Greg Odutayo and His Royal Roots Making Giant Strides
Greg Odutayo was once dubbed Nigeria’s King of Television. This was when M-Net commissioned Royal Roots to produce the hit drama series, Edge of Paradise, and Doctors Quarters.
Edge of Paradise was nominated at the 47th Monte Carlo Television Festival alongside series like Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Grey’s Anatomy. It went on to win almost all the television awards in Nigeria.
The outspoken former President of the National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP), Producer /Director at Royal Roots, radio, and television stations owner, is set to join the august group of cinema exhibitors in Nigeria. His Royal Roots Cinemas opens this month.
The Nollywood Reporter took out an hour to probe the motivation behind Greg Odutayo’s remarkable growth from airing a radio show, creating a television cooking program, Global Cuisine, and the comedy series, House A-Partto becoming a stakeholder in the full value chain of Nollywood: production, media, distribution, and exhibition.
In addition, he sheds light on how he positioned his entity to get the French Film Fund to produce Tides of Fate, the Project ACT Nollywood Fund to produce Beyond Blood, and the CIFI loan to build his screening halls.
TNR: Has this Cineplex always been on your mind?
Greg Odutayo: Not really. Every day you evolve. We’ve always wanted to run a media outfit from bottom to top. But cinema was not a part of the value chain that we were interested in until we did a movie, Beyond Blood, and got caught up in the politics of film exhibition in Nigeria.
The politics within the industry affected our sales as we got caught in the middle of the fight between the two biggest distributors in Nigeria. As a result, one of them refused to carry our movies, and we were schemed out of a big chunk of the market since we were not screened in major cinemas. This affected us. Thereafter, I said to myself and to my wife, ‘We’re not doing another movie until we can be a part of the value chain.’ That’s when the journey of owning a cinema started, and a lot of our journeys have always been like that.
Our setting up the TV station was based on something like that. NTA kept messing us up with pre-emption and it was affecting the business end of things. Then, we were to run our programs on a station of a colleague. We had discussed and agreed on everything, and he stopped picking my marketing team’s calls, and my friend stopped picking my calls, too.
You need to rewind there. You mean he won’t give airtime that you’re willing to pay for?
We were going to pay for it. We had agreed on how much we’d pay. Anyway, if we didn’t suffer that kind of rejection, we would probably not have been pushed in the direction that led us to establishing a television station. If it’s a direction God wants you to take, circumstances will happen that will make you start looking in that direction, and we have not regretted the decision.
In this business, the producer is always at the receiving end of the stick. He’s the one who’s the most emotionally and financially invested. The producer must look for his money, he must create content, find how that content makes money. Even the actors are not as invested because an actor comes on your set, the crew comes on your set; they do their work, you must pay them before they leave.
The only people who still have a stake after the production has been completed are the people who have put the money down, including the producer who is carrying everything on his head. The process is a little better now, though, since it’s more regularized. For instance, there’s a Cinemas Exhibitors Association of Nigeria now. Nonetheless, the bottlenecks still exist but not as bad as when we were faced with the conflict I mentioned earlier. But it still happens.
Stamping out such atrocious behaviors from the industry is one of our goals because we see all facets of entertainment as a business and not as an ego trip. To some, it’s an ego trip; for me, it’s a business. And I intend to keep it as a business. When you’re in a business, there’s no permanent enemies. Only permanent interest exists.
So, we need to ensure that the interest of everybody operating that value chain is protected. Those are some of the things we at the Royal Roots Cinema and Exhibition are taking into that space. We may be a small player, but our experience in the industry is big and it should count for something when we sit at that table. That’s why we’re hoping that we’ll be able to exert and bring about some much-needed change into how that ecosystem is run.
Has there been any government intervention for producers?
President Goodluck Jonathan gave out grants to a lot of producers. Our film, Beyond Blood, benefitted from grants for producers. We got seven million naira. We presented a budget. The whole movie was about seventy million, but they decided to give us seven million. In such a situation, you’re not in control of what you get. At that time, I’d just finished my tenure as president of NANTAP.
