Andy Amenechi Tells the Story of Nollywood’s Beginning
The Nigerian film industry commands respect on many continents, and it is very visible in most societies in the world. The actors that grace the big screens have become celebrities just as the stories that the flicks tell have captivated the world’s imagination. Nollywood, as the industry is called, has become a global icon recognizable for its penchant for producing thousands of films annually. However, how much is known about the genesis of this industry and those who midwifed a new national film culture in Nigeria, which is now in phases: old and new Nollywood? Andy Amenechi takes The Nollywood Reporter on a journey into the nascent Nigerian film industry.
Amenechi, former president of Directors Guild of Nigeria, emerged best scriptwriter in a BBC film workshop in 1983, and he joined the Nigerian Television Authority, also known as ‘the University of Nollywood’ thereafter.
The graduate of University of Nigeria later joined Lintas as Head of films before rolling up his sleeves as one of the directors who created the cultural products the world has come to appreciate as Nollywood, which is rated as the third largest film industry in the world in terms of output.
This celebrated art director, cinematographer, editor, producer, and one of the influential men in the Nollywood space directed, among other flicks, Mortal Inheritance (1996), Rituals (1997), Oracle (1998, 2002), the multiple award-winning Igodo (1999), Oduduwa (2000), Egg of Life (2003), and Don’t Leave Me (2022).
TNR: Where do you produce these days?
Amenechi: I have a post-production studio right here.
In this building? Really?
Yes. Technology has taken over everything. I have an iMac and everything is fully loaded. Adobe Creative Cloud 2023, Davinci Resolve 18, my speed is 194gb ram, one terabyte hard drive memory. I just plug in, and I go.
You have an editor that works for you then?
I have several. Not permanent.
As the job comes, I ask ‘How now? Ready? Come negotiate, come, and work here.’
I found out it’s the best decision because I’m in control of my power. I’m in control of my content, and I’m in control of my technology.
No need to wait for the person make e go buy diesel; nothing like that. I have everything here. At least, for post. For filming and so on, there are too many people out there who have all that stuff. So buying it is just tying down funds. The post, which is the most important thing, you can critically control it. You know exactly how you want it to go and so on.
When did you go into film?
When you say film, are you talking television?
Television included, video, all the works that lay Nigerians refer to as film.
There is a distinction. A lot of us started with what we call the University of Nollywood, which is NTA. 90% of the pioneers [of the Nigerian film industry] are from there. We started doing telenovelas, series, documentaries from NTA. That is how we honed our craft.
You did not mention any of the names because that’s what makes it interesting for us.
Producers and directors? Amaka Igwe, Mofe-Damijo, Danladi Bako, Sadiq Daba, myself, Zeb Ejiro, Ifeanyin Ayanfulu, which of them? Just mention one name, I’ll tell you. They’ll tell you themselves that they passed through NTA. That university. It was the greatest resource background for most of us. Chika Onu, Austin Eduka, name them.
When you say they had resource, what do you mean?
You know, all of us had portfolios. But someone like Peter Igho recognized talent. He recognized creativity. So occasionally he would bring somebody from Benin, drop them into the production center. He will bring somebody from script and creative and drop them into the production center. He would then mix everything together.
Thereafter, we started producing films under his watch. So, if there’s anybody I’ll give most credit to for creating this industry, Peter Igho, Dr. Victoria Ezekunu and Dr. Vincent Maduka will be the people. From 1983, that policy was there. They were all there.
So, we finally started branching out. Then, in 1991, Zeb and I started producing Ripples. I was working with NTA, he was an outside contractor. But we were working in tandem because we all attended the script writing workshop.
Who did that script writing workshop?
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1985 or 85/86. One year. That was the foundation: the place where most of us met. Ralph Nwadike, all of us. It is at that script writing workshop that we honed our ability to write, which is the foundation of movie production.
So, we started Ripples, and after two or three broadcasts, it was a primary hit for the NTA. Of course, it was sponsored. Dr. Ezikele got sponsorship then: it was AJ Seward. Then, later on, it was Lever Brothers.
It was corporate sponsorship.
Yes. For five years. On television.
People will remember and go back home, sit down and watch. That is where the A-listers also had their birth. So, the journey started a long time ago. Thirty years or more.
At what point were you in Lintas?
After I left the NTA in 94/95, I joined Lintas. I was the senior manager radio and film. And we were really involved in adverts and so on. But within the system I pushed so that we can do better and develop this department into a bigger production centre.
In their wisdom they created what they call LN Services. That is Lintas Nigeria Services. It was moved to Ogudu to provide production services for all Lintas affiliates and clients. So, I was the head of that department then. Head of production. I was in Lintas for two years until Nollywood came knocking.
Well, you have to explain that. Who approached you when you say “Nollywood came knocking”?
I left LN Services when opportunity came for me to shoot my own film.
