minority owners and the silverbird investors from Nigeria as the local management refused the foreign shareholders any executive posts so they decided to pull out and took out a court injunction to stop them from operating until things were sorted.”

    IF it is true, the foreign shareholders were right to take their money and run! Expecting foreigners to invest in anything in Kenya without giving them the right to protect their investments is a fool’s dream and no one with good financial sense would take such a chance.

    Still, I can’t imagine going to Nairobi (as I am next week) and not having the pleasure of going to see a movie… I JUST found out Silver Screens had (all but) shut down.

    How depressing..

  18. Whiskey
    December 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm — Reply

    Truth be told most kenyans,esp in nairobi buy pirated movies. its not bad to admit thats sm of us also just download movies….thing is,these cinemas neva advertise anything more than just the movie showing. They give us no reason to be there. Am sure KFC has more visitors than the cinema on any day yet there r in z same mall

  19. March 19, 2013 at 9:02 am — Reply

    WELL, fellow movie buffs : I watched HOBBIT with my family in December, paid 600Ksh each (we are 6) 600×6 = 3600Ksh = 42 $.
    HD movie = 50Ksh = 50$ cents.

    Im a big Home theater fan and I have invested close to 1411$ = 120K into electronic equipment .
    Now, Warm comfortable environment in my house…. CHECK
    No annoying public transport ……. CHECK
    Confectionery on the house ….. CHECK
    1080p HD video and 5.1 audio Quality …….CCHHEECCKK

    There is a huge gap that is being filled by the Electronic Home theater market that knows people can not afford cinema experiences over n over at an external venue but are willing to make their own DIY Home theaters.
    If these guys do not up their games real soon, this industry will die for good.

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