As president of NANTAP, I always told my members that it’s not enough to rely on what the government has announced since they’re not going to give us what was made public, or they have already decided the people they will give. Despite that, I urged them to apply. If one applied and was not given, then that person will have something to say. But if you don’t apply and you keep going about saying that ‘Oh, they don’t give anything, it’s decided, it’s the same thing,’ you don’t have any reason to complain. It was on the basis that I applied. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and nothing lost either.
For me, the Jonathan government grants for producers were badly managed funds. A lot of people collected money for that project and produced nothing.
You were involved in Yoruba movies in the past.
Yes. Beyond Blood was basically our first feature. We have not done any other movie after that. Edge of Paradise was a TV series. For this project, we got a loan. Creative industry financial initiative -CIFI under the Central Bank.
They say the interest on that is a killer.
The interest is single digit. The interest started at five percent; right now, it’s at nine percent. Still single digit. People say it is because we’re creative people.
In a normal setting, we shouldn’t bother ourselves with the money side of things. There should be people who oversee business for you as a creative. You just come and create. But we’re in a peculiar country. Some of the times, we need to do some of this business part of things. I always say that’s why it’s show and business. However, a lot of us just want to do the show. We don’t want to bother about the business side of it yet, yet we’re doing show business.
One of the places which was critical to my formation is S O&U, an advertising agency. I was the head of Radio and TV. S O&U taught me structure. A lot of us creative people don’t work in a structured environment. I learnt how to run a proper business through regular meetings, strategy reviews, annual reporting: structure – as in who are you reporting to? What are the lines of reporting? How do you run this as a profitable business?
After that, I went to Lagos Business School. I came out of Lagos Business School, and I didn’t want to run a media company. I just wanted to run a company doing Media. They’re two different things. In doing that, if you placed me side by side with a company of my size in banking, insurance, manufacturing, or in any other sector, we should be doing the same thing. The only difference will be that they’re doing insurance while I’m doing media. And that calls for a lot of discipline, for a lot of reporting. You audit your account, get an external firm to do your auditing, these are the things that we were doing normally.
So, when a structure like CIFI came and we needed to provide documented evidence, it’s easy for us. We just took it out and gave it to them. You need to put your team together and say this is what I’m doing.
If you tell my colleagues that they must write a business plan, they don’t know how to do that because you must know how to write a business plan. The financials of my business plans, I do it myself. I have financial advisers who, after I finish, I give to them because no matter how good your financial people are, they don’t understand your business. I’ve been working with a team of financial advisers that have been with me since I left S.O&U.
You went into radio when you left S.O&U. Why?
I went into events for about a year. It was after that we started with Royal Roots. I started alone. My wife was still working with Swift Studios. After Swift, she was one of the producers with Minaj Television. Minaj was far and we had a young family, so I said, ‘Look, let’s come and do it together. Let’s pool our resources and see how it works.’ And here we are.
Your first radio program was sponsored. Did you get a sponsorship before writing the program or did you write the program, and then look for sponsors thereafter?
We created the content. It was something we did for Intercontinental Distillers Limited, and we shopped for it. We shopped for a brand, and they gave us sponsorship. Interesting thing and I always still say it till today, people who are meeting you for the first time are more likely to extend a hand of fellowship to you than the people you have known for ages. That was what happened with Intercontinental Distillers.
We didn’t know anybody there; we just walked in and said we had a fit for them. They looked at it, they liked it, and they sponsored it. There are other projects that you chase, you have your friends there, they will not sponsor you. That was our beginning.
At that time, I just told my boss in Bates Cosse, I need to go through this. We had that discussion back and forth. I told him if I keep doing your work, I’ll be cheating you. I needed to go and face this, and that was the beginning. We started with radio. We went into events.
You also got a break from M-Net for TV.
Yes, we got a break on M-Net for TV because we had been doing TV. We had been doing our own little, little TV program, adverts, even series and drama. House Apart was before Edge of Paradise. Before the sponsorship, House Apart and Global Cuisine prepared us for Edge of Paradise. So, when Edge of Paradise came, it was easy to fit ourselves into it. We already had the structure; it was what we were already. M-Net commissioned it. They were the ones who provided the resources for improvement.
