FilmOne Entertainment Is Nollywood’s Bittersweet Tale of Triumph
Moses Babatope, who is the co-founder and Group Executive Director of FilmOne Entertainment, the leading film distribution and production company in Nigeria, is a well-known figure in the Nigerian film industry. Initially considered an intruder in a Nollywood dominated by the creative community, this finance and banking professional and his partner have become the winged horses of Nollywood, controlling 47% of a blooming industry. Filmhouse Cinemas has the largest cinema chain in Nigeria, and FilmOne Entertainment, has contributed greatly to the growth of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry.
In this interview, he dives into his journey, the challenges he has faced, and the future of Nollywood.
TNR: I hope FilmOne is not just exploring the Nigerian market. Are you satisfied with attendance in Nigeria, or you have other irons in the fire internationally?
Moses Babatope: The brief answer to that is we’re a wholly and proudly Nigerian company with a very global outlook. For the services we provide, products we create, we have ambitions to take our cinema company beyond the shores of Nigeria.
We plan to share experiences within our cinemas and to shores beyond Nigeria, especially on the African continent. And for our films to be distributed in Nigeria and to other African markets, we’ve already proven it by partnering with some of the streamers; for example, our products are on Netflix and Prime video.
Also, we are the pioneers of theatrical distribution of Nigerian films abroad. We did it just recently with Buka Street, and we earned about a hundred and thirty thousand dollars in less than three US cinema locations. That proved to us that with the right kind of film and the right kind of marketing buzz, Nigerian films from the local market can be monetized in cinemas abroad. We’re very confident that we cut across all the revenue streams: Cinemas, TV, streaming, airlines and what have you.
Nigeria remains a focal point, remains where the broad prospect is very potent and where it’s very obvious. However, we see the larger picture of the globe: the key diaspora market. We see even the japa phenomenon as a great opportunity for us because a lot of the content created here are consumed internationally and we’re paid. It’s a form of remittal as well. And we’re paid dollars or pounds hard currency that we can repatriate and continue to invest more in media and entertainment here.
What is your strategy to break beyond Nigerians consuming it abroad?
We’ll continue to increase the quality of our films and story-telling, to ensure that the films are as authentic to our reality and our experiences in Nigeria.
From South Korean various series that are not in the English language to the drug-related films from South America, or other international products, Nigeria has a lot of lessons to take from them, and we are learning very fast.
Our films, the few of them that streamers have had to push around, are being received worldwide. Yes, a good portion of them are for Nigerian audiences but we’re beginning to see global audiences take to them. So, investing in our craft is important.
Also investing in relationships where co-productions is some of the things we’re looking at. For instance, putting a U.S. star in our films to broaden the audience. In addition, exchange programs or training programs are things we’re looking at for our filmmakers to undertake. Exposing some of our films to major festivals are ways we’re trying to break out into the global market. Introducing our films by way of panel discussions in the way of presentations are the ways we’re looking to break into the global market.
As you know, once the quality of the film that’s being talked about attracts media like CNN, FOX, or BBC, it would attract some kind of publicity that we’re getting more and more savvy. This will get us more people. But as you know, in this world that we are, we can engineer a lot of attention, but it is never sustainable if the quality of the product is not there. These are issues we’re intentionally addressing.
Another thing we’re deliberate about is educating the global audience and the global media executive about the Nigerian film industry. Every year we publish, during the past five to six years, we’ve published the annual The Nigerian Box-Office Year Book. The hope is that, with this, they can be aware of what’s going on in our territory. Let them know there’s some kind of structure that exists here, and that this is a market ripe for investment. These are the kinds of strategies we’re putting in place to go for a real global audience.
In addition, we have also taken lessons from afrobeat(s). We can see the musical genre(s) doing well to become a main staple and mainstream, too. While I think that that would not be a fast and immediate process where Nigerian movies are concerned, but the streamers have done a great job in exposing us to the world. We’re also now looking at working with music stars, to see how film can be as widely accepted as music is.
But how are you going to bridge the linguistic gap? That repressed Chinese movies in those days. How will you bridge that?
Thanks to technology, streamers take a lot of credit for bridging the gap. We have things like captioning, subtitling, and dubbing. These are helping to bridge the gap in terms of audiences being able to understand what’s being spoken on screen.
Critically acclaimed productions on Netflix like Money Heist from Spain and Narcos from Mexico are not in English language: they were subtitled. Some works on these streaming platforms were dubbed in English!
So, we’re walking through these things by not being ashamed to tell stories in our local dialect and not being ashamed to speak like we are Nigerians since we know that we can communicate all of that to an international audience since we can use technology to help the communication experience for our audiences.
As a result, we’re making sure we’re still true to who we are and using technology by subtitling and dubbing to get more audiences connected to our stories.
Your background is finance, is it not? You’re pretty expressive.
Yes. Money Banking and Finance first degree; International finance, Masters. My father is a journalist. He worked for Concord.
This relationship between you and your partner, how did it start and what is the secret of your enduring partnership?
We’ve been friends for the past twenty-one years and he was very instrumental to me getting into cinema business.
We met in 2002 when I went for an interview. I didn’t do great in the interview at all, but he was helpful in getting me through the door and staying in there. He was already a supervisor. We grew a bond and we saw things the same way: we saw opportunities, and we were passionate about bringing our expertise back to Nigeria. Thus, we became close back in England.
