The Bhutanese film industry is faced with a lot of issues

Chencho Dema

Even as filmmaker Pawo Chonying Dorji takes Bhutanese cinema to the international stage, bringing the much-needed attention to the industry, Bhutanese film industry is struggling to stay afloat.

The pandemic dealt a severe blow, halting film productions and forcing cinema halls to close doors. Despite the resilience and determination of filmmakers, the recovery has been long and arduous.

Production of films has decreased and numerous professionals in the film industry are quitting. Many, including popular well-paid actors, have migrated to Australia, USA and other countries.

Data with BICMA show that 16 films, including web series, documentaries, and promotional videos, were approved in 2023. A total of 21 feature films were certified till date.

According to the draft report Action! 2023 Strategic Master Plan, the film sector was one of the worst affected sectors during the pandemic. It was estimated that the industry lost Nu. 90 million with new releases postponed, film shootings halted, and cinemas closed.

A producer, Phurpa, claimed that the film industry’s environment had changed because of the pandemic. He has invested in over six motion pictures. “I considered investing in a movie, but I stopped after seeing how audience’ respond,” he said.

Without a study to conclude anything, we cannot say why people aren’t visiting theatres, he said.

However, he said he heard that the majority of moviegoers come from middle-class families and are migrating abroad while some claim that the introduction of OTT has led to a rise in online movie viewing.

Another producer, Ugyen Dorji, recently began showing his film nationwide and claimed that the public was embracing and supporting it. The interest may dwindlingt, but quality films will always sell. Ugyen Dorji has so far invested in two projects and intends to do so again if the project has a compelling storyline.

Even if there are producers, they only make films with a budget of between Nu 1.5 and 2 million.

Wangchuk Talop, a well-known film director said the film business isn’t doing as well unlike in the past. The audience size has shrunk significantly. He believes that the country’s economy or the movie’ failure to live up to audience expectations could be the reasons.

With the exception of a few seasoned directors, very few people step forward to invest in the film industry. Before the Covid- 19 pandemic, Wangchuk Talop had directed 18 movies. It dropped to two  after the pandemic

“Consumer preferences have significantly shifted. During the pandemic people watched online movies on different OTT platforms and now people have high expectations from the film makers, which in a way, is good for the growth of the industry,” he said.

Like many other sectors, the industry is losing a lot of talented people. But those in the industry said the industry is not doomed although many singers, actors, directors, writers, and musicians have left the country or are in the process of leaving. “We still have a talented pool of youth in the country willing to follow the passion instead of migrating,” he said.

Tshering Phuntsho, a seasoned actor, claimed that the pandemic left a significant impact on the film industry. One reason for this might be people moving abroad, but with fewer viewers now, the situation is not good.

Because there are fewer producers, actors and crew members are unable to find work and many of them have left the country. “Even if I received good support  for a recent movie I recently released, its performance is poor due to the low viewership.”

Making films exclusively for Bhutanese audiences is simply insufficient for the Bhutanese film industry to recover from the pandemic and reach its full potential, according to filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji.

The number of Bhutanese who would actually pay money to watch films in Bhutan is too small of a market, and it is unlikely that the investment would be repaid.

“I feel currently most Bhutanese film makers just make films for the Bhutanese audience. Yes, it fulfills the purpose of entertaining our own little circle, but if we wish for our industry to grow, we must aim bigger,” the director whose latest movie, The Monk And The Gun which had world premiere on September 1, said. “Bhutanese stories are rooted in values that are universal and the world is so eager to see Bhutan. Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom’s international success is a testament to that.”

Taking movies to be screened in Australia to cater to the Bhutanese diaspora is not sustainable, Pawo Choyning Dorji said.  “ What will happen when the younger Bhutanese growing up in Australia feel less and less connected to Bhutan and lose interest in watching Bhutanese films? Why not from now only make Bhutanese films that cater not just to the Bhutanese in Australia, but to all of Australia? This is the vision we should have.”

Meanwhile Bhutan has submitted The Monk And The Gun for the best international feature category at the 2024 Academy Awards.


The arrival of OTT

OTT platforms came at a time when the pandemic had brought the entertainment business to a complete standstill. Streaming platforms like Samuh created new opportunities, providing the much-needed alternative for film screening while also creating jobs for film professionals who were affected by the pandemic and repeated lockdowns.

There are three OTT platforms in the country today.

However, OTT platforms have their own share of challenges, mainly high cost of the internet, lack of efficient payment gateways, and high prevalence of piracy.

“For the Bhutanese film industry to become vibrant and productive, we need to create a whole ecosystem, and that requires investments in infrastructure, training, up-skilling, and review of regulatory frameworks,” said Kinley Tshering, Creative Director of Samuh.

OTT has become an integral part of the entertainment business the world over. With a more affordable internet, more and more people will use technology to access entertainment as well as other services.

Samuh right now has two series in post-production and five projects in pre-production stage.


Lack of theatres

Thimphu and Paro are the only dzongkhags with legitimate theatres. The majority of movie producers, directors, and actors assert that without good theatres, newly released films were not able to garner a greater number of viewers.

The president of the Film Association of Bhutan (FAB), Chencho Dorji said that in the past the film halls would be booked for more than two months but now films are screened not less than 20 days.

“Lack of proper screening of the films in the country is another reason why films are not doing well. Except for Thimphu and Paro, we screen in school auditoriums,” he said.

Chencho Dorji said that His Majesty The King granted land Soelra to FAB to build cinema halls in Gelephu, Samtse, Bumthang, Wangduephodrang, Tsirang, Samdrupjongkhar and Trashigang . But the association has no funds to construct.

Today, there are only eight movie theatres in Bhutan. None meet international  standards. Wangchuk Talop said that standard movie theatres spread out across the country would contribute to the revival of the film industry.

The first movie theatre in Bhutan was constructed in Samdrupjongkhar in 1960. Then, in 1964, MIG opened in Phuentsholing, followed by Losel in Gelephu, and Lugar in Thimphu in 1972, all of which screened primarily Bollywood films.

The first Bhutanese feature film came out in 1989 was Gasa Lamai Singye.

According to the draft report Action! 2023, the first commercially successful audio-visual company in Bhutan, Norling Drayang, and Tashi Nyencha, a folk music performance company, were among the early innovators who ventured into the production of a number of video feature films that gradually started to replace foreign films in the local cinemas in the early 1990s.

Norling Drayang produced Bhutan’s first commercial blockbuster, Jigdrel, in 1998.

The draft report states  that Bhutan produced 150 films in the first 10 years of the 21st century, with each one employing, on average, 25–30 people.

Lack of investment is another reason. Many use money from personal savings, and borrowings from family and friends to finance film production.

Bhutanese film does not contribute much in attracting international tourists. This may be due to the limited international reach that Bhutanese films have.

The total number of films made fell from 18 in 2019 to 15 in 2020, then to 12 in 2021. Such a decline is a sign of the severe impact on lost livelihoods and careers.