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OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Movie and TV piracy in Africa is so rampant that some production houses are refusing to distribute in their home countries, preferring to sell their shows only to diaspora Africans in better regulated markets.
Thus West Africans in Paris lap up plotlines thick with polygamy, sorcery and secret love potions set in a claustrophobic courtyard in Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan, while their relatives back home miss out.
"We noticed there is a huge market for TV sitcoms but it was mostly from Nigeria, the U.S. or Brazil. We wanted to make shows for our own public instead," said producer Raybis Xavier, 30, whose Studio 225 has already produced 19 films in Ivory Coast.
"But there is so much piracy in Ivory Coast we decided not to release any DVDs there. Instead we will sell it in Europe and via Internet downloads," he told Reuters.
Under a deal signed last December, Africa's large diaspora population in France, Belgium and Switzerland can now buy episodes of Xavier's Abidjan sitcom "La Cour Commune" at local Virgin Megastores for 15 euros ($19) apiece. Further deals are under negotiation in Britain, the United States and China.
A shift by budget-conscious African production houses to cheaper digital technology has unleashed a wave of piracy that threatens to topple the industry: unlike traditional 35 millimeter film, DVDs are cheap, easy and quick to replicate.
"It's a terrible thing -- the artists lose money, the state loses money, and finally the value of our culture is put at risk," said Hema Djakaria, director general of national cinematography in Ivory Coast's northern neighbor Burkina Faso.
Burkina is hosting FESPACO African film festival this week, with over 300 screenings of films, sitcoms and other shows.
"We're battling hard but the pirates are stronger than the authorities," said Djakaria, who estimates 80 percent of all DVDs on sale here are fakes.
Pirated discs can pack in several films for 700 CFA ($1.35), compared to 6,000 CFA ($11.50) for the real thing.
"Before it even went out on TV here for the first time, one series had already been pirated -- downloaded in Paris and sold on the streets here," said Djakaria, referring to 'Quand les elephants se battent' (When elephants fight), set in Burkina.
Amid the heat and dust of the capital Ouagadougou's moped-packed streets, a shop on the top floor of the main market building hides hundreds of pirated films stashed in boxes.
Among the American series, Bollywood musicals and Nigerian films, there are tatty copies of popular Burkinabe TV sitcoms.
But the owner, Richardson Ouedraogo, says they are no longer for sale. "If they see it's pirated, the police come after you," said the 25-year-old, whose black market wares have been confiscated and burned by police so many times he has given up.
"I lost 2 million CFA ($3,860) last year. Selling CDs is too much trouble: now I'm selling stereos instead," he said.
Unlike many countries on the continent, Burkina Faso has a bureau dedicated to combating the arts black market.
In a mark of how developed the industry is, vendors here go to Togo and Nigeria to source their products -- even those originally produced in Burkina -- dodging customs and police.
Among the few hopes for the local industry is that people will prefer quality and support their country's artists. Recordings from cameras sneaked into cinemas often feature loud phone conversations and people walking in front of the screen.
Some filmmakers query the logic of abandoning local markets.
"We have refused to put our films onto DVD," said Moussa Romba of Producteurs Associes, a Burkinabe group.
"But instead of waiting four years to release a DVD only to find it's already on the market, perhaps we need to do a big DVD release early on ourselves."
Editing by Alistair Thomson and Mark Trevelyan