We also piloted a lot of things, like premiers in the UK that worked very well. To take it a notch further, he started dating my wife’s sister, and he was my best man at my wedding in 2008. He got married to my wife’s sister in 2016. Our children are cousins. So, we’re now kind of tied to the hip.
We have our ups and downs as we’ve grown more and more into the role and the company has grown. There are things that we don’t see eye to eye on just as there are things we see eye to eye on. We just have a common goal of changing the perception of the industry and really bringing to bear international best practices in the industry. And I thank God we’ve been successful in doing it. Besides, we’ve had a great team that supported us. Without the great team, I don’t think our relationship will be that strong. God has been awesome.
Another thing that has helped us is looking past our disagreement, to kind of fix our eyes on the goal. because we go through circles where, sometimes, the relationship can be a challenge, but we always find a way out of it.
A remarkable journey. At one point, you were behind Silverbird in terms of market volume. However, now, you control forty-seven percent of the market. That takes some doing. So how would you describe the journey thus far?
The journey has been bittersweet.
It’s not been easy. I think a lot of people were suspicious of our intentions when we started. A lot of people felt like who are these guys from England that are trying to reinvent the wheel? We were pushing for transparency, but a number of them thought maybe we were just trying to manipulate data to our advantage. We’re grateful that we’ve been vindicated because the availability of data has been one of the catalysts for the growth of the Nigerian film industry and for the increased investments.
We’re really proud of what we’ve done in the area of transparency despite the fact that a lot of people feel that they’re monopolistic tendencies, and I just think it’s a shame. Nigeria has very intelligent people, but I don’t know whether it’s also a thing in the black DNA where we’re threatened by the successes of others. There’s a sense of insecurity when somebody has done something right. We celebrate them at some instance and then, quickly, we want to bash them when they fall, step on them or trample on them when they fall. That’s been the part of business that’s been painful.
The kind of access we’ve given Nollywood films, internationally, by really proving the point that the best way to represent the country is through competence, we would have thought that, even if it’s not celebrated, it should be acknowledged. However, our efforts have been met with a lot of pessimism and criticism. And that’s where it’s been bitter.
I know some people have misrepresented us to some of the streamers, saying that we undercut them and that we do not pay the right amount of fees. The pessimism and negative representation by certain people in the industry have become a double-edged sword when we’ve tried to communicate with the streamers and the buyers or people interested in Nollywood as we try to communicate their intentions to the Nollywood practitioners. We’re in the middle. But they the streamers don’t believe us and the Nollywood practitioners that we represent towards those buyers are suspicious of us as well. So that’s not been easy to navigate.
But I guess it’s also part of what you get in an evolving industry: an emerging industry. However, I think that we’re in our next phase now from the end of this year. From next year, we’ll see more activity in the country. There’ re a lot more companies now that have been built up and are built up to take advantage or take the opportunity that are presenting themselves. So, I think there’ll be more democratization of opportunities, more democratization of resources, and more allocation of resources to various Nollywood practitioners. Hopefully, that can trickle down more to the masses and people that are looking to come into the industry.
We’re grateful we came into an industry that the foundation has been set, particularly in terms of local content, and what we just needed to do was to formalize it more and build a distribution outlet like these cinemas to show that there’s more to Nollywood than being shown on Africa Magic or selling DVDs.
Would you say that we’re suffering from oversaturation at this time, or we still have ways to go? Bear in mind that box office ticket sales are dropping.
Absolutely. Long way to go!
I believe that if we build cinemas, people will come. I believe that if there was a fund that helps cinemas to market, I believe that people would come. It’s just like saying stage production should stop. Theatre production should stop. We don’t have enough of them, and they will not stop. It’s a form of entertainment. It needs to be performance-driven. You will never get the kind of large screen, loud sound experience in your home. You’ll never get that communal experience in your home.
Look at the castigation that quick service restaurants received ten years ago. However, today, people are eating more outside. People are ordering more catered food than they ever did, but I know we cannot equate food with entertainment in terms of its importance. Nonetheless, what we need to do is to make the cinema experience a lot more palatable but also be polished and bring up the cinemas.
We need to rethink how cinemas should be. It should be at par with cinematic expression, and cinematic exhibition, but can we find other entertaining things for people to come do in the cinema? Once we have that, people will go out. We’ll continue to see a rise and rise in outdoor experiences being taken up well.
People will not stop going to pepper soup joints. They won’t stop going to places where you have light music played. So, we need to find out what all of these guys are doing well to make cinema as enjoyable as that. That’s why we occupy the roles we occupy to innovate when we are faced with challenges.
What do you see as the future outlook for the Nigerian film industry and what role do you see FilmOne playing in shaping this future?
I see a bright future for the Nigerian film industry. I’m of the opinion that once we get a new dispensation in power, and a sustained period of economic stability which we’re hopeful for, I think that it will coincide with the best of creativity that we have seen in the last three years in spite of chaos brought upon us through economic struggles and trials, political issues, which the pandemic caused.
We need a government that would be creative and find ways through which we can channel a lot of revenues, trade routes that can bring foreign exchange into the country. We need a situation where there’ll be more educational institutions’ activity. In addition, I see a lot more engagement with the government and the creative sector. I see a lot of policy positives – policies of copyright enforcement – and more private sector interest in the creative industry in general.