By Olalekan Bilesanmi
Femi Odugbemi is a titan of the Nigerian creative industry. He is famous for scripting, directing and producing documentaries, short films and drama.
He produced Tinsel, the hugely successful soap opera that began airing in 2008. He also scripted, directed and produced Bariga Boys, a multiple award-winning documentary about street performers in the Bariga area of Lagos. In 2013, he scripted, produced and directed a documentary titled Literature, Language and Literalism about the late ace writer, D.O. Fagunwa. A former President of the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria and member of the Advisory Board of the School of Media and Communications, Pan-African University, Lagos, he also produced Abobaku, a short film which won the Most Outstanding Short Film at the Zuma Film Festival in 2010. Odugbemi has a new role as Director, MultiChoice Academy in Nigeria, a part of the MultiChoice Talent Factory initiative recently launched by MultiChoice. In this interview, the film and television graduate of the Montana State University, United States, explains how the MultiChoice Talent Factory will revolutionise the continent’s creative industries
What is the MultiChoice Talent Factory initiative about and what inspired it?
It is the most exciting intervention in the African creative industries to date. There are always interventions. There have been trainings on the structure business, distribution and things like that. The film industry in Africa, especially Nollywood, was born out of what you might call individual enterprise. It has come far on that level, but there is another level, which I think the time is right for institutions like MultiChoice, which has creativity and excellence in its DNA, to come to table with such a grand intervention.
And this intervention is along the line of what the company has always done, which is to pursue excellence. If you look at the AMVCA, it is about promoting excellence. Promoting excellence has the advantage of building the individual and expanding his opportunity in the industry and, at the same time, growing the collective value of the industry.
Many have speculated that our industry has the potential to be a $1billion industry and the possibility of being the number one in the world. It’s number three if you look at the rating of Nollywood across the world. If we have that possibility, there are many things we must do.
Technology is asking a lot of questions of us because it is also providing a lot of opportunities. It has the potential for young people. If you look at the industry, it is still very young. The potential that comes from their passion, from how much they are self-taught and from how much they want to create, that potential has business implications. For us to connect their potential and their talent to them being able to sustain that, we need to be able to make sure that their talent provides them…the idea is that we want to provide them from being just filmmakers to creative entrepreneurs.
And I think this why the MultiChoice Talent Factory is so unique. It has three touch points. There is the academy, which is a one-year, full-time course that has something I have agitated for a very long time, which is a curriculum that is specifically designed to empower an Africa filmmaker. That curriculum would teach the business side of film. It will teach something like how to source for funds and the funding to make projects. It will teach how to distribute films in a technology-driven environment. But it is also a curriculum that would teach the fundamentals, whether it is script writing, cinematography, production management; to teach the fundamentals in a concentrated way that you will find in a film school. But thirdly, it is a curriculum that teaches about future. There is a cross-media element to this that says what if you don’t want to stay behind the camera? What if it’s a phone? What if you want to distribute online? Where are the technological tools; the apps you need to be able to be a filmmaker in ten years from now?
All of that is in that curriculum for this academy. I think the intensity and the fact that this curriculum is something we created in partnership with the Pan- Atlantic University School of Media Communication. That tells you how serious the content we are trying to load students with. It is an opportunity for whoever is selected.
What is the selection process like?
We have opened the portal for entries. The entries, right now across Africa, are over a thousand. This was something we opened some weeks back and we are trying to pick 20 per hub. We have three hubs. We have the West African hub which is Nigeria and Ghana. I am the academy director. We have the East Africa hub, which has Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda. We have the Southern hub, which has Zambia, Ethiopia, Lesotho and few other countries.
Each of these hubs will admit 20 students. So, there is a rigorous selection process. It should be rigorous. Effectively, what we are trying to find are 20 star-players; 20 passionate players.
Established or upcoming ones?