I felt the process of getting the agency, the outfit, to delve into production, delve into shooting television, or documenting services was a bit slow. So, my colleague at the BBC Workshop, Bond Emeruwa and Zeb got together and they said, “look you can do this.”
Zeb had already started in the industry. He had shot a couple of films that were already making waves. So, we said, “Let’s go and see what we can do.” Being script writers, we sat down, formulated a story based on sickle cell anemia and we created a dramatic story out of it. This was how Mortal Inheritance was born.
Zeb picked up a lot of the finance, then we got marketers who were interested, and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde and Fred Amata became instant celebrities. That was between 1996 and 1997. With that, I said there’s no going back. There’s no point doing anything corporate because Nollywood was the future.
So, we have been there since then. We’re still there now, and it has been almost thirty years of fun. That is one of the things that make it worth the while. It is a job I enjoy doing. I was happy, and I am still happy. You know that there are some people who will work, and they’re not happy.
When you unleash your creativity and you have the forum to apply it, and people give you the leeway to be the very best of what you do, you’d be having fun. At the same time you’re doing things that will make a mark in whatever your objectives and vision is, which was shoot, produce, and direct films that will make a distinction.
The circumstances we had at that time; the marketers were in charge. They provided the finance. So, to a point, we had to sit down and work with them: we worked with them for almost ten years because they practically controlled the market.
But a few of them, who saw the future and took advice, said “Look, there are phases in this thing. The phase of VHS is going to come to an end and phase for VCD is going to come to an end. Phase of DVD will come to an end. And phase of online will start.” That phase is where we are now. It has now circumvented the phase for big screen. It is a tumultuous but enjoyable journey.
VHS days, what were the challenges?
Technology. When you shoot, you’re shooting on VHS. If you have a problem with that cassette, it’s a done deal. You are finished.
The cassette or the original master?
We shot on slaves, they edited on a master. If one of those slaves had a problem, you have to go back and re-shoot because there was no technology to duplicate. So, you were extremely careful about what you shot, how you shot it, and how you stored. Before then, it was what pneumatic tape.
Pneumatic is better, right?
Pneumatic was better, but VHS had a smaller bandwidth; so, the quality was better. Then it became Betacam: smaller bandwidth as well, and it was in tape. That was the technology that was new all over the world as well. From there, it became DV Cam with Smaller bandwidth. Then, it became DV: small and all that, before it became digital, which is now when storage was much easier.
For the marketers, it was difficult to accept not being in control of their tape because they were afraid of technology. Anything they copy, anyone can copy, and an editor can copy all these things. So, it was a struggle until they finally accepted digital technology. But even digital has evolved so much in so many ways in that, every year, there is an advancement. For you to be part of the mainstream, you have to keep up with digital advancement. So, those challenges essentially were technology based basically.
Was there no challenge coming from the people controlling the industry: the marketers controlling people who are professional actors, who are professional directors, professional camera men?
There were lots of issues. There was a mountain of issues. Remember, at one point, there was the so called “ban” when they decided that people earning over one million naira per film should be put out to pasture and get in new people.
Because new people would accept less money?
Of course. But, you see, many people did not know the cause and effects.
Some of those actors were the sources of these issues. I know, for instance, one actor who collected one million naira each for ten jobs over a period of one month from ten different producers. At a point, he started dictating to the producers saying, “If you want me to work on your job, you’ll give me an extra hundred thousand naira.” You find out that somebody who paid two days afterwards would have these actors working on his job while they keep me at the back burner if I did not pay that extra.
In this scenario, this actor would move people up from last person to the second person. Same thing like that with other actors. They continued that way. So, these people financing the projects got upset and saying, “You cannot tie down my one million naira for one or two months. I have paid you. So if you’re going to say, ‘I’m going to work at the end of February’, let it be end of February because we have already entered the gentleman’s agreement.”
Any name you can recall?
There are many of them. So, when they moved to ban actors, it was out of frustration. A lot of people thought they were just mean megalomania. No! They had a reason. So, when that happened, they banned them, and told them to refund all the money they have collected. But they could not refund because they have spent the money living the big life.
A few innocent ones were caught in the center because it was a blanket ban, and anybody earning over one million naira was banned. The good thing that came out was that younger people have come to the top, and a few of the older ones, who were disciplined, people like Joke Silva and so on were not affected by the ban. They also got more work. It also helped everybody. The ban ensured that if you contracted somebody, you signed a document. The legal process of work was instituted because the actors themselves felt that they could be jettisoned at any time. It’s better to sign a contract that guarantees your safety and my safety. So, everything was going well.
Before that time, you did not need a contract.
Only a few of us knew the benefits of entering into a formal agreement. Someone like me coming from a corporate background, I knew the significance of contractual agreement. I had a contract with some of the marketers to shoot four films over a period. That was guaranteed money because with that they cannot go back on their words. I told them to put it in writing. My lawyers will read it, and I will sign. So that protected me and that made sure that I was not looking at any other person. Anyone who came, I said, “sorry I’m booked for this period.”