M-Net and the French Film Funds, which came first?
French Films Funds came first.
How did they know you?
We got to know about the French Films Funds, got to know the details, put together a proposal, submitted it, and they gave us go ahead. I had learnt to do due diligence.
All these things have paperwork. When we were doing Tides of Fate for the French Films Funds, we had to do a detailed proposal. We had to explain to the French Films Funds how we were going to spend the money. We had to explain to them what we were doing with the money, who is earning what, what they’re doing and how everything is going to be done.
So, when M-net also came, they put a call out and that’s what they were doing then. If you put our Edge of Paradise and Doctors’ Quarters against some of the content that’s being produced now, there’s better quality because they used to put out a pitch. Everybody pitched, and they picked.
I still remember some of the names of those who pitched then. Amaka Igwe was there, Tade Ogidan was there, Charles Novia was there, we were there; all of us came and pitched. It was an open pitch, and we didn’t know anybody. And they selected two.
I believe if Netflix follows that culture, even with Amazon, if they do follow that culture, they’ll get the best. But what we have now is ‘paddy, paddy, he’s my friend, they’re the ones who will get all the jobs, they’re the ones who will know there’s anything going on.’ I’m not saying don’t give jobs to your friends, but let it be open and transparent.
Some people who produce for Netflix, even when they do a bad job, go on to produce the next one. It’s like you are rewarding them for doing bad. Let everybody come and compete.
You were better equipped in Edge of Paradise Season 2.
What we did with the first season was just to equip ourselves: we got everything we needed. For the second season, we had to say you cannot continue to pay us this. So, all our fees went up because it was necessary. Because we have had a proven record, it was easy for us to put up that pitch. King of Boys was a breath of fresh air. Kemi’s just somebody who’s doing her best and getting on to the next one and the next. But a sizable percentage need a lot of work. Improving the standard needs to be cut across.
When are we going to commission this project?
We’ve gone through a lot to get to where we are. This project started in 2020. We’ve done this in less than three years. It started just before COVID-19. Through COVID-19, through Endsars, through hyperinflation, it’s been crazy, but it’s been God that has gotten us this far because it’s been hard. It wasn’t an easy journey at all.
Are Nigerian banks involved in Nollywood movies?
I walked into Barclays Bank years ago. I had a small account there before they asked us to close it. I was going to deposit forty or fifty pounds or something. I was even worried that this money I’m going to deposit is too small, and that they might look at me with one eye.
Then the guy in front of me deposited ten or twelve pounds and I said, ‘Aha, I’m in good company, mine is even more.’
Then a lady teller took my money and paid it in.
Next thing, she asked, ‘Do you want a loan?’
And I had to look back like ‘Is it me?’
‘Yes. Do you want a loan?’
I said no.
She asked, ‘You don’t want to buy a house or a car? You don’t want to change your furniture?’
I said no.
She said, ‘I’ve looked at your account. The money is coming little by little and going out. You’re running the account well. I can give you a loan right here, right now.’
I said, again, “No, where I come from, if I want to buy a house, I have to gather all my money.”
And she asked, ‘I can’t tempt you?’
I said, ‘No, you can’t tempt me.’
That is banking. You can’t walk into a bank in Nigeria, and somebody will ask you if you want a loan. They can’t ask you. Even if you go there and ask for a loan, they’ll ask you to bring your grandmother’s blood and your great grandfather’s teeth. Even car loan, they won’t give. They’d rather lend to the government because they can get better rates. And there’s no risk with the money.
What drives you?
I derive satisfaction from seeing seeds grow. I like to grow things. To see what I’m growing starts as a seed, grow gradually, and germinate to that big tree, full of fruits.
Look, go with your heart, go with your passion. Don’t go with only your head. Else, you’ll be hesitant. Doubts are going to creep in. But when you go with your heart, things happen for you. Like falling in love. You just do crazy things, and it works out.