A few of the marketers saw that and said, “Look, you know what? Let us start tying down people into periods, durations, or number of films.” That was how the culture of formalized agreements started. I had that kind of contract with about two big time marketers. So, for a period too, I was constantly busy because I had the foresight. Every month in a year, I was on location. That period was extremely crazy mentally, physically, and creatively. Those were the teething period, when we were learning, evolving how the industry will grow. Everybody was learning on the job.
Let me just say that both the professionals who did not know the business of the show, and the businessmen who did not know the professionalism of the show had to come together. Like minds, and that is where the idea of forming the association and guilds came about.
So from 1999 the formation of guilds started, and I was in the forefront of almost all the guilds and associations because it was necessary to form guilds which will protect their members because anything could have happened. Professionals started delineating themselves. If you are good at makeup and costume, stick with it. Do not get into acting today, costume tomorrow. If you’re good in cinematography and editing, stay with it. So, everybody started cutting their niche. It was fun.
You have a lot of associations. Why don’t you just have one umbrella one?
As creatives, if you put three creatives in one room, you will know that it is difficult to have an agreement. However, it is not as if we did not try. Of course, we have tried over the years. We are still trying. But now it has become a bush fire. As at last count, we have over a hundred and something associations and guilds.
There was and still is an attempt to create what they call Motion Picture Practitioners’ Council of Nigeria. It was an initiative by the industry to put all together into law and governance, but a lot of people are of the opinion that government has no business in setting up the council because they forget that for the Nigerian atmosphere, both professionally and so on, there must be a controlling council. Every profession has it.
The argument that those who opposed presented was that creatives should not be encumbered regarding how they should do things because their job is an artistic thing. Understood. But you must have minimum requirements since these are professional jobs. As it is now, anybody can just walk in and that’s what people are doing: just walk in and become something because it’s a free for all.
The Nigeria musical video scene was another catalyst to what we have here. By using high-end camera, you can shoot a four- or five-minutes’ video track for five million naira whereas you’re shooting one film of two hours for the same five million. But because they have a lot of time to plan for the creative input, the musical videos started getting better, and music itself started improving. That is how basically the music industry was put in the stratosphere and it’s really taken on the world.
At that point, the film makers decided to borrow a leaf.
True. Technological leaf because we don’t lack stories. We’ve never had a lack of creative input in terms of how we tell our stories. The concern was what stories to tell and how to put that info on the visual component in a way that will appeal to the wider audience. We have captured the African market. The Nigerian film industry has swept the African continent.
Now that is an advantage of using VHS.
Yes. Again, every other country was also improving in technology. We’re supposed to be the market leaders in pushing for new technology. If you need to compete in global atmosphere, there are certain standards you must meet. There are certain parameters you must have. You must check these boxes if you wanted to compete.
As I speak to you, those boxes have not only been checked, they have created boxes for the international audience to also check. So, the model of the Nigerian film industry has catapulted into the global sphere because, at a point in time, even Hollywood became saturated to the extent that they moved into comics, when they couldn’t get or find any other story base. And it was successful for them. It is still successful for them. Walt Disney, Marvel has made so much money by rethinking their strategy, and that is why you now have Avengers as a franchise: Avengers this, Avengers that over the years. You have same thing with Iron Man. Comics of thirty, forty years ago, they brought them to life. It’s tapering down now because there’s nothing new anymore. So, what did they do? They looked east, looked west, and looked to Africa and said, “You know what? We can investigate this market and get them.” So, they are here. Here we are.
Could you comment on breakout films in those VHS days: breakout films like Thunderbolt by Tunde Kelani, this other film by Tade Ogidan. These people, in terms of story and narrative, were world class but in terms of the format, they were VHS. What happened to such?
Those pioneering films were world class in those days, and they were there because they were unique at that time.
Thunderbolt and Kelani’s stable were devoted to bringing out films of extremely high quality. They were shot on SVHS at that time because he too was abreast of technology. After dealing with postproduction and so on, he went on to do a lot of technical finishing.
Then, cinema was not an issue. If you wanted to screen, you had to screen with projectors and so on. The brick-and-mortar phases were few and far between. So, everybody depended on tapes, promotions, and word of mouth with the intent of getting maximum viewership.
But with the advent of social media now, let me just say digital media, we can reach anywhere in the world. Viewership is worldwide because anything you put on some aspect of digital world gets to every corner of the world in an instant. That has helped the music industry, too. That’s why our people are making news all over the place. That’s why also we’ve been able to make the kind of video they make in Hollywood and abroad. And the sky is the limit as there’s still so much to be done.
I want you to talk about Igodo. That film won so many prizes in one year. What happened right there? It was a VHS production, right?
Betacam. It was one of the first films to be shot on Betacam. One of the first films to be shot with three cameras at a time. It was completely novel. The producer, Ejiofor O.J. productions, had a vision when he went as a tourist to the Osun Oshogbo Shrine.
He is quite gregarious. He’s outgoing, and when he saw that place, he was completely captivated. When he came back, he called a couple of us and said, “Let’s do a film using that location as a base.” So, he got in touch with writers, got in touch with Pedro Obaseki, Abass Esosa, me, and a lot of us came together and crafted the story. It underwent two or three rewrites before we had a shooting script. I remember, at that time, when we had a casting for that film, over one thousand people turned up.
For the casting?
The casting was unprecedented in the history of Nollywood. I cannot remember the place in Surulere. The roads were blocked. One thousand people. We did not understand what was going on. You see, the anticipation was so much. This was just word of mouth at that time. There was no promo, nothing at that time.
When we finished the casting after two weeks, they selected the people who will do the project. A lot of people were upset because they did not get roles, but not everybody can get the roles and we decided this job was too important for people to just micromanage. We needed to do it properly. So it took over a month of team work, filming both in Enugu and Oshogbo and the producer was intent. He borrowed money that time.
Where did he borrow money? The bank?
I don’t know where he borrowed money from because every day that we shot, the cost of production went up. But he was resolute: determined to see the production to the end. That disposition also put all of us in gear, to do the very best and make sure we got the very best.
After filming, it took another month plus of post-production. Thereafter, we started giving the promos out. In the first ten days we sold over one million copies. Never ever has any film. As at up to 2019 Ojay was still selling Igodo. It is in French and in other languages across Africa.
So, you started recycling them?
Yes. I told you the demand was high. It was still selling as at 2019. What was shot in 2002 or 2003. It was a film before its time because it was so unique. It was an adventure film. After that, a lot of filmmakers started doing the same adventure film.
It was the normal Nigerian copycat syndrome: “Let me try my own and see.” But not one has come to the same level as Igodo. So, for the producer, Igodo was where he made his mark. Today he’s the proud owner of fourteen hotels across Nigeria, and I hear outside Nigeria as well. So the industry, film making has been very beneficial for certain people but, for most of us professionals, we were quite happy doing what we did because we loved the work. Yes, it sustained our families. But now, you cannot just be happy doing a film, it’s a business.
If you want to do a film you have to have done your due diligence, your marketing, scripting, your projections. There are companies now in Lagos that I know that bill you to do these projections. Oh yes, that is their work. You bring the script, they analyze it and tell you, “This thing won’t fly, you won’t make money; therefore, we advise you not to do it” or “This is my best story.” Sometimes these companies are spot-on, sometimes creatives stick to their guns, and it works. Sometimes it falls flat on its face, and they say, “We told you.”
Now you can’t bring ten million to shoot, you can’t bring twenty million, to shoot a film with Igodo’s standard. it is not possible! No, you cannot.
The standard has gone up. Can we say that the standard going up started with Figurine?
Figurine? Figurine is recent. The standard started going up before Figurine. Igodo raised the bar in terms of story quality. Figurine and so on broke the market for streaming services. They did not do that well in cinema. That’s why you can have a film like Omo Ghetto, scatter the whole box-office. Because again, it was unique in its approach and the personalities behind it.
It probably took a leaf from the Nigerian music.
When you say take a leaf, what do you mean?
Nigerian music, in those days of Chris Okotie, artistes were singing in English, but they didn’t sell even in neighboring countries. Junior and Pretty brought a lot of pidgin into it. Now, foreigners are singing Nigerian tunes. The world is freaking out because of the uniqueness of our music and pidgin.
But you also realize Nollywood had set that standard a long time ago. There are places I have been to in Africa. When they find out l’m a Nigerian they’ll say, ‘kéè Kwánú?’ and you reply, ‘olia’ because that’s the truth. They don’t understand but they know it’s a greeting: a Nigerian greeting. So language was not a barrier to that extent when people watch one good film. I hear in Togo, half of the films they watch are in Yoruba because there is a Yoruba speaking segment of Togo. And then when they see the subtitles, they watch them.
We have been watching Indian films for God knows how many years. They are all subtitled but we enjoy them. So, language really is not a barrier. But you have a point in that, when the idiosyncrasies that make the film Nigerian are highlighted, people pay attention.
Like I always tell people, you can’t be more American than the American. You can’t pick up the ‘swesweswe’ and expect the American to appreciate you. When you speak the ‘swe’ and you speak the ‘sway’ and you speak the waffi pidgin, they look at you and pay attention so far as it’s properly subtitled. That is what made Wedding Party 1 a record breaker. I enjoyed it. Not so much Wedding Party 2. Then King of Boys came out. And I took off my hat and saluted. Two hours plus film. One of the few films I have sat down from the beginning to the end to watch at a stretch. It was captivating. Took a lot of money. But, at the end of the day, the gamble, risk was worth it.
There are certain indices you must infuse in your film for it to have international appeal. One, technical content. Your content must be topnotch and must be extremely formidable. That’s why some of the filmmakers in Nigeria bring in foreign DOPs and lighting and so on. Two, your sound. Then, the acting cannot be the epic ‘gragra’ kind of acting. It has to be believable. A group of actors have keyed into that situation, and they have made good names, good provenance out of that. They are the ones who are on top of their game right now.
However, certain old timers have also been able to show that we started this before the young actors and we’re still maintaining our stand because we’re extremely talented in the field. In this period, some newcomers will come in and fall by the way side. While some old timers are still right at the top like Sola Sobowale and Richard Mofe-Damijo.
RMD can ad lib, and he’s been able to hone his craft to the point that he doesn’t just take any role. That is one key rule with those people. The script you give to him, the role he’s going to play, has to be something he believes will have an impact not just here but on the movie world . When he did Thirty Days in Atlanta, it was a favor for his friend, AY. Similarly, Wedding Party and so on, which was again unique. It became a standard point in comedy related film, and AY has grown his brand based on that pedestal. But other people have overtaken that yardstick. They have created their own unique selling point.
Omo Ghetto is a ghetto comedy.
Yes, it is a comedy. It is also subliminal message on the issues affecting the ghetto in the Nigerian society. This is the reason why many low income people resonated with it. They loved Lefty, they loved her. Professionally, I was not too happy that she was playing a dual role. But a lot of people loved that fact. And it was done carefully to highlight its comic nature while, at the same time, covering, not completely, the seriousness of the life in the ghetto. And with success. You have seen the sequel.
Omo Ghetto Saga is the one I saw.
It is a sequel.
Let us talk about your presidency: Directors Guild.
I became president by accident.
Way back in 2002, I was the chairman of the membership committee of the DGN. As a result, 90% of members were screened by me and Bond. That made me to know every member personally. After 2002, we had the merger of CNPP and DGN to have one Directors Guild.
In 2009, my partner and friend, Bond Emeruwa contested for the presidency. I backed him up, and I was his campaign manager. It was not a very pretty fight because a tribal clique decided they wanted to take over from the so-called Igbo people who have been ruling. However, they forgot that no Igbo person has been the DGN president. First president was Matthias Obahiagbon from Edo state. Second president was Fidelis Duker from Cross Rivers state. Third president was Bond Emeruwa. So, with Bond, it was the first time for an Igbo person to become the president of the Guild, but they had their minds set.
It was a hard-fought battle. At the end of the first ballot, both Bond Emeruwa and late Chike Bryan had eighteen votes each. It was not even funny. Then we had a rerun. At this point, before the rerun election, I decided to go into the archives and find all those members who are semi-retired or passive. We reached out to all of them. When the rerun came, we saw men, not boys. They saw men who they’d not seen in ten years come out to vote. That’s how Bond became president, and I said my work was done. He served two terms as president of the DGN.
After four years, that was in 2007, it was time for elections again. I was busy screening in Asaba when somebody said to me, “Oga Andy, don’t you think you should be president …?”
I cut him short quickly. I said to him: “I do not want the position. I am not interested.” I did not know that person had been sent by powerful people in the guild to feel me out. I had no idea.
By the time I got back to Lagos, I was ready to find out the next steps for this election. Lo and behold, six people presented the thing to me again saying that, “You should take this thing.”
I said I do not want it. I am not a politician. I work behind the scenes. That is my work. That is my job. My friend was the president, other people said we should do it, and I said no.
When I got home that day, I sat back and thought, you know what? Who else is going to do this thing? Can you nominate somebody? Those were the questions put forward to me: “Okay you don’t want to do, nominate somebody.” However, I could not because I couldn’t find somebody who could take us from where we were to a higher level.
I sat and thought about it and said, “Okay, if you can find two people push them forward.”
So, I checked, crossed ten boxes, and I said “No.”
Next day I saw the people asking me to run for the position, and I said: “You know what? People let us do this. I am willing to do it.”
The day I made that decision, that’s when my friend, my very good friend, Fred Amata also decided he was running because he too had been pushed and encouraged by other people to do the same. Because I had made that decision, I decided to go all out and win.
Consequently, I went to every single state at my expense. I went round the country; I met every single member. Some people said they were voting as a group along tribal lines. I said “no” because DGN is national. I told them what I was going to do is that I am going to decentralize this thing from Lagos. I’m going to create zones; each zone will be self-dependent and report to national.
So when the campaign started, all the other contestants were creating posters, putting long stories, I just printed a leaflet. One small leaflet. I showed my provenance, and my vision of what I wanted to do. At the end of the day, again, my friends, my colleagues, the ancient mariners all came out. All of them. The bottom line is that it was almost a complete walk over. That is how I became president.
On assuming office, I decided I was going to do things differently. The first thing was to find out how the individual directors can benefit from belonging to the guild. Thereafter, I instituted DGN medical insurance, life insurance, and capacity building activities. I got Google to partner with the DGN, and we had four different workshops across Nigeria. That was how the YouTube craze started. Google was mentoring them. So, they pushed it out and encouraged people to set up their YouTube channels. In total, I got three or four different companies.
Then Project Act came in, and I was the first to apply as a guild: Not as an individual. Once they looked at our application, we were the first to be approved. We had had two arrangements with one school in London and with the Colorado Film School. Another was with a school in the Czech Republic. There were three options for us. Colorado was ready because they had given us an invitational plan, given us everything. By the time we presented to project Act, they Just took it up. So, on December 18, 2013, we were approved: Twenty-four people to go to Colorado for six weeks.
Now within the guild, when I told them about this development, about 80% of them said “no be the same thing? Nothing can happen.”
My friends, my colleagues, most of them, they didn’t apply. I had to go, again, round the zones. Then I had decentralized the communication. We were communicating fully, monthly by email. I had a main list database created. I knew every single person’s email and phone number; So when I sent an email, I was sending to two hundred people simultaneously. I told them about the opportunity. It is a once-off. I said, “If you want do not take it. If you want to take it, take it. But, believe me, this thing is real.”
You’ll be surprised it was only Port Harcourt people that were enthusiastic. At the end of the day, we got almost thirty applications. One of the application processes is that you would give a short reason why you think you should be in that group. So, the approvals were not from us, they were from Project Act. We just supplied names and applications. When approvals came for twenty-four people, they were shocked. Six of them were from Port Harcourt. Six.
I noticed you do not like mentioning names. Can you tell me any of those people?
Let me tell you, everybody knows themselves. If you want names, I’ll give names. They are there.
Give me a few of them. A few of the prominent ones. Especially, the ones who, after the training, have been able to make good with it.
Chekwas. I cannot remember his surname. We know him as Chekwas from Port Harcourt. Kingsley Omoefe, Tope Ogun, now known as Tope Oshin, who was the only female that went with us. Sunny McDoom, Shola Fregene. A lot of them. Paul Apel Papel, who did the film for the Nigeria Air force. It was an award winner, Emmanuel Eyaba, Dr. Emesalu who is head of department in Uniport now. Dr. Ogunbiyi who is now a prof in Port Harcourt.
Yes. How was the trip for you folks?
It was fulfilling. The Federal Government paid the full fees and gave us a small honorarium, which we utilized. And we got sponsorship from Arik Air: they flew us to New York and back. Then, from the part of the honorarium given to us, we bought our tickets from New York to Denver. One of the highlights after the whole thing was the road trip, we had from Denver back to New York. For those who wanted to go by road, we had two vehicles. Desmond Elliott was one of them.
Really? I am surprised. He also won money to make a movie.
Yes. He did not win it. He was given a grant.
What is the difference?
A grant is not a loan. You are given a grant based on your application. How you will report the outcome of that grant is a different story entirely.
We had three days of driving. Incidentally only Desmond and I had American driver’s license. So, we had to drive for those three days.
You rented cars and you had to drive yourself?
Yes. When you rent car dem go give you driver? Na you go drive your thing yourself. You must show your license obviously. We had it during the period, of the course. Instead of returning the cars to Denver, where we rented from, they gave us the alternative to return it to New York.
The course was a monumental success. There is none of them who did not come out from that course, better enlightened, better trained, better exposed. Some may not have been able to apply it properly, but most benefitted; that I can guarantee you. We got all the training for the latest technology of that time.
There is yet to be a Nigerian film shot with Panasonic camera.
Panasonic cameras are cine cameras. Who shoots on cine anymore apart from the Americans?
Americans and Chinese. WAKANDA was not shot on Panasonic. It was on Arri digital camera.
The era of the cine camera is slowly dying.
It cannot die because there’s a whole industry set up for that. For them to kill it is, therefore, difficult. At the end of the day, because of the benefits of digital technology, even when you are shooting on film, after your editing, you step down to a particular level which Arri can step up to. We’re talking about extremely high line resolution 6K, 8K which are extremely high end.
The future is not for the cine camera, but there are some people like John Carpenter who I know, who I’ve met, he never shoots on digital.
But you have nothing against cine.
Digital, for me, is a higher way of filming. It’s something that you have grown used to and something that you have learned how to perfect over the years. There are a couple of directors of photography today who are sought after in the UK and the US because they are proficient in how to utilize the digital camera.
Please take that again.
There are a couple of directors in Nigeria who are sought after outside the shores of this country because of their proficiency in utilizing the digital camera and its potential and power.
For you and for Nollywood, what is the road forward?
My personal vision is to see this industry break the barriers, especially in the international market. And that dream is happening right now. It is happening as I speak which I’m happy that I’m alive to see.
We have entered places, into countries and situations which we never dreamed would be possible. But it is the tenacity of Nigerian filmmakers, the creativity, the ability to forge ahead despite all sorts of restrictions and resilience that have brought us where we are.
I thank God for the young people who are coming up, who did not rest on their oars the way people of my generation did. They challenged the status quo. They create things that catch the attention of the international market. However, this was achieved because of the foundation that we laid. We laid the foundation for them to be where they are today.
They are the ones we’re relying on and those coming after them to break the glass ceilings. And to be very honest, women filmmakers are at the forefront of breaking these glass ceilings.
Why is that?
I think from my working with a lot of these female film makers, they’re much more determined in the business of the show. In as much as they have their creative skills, they’ve also been able to hone their business skills. Kemi Adetiba and Mo Abudu are typical examples.
Mo Abudu is someone who I know. I have never worked with, but I admire a lot because any work she does, she does not do halfway. She does it to the very best. Wherever she’s taking it to must be the best. It can compete anywhere in the world. Some have not been up to that standard, but most have been targeted at making sure that they penetrate the market. And she has used her connections and resources in corporate Nigeria. She was the first to bring billionaires under one roof, watch and then prepare funding films. And for that I give her kudos and utmost respect.
Kemi Adetiba is a whiz kid in terms of creativity. I know her father. I know her mummy very well. Her father was in Lintas. She used her pedigree to the best of her ability. Went to school for this job, trained properly for it and, from what I understand, she is extreme at doing things. Sometimes, she can be hard, but I hear she is very humble. That is one of my key requirements as a filmmaker. You cannot be strutting your stuff and expect to get the best. You come down to their level and they will come up to yours. That way, whatever you’re aiming for will follow you and make sure you get where you want to go.
As an industry, we have some distance to go. But we are getting there. Slowly but surely. As I speak to you now, I know about four different films that are being shot right now with budgets of nothing less than a hundred million naira.
Where is the budget coming from? Is government still funding?
Shishi. Government’s only funding apparatus is through Bank of Industry, and the waiting list is a mile long. So, most of this is private. Total funding from the private sector.
I also hear that CBN is funding or funded Queen Amina.
Bank of Industry. CBN did not fund Amina. Amina the one by Okechukwu Ogunjiofor, Bank of Industry funded it. And then additional funding by private people because the money wasn’t enough. What CBN has intervened in is the National Theatre through the Bankers’ Committee. In taking it over, they have made the National Theatre a creative hub: Cinemas and a park. It’s a project that would also help in highlighting and moving upwards the essence of the industry because it’s creative. Good music, entertainment, fashion, Photography, exhibition hall, conference. it is a massive project. And they are hoping, before the end of this administration, to commission it.
Why una cut the trees wey dey for dat park? Why una cut the trees wey dey national theatre?
What are you talking about? I foll
ow dem? They have a main plan of what they want to achieve.
I was upset because they planned to remove Ábé ígì. You know ábé ígì. Their plan for ábé ígì is to create a modern ábé ígì. Like a food court. That whole area is going to be a massive food court. It is the Chicken Republic and Mr Biggs that will go there. We hope to intervene to annex the people who have served the creatives over the last thirty years. Even served them beer and pepper soup over thirty, forty years. They are still there in their own section doing their thing.
What accounts for your being so influential in Nollywood? You have been described as the most influential man in Nollywood.
That description is false. I don’t take credit. I do my business behind the scenes. People who come out and stick their neck out and say I am here, I am there, when you look underneath, you will find that they’re standing on something. They don’t have the basis; they’re just making a lot of noise.
What I did when I was president has not been matched till today. I can say that. And I am hoping that the president there now will do better because a yardstick has been set. So, when issues come up and so on and I’m consulted, I go, I attend. But you see you cannot always come up and try and make people believe that you are the be all and end all. You are not.
Other people have minds too. So it’s better you all work in tandem as a group to make more impact like the broom. Two sticks cannot sweep the ground but, as a collective, you can make things happen. I’d rather be part of a collective than become a single champion. Most of them champions are not for the collective, but for themselves.
So, when people say that I am the most influential, I say “no it’s not possible.” I don’t have the national honor , I’ve not sought for it, I don’t need it. And those who have been given the national honor know how they got it and why they were given. That is really no skin off my nose. But the most important thing is that when it comes to making things happen, making things work, being able to influence things positively, you can always count on me. If it’s something that would drag the industry back, I’d be the first to tackle it.
Again, age is not on my side. There is a time to stand and fight, there is a time to sit down.
Mr. Wale Adenuga says you people are children. You still have a lot to give the industry.
We are. That’s another man I have utmost respect for because he has done a lot for television and film industry.
First to break into the big money with Papa Ajasco. Papa Ajasco is the first film in Nigeria to break into the million cadre.
Wale Adenuga made money, much more money from Super Story. The amount of sponsorship he had on Super Story was a lot. The Super Story series had the highest viewership. Ask any TV station. Any time Super Story was on, it had the highest viewership. Each slot was worth close to half a million back then. And it still has that sponsorship till today. I respect him as a businessman; I respect him as a creative, and I respect him for what he has done single-handedly by taking the risk: the different angle from mainstream.
He saw that it’s not just this way we shall go. There are other ways, which is what I’ve been trying to tell my people. For the past five years I’ve been telling them, forget market, forget what you’re selling. Forget cinema. Cinema is just one revenue stream. Streaming services is where the money is at.
Is that to our advantage though? Because our streaming service for instance right now Netflix, Prime, all the money goes abroad. Can’t we have a local one?
There are. But they are not as big and strong. They do not have the muscle, but they’ll get there. Have you heard of Ndani TV owned by GTbank?
Yes. It has been there for the past ten years. Streaming. Showing content. Do you know Red TV? Owned by UBA? It is Online
How come we do not know about them?
A: If you investigate, you’ll find they’re there. When did African Magic come in? Before African Magic which is cable, they had a structure, and they had a vision of what they wanted. Many of the content came from Nollywood before they started doing their own original films 90%. So, why couldn’t we have thought of that then?
What I am saying now, just like you said, it’s about time we set up our own local Netflix. However, can you afford to draw the attention of the top-rated filmmakers to that kind of platform?
We don’t have the funds. Netflix spends money. Serious money in dollars. When they accept your film and put it on, they pay you a good sum, especially if they are taking it exclusively. Then you cannot bring it out anywhere else. Amazon has just come, less than a year now. Disney is around the corner: Disney is already in. Paramount already in.
When you say in are they all coming to Nigeria?
They are already in Nigeria. Do you know MTV Base? Nickelodeon? All these companies are owned by Viacom. And Viacom owns Paramount. So, we already have the means in Africa. So now they have looked at how Netflix and Amazon are doing, and they are bringing Paramount in.
Next six months, Paramount is streaming. Hulu is a streaming service jointly owned by Disney and Comcast’s NBCUniversal holding in America. Bravo. They are all coming in. They have already started franchising things out. The Real Housewives of Lagos and so on is a Bravo brand. Housewives of Philadelphia, Housewives of London. It is a brand name. It’s just like Who wants to be a millionaire. It’s a brand, it’s a name. Showmax got the rights and are shooting already. It is owned by Bravo. Very soon they will soon also come here.
That also means that very soon Nigeria will not find it easy to become part of the streaming services because big muscles are showing up.
That is what I’m trying to say. The earlier we set up with the big muscles, the better because big muscles have now been able to see that there’s a business opportunity in Nollywood film industry. That is why we’re having people who can put forth hundred million naira to do one film. Fifty million, seventy million.
So, when you’re talking about streaming and so on, what really do you need? Which digital links? Submarine cables? Fiber optics have made it easier. It was in South Africa. Got the cable from South Africa, through Ghana, to Lagos. That is what Netflix is using to stream. They have now set up a whole full-fledged Nigeria streaming center.
Will you now say that Project Act is an initiative that was half-hearted considering that they were giving people ten million when a budget of a hundred million is needed?
That is clearly ten years ago. Ten million was a lot of money then. The films that were being shot then were not shot for ten million. Average film budget was about five million at that time.
So how do you rate Project Act?
It was the most successful intervention in the history of Nollywood as far as I am concerned. That is why I always say Goodluck Jonathan listened to the industry. It was not a political move. It was a move to uplift the creative industry. We’re where we are today because of the policies of Goodluck Jonathan. Not for anything else. Yar’Adua did nothing for the industry.
Before Yar’Adua, did the others do something?
Did they even understand what it was about? I mentioned Yar’Adua because he was also Yar’adua’s vice president. At that point in time, if you remember, AMAA started from Bayelsa under Alameseya and then under Jonathan as governor. He knew and appreciated the industry. When he became president, it was not a difficult journey to go straight to him and say, “Sir we need intervention. We need funding. We need to do that, and we need to do this.”
Were there people that approached him?
Without a doubt. There were engagements. Let us just put it that way.
Do you know anybody that engaged him?
Yes, but they know themselves.
We cannot write that.
We were also lucky to have Minister Okonjo Iweala, who also had the vision for the industry, to diversify the economy. She was put in charge. Like everything Nigeria, some politics was involved occasionally.
British Council provided technical services. World Bank provided technical services. Dr. Supo, who was assistant to Okonjo-Iweala, was also an entertainment consultant. They knew what they were doing. If I tell you that, by the time we got our grant from DGN, I had not set my eyes on Dr. Supo even once, you won’t believe. I never knew him. Till we went to sign the papers in Abuja, I never met him before. He needed people who would do the work. Nothing like that favoritism.
After we did that, the producers went on their trip. Cinematographers went on their trip, make – up artists went on their trip. As directors, we were funded for the training.
We are where we are today because Project Act has a positive impact. What has really made us circumvent a lot of hurdles is the explosion of opportunities. Digital technology has made our scope and our vision much wider. That’s why you can have a skit maker making $345,000 a year on YouTube alone. Would you believe it? Mark Angel, Emmanuella and all the rest. I am not talking Naira. Look at the skit making industry now. It has metamorphosed. Some skits are total rubbish; some are sexually oriented; some are political. Opportunity is there.