What we are saying is that you need to have been done with post-secondary education and you need two years, not less since you left school. So if you have been involved in that industry for two years, it is fine. If you are not, but been trying to do one or two things in terms of self-teaching, that is fine. The whole idea is that we need you educated enough to be able to understand the modus operandi of the business of cinema. We need you to be educated enough to be able to use Power Point and Excel Sheets to draw up a budget. A lot of what we are going to teach are hands on. So, you need that basic educational foundation for you to be able to engage in a proper way. But we don’t want you so experienced that we need to reformat the hard drive. We would like to simply use the drive with new information and not have to clean out the drive first. Basically, the younger the better.
This is also a passionate thing. I want us to have people so passionate they are willing to stay the course. They are willing to concentrate. They are willing to take the maximum advantage of this intervention because this intervention is expensive as you might imagine.
This intervention appears to be elitist, given the platform (Pan-Atlantic University) you are using and the cost implications. How about also using credible but public institutions so as to reduce cost and have more participants?
Two things are there for you to know. Excellence is elitist. If you have passion for excellence, you are already an elitist of the mind. I have had the privilege of hanging out with incredibly creative people and you find that superior knowledge empowers you. I will not run away from saying it is elitist. We want people who want to be different, who want to be so passionate and powerfully engaged that they make a difference in the industry. Why this is different is that this is going to empower the leadership of the industry in ten years. We are not only teaching kids to be good filmmakers, we are trying to teach them to be great creative entrepreneurs. We are not keen on graduating people who are looking for work; we are graduating people who want to create work, who want to employ others. So, if we are able to succeed in our mission and out of 20, only ten-let us assume a 50% success rate-come out and start production companies, we are fine. An average production company hires between 10 and 30 people. If they are working, they could hire up to 70 or 100.
Then, it must have a big budget…
Of course, that is what we are aiming at. We would teach you how to get this budget. You cannot go look for the budget from your uncle, sister all the time. It is not going work because at some point, your uncle will be tired. MultiChoice’s Africa Magic is actually commissioning work. There are other channels commissioning work, but if you don’t know how to present the business proposal, you will never get any work. Guess what, those who spread rumours are those who fail. Successful people don’t need an excuse. Nobody ever asked me why you I am this successful. But imagine we want to create highly skilled entrepreneurs, skilled enough to be able to function in this industry in a way that expands the infrastructure.
Beyond teaching of the fundamentals, how about the issue of piracy?
You cannot eliminate piracy, but you can reduce it. You can reduce it when the infrastructure of the industry is so self-aware that it is structured to work against it. What we had before was an industry that was not really paying any attention to it and so our distribution system left many holes for the guy who is a pirate. And if you are working with DVD, it can be circumvented. If your systems allow so many hands to touch your material, you cannot guarantee that everybody will have the integrity not to pirate your film. But things have changed and they are changing fast. Technology is ensuring that unless you have my authority, it is very difficult to take the digital copy of my film because there are many digital forms, which I put my film that are encoded in such a way that unless you and I are doing business, you cannot access it. But what really changes the level of piracy in any society is not laws, it is technology and enforcement. We would teach the business of cinema in the context of our environment. And if you are teaching how to make money in this our environment, there is no way you are not going to talk about strategies of combating piracy. The first place to combat piracy is through the owner of the right. How I handle my creative property determines how many people have access to it. I hope that the students that we are going to be graduating would be self-aware, industry-aware and technologically aware enough to, at least, start the fight against piracy on their own work from the get go rather than be victims of it.
How would content impact the business model of filmmaking as the students get cracking?
The only way to empower a creative entrepreneur is to teach him the kind of work that attracts an audience and keeps an audience. That starts with the content. Content is king. When I said we are trying to graduate creative superior leaders, it starts with the content. I think in defence of our industry that we have remained the work in progress. We are constantly progressing in the quality of content of our storytelling. We are not there yet. But we are on our way. Now, remember Hollywood was not built in a day. And the kind of intervention MultiChoice Talent Factory represents are the staircases that need to be provided for us to find the awareness that to make films better means to have bigger audiences, means to be more prosperous. We must connect filmmaking to the audience on the other side. And the only bridge that connects the filmmaker and the audience is great storytelling. Yes, our modus of storytelling is intense. The academy has incredible facilitators. Thankfully Nigeria is blessed because this is an Africa-wide initiative, so we would also exchanging facilitators.
I find it quite interesting and exciting that not only are we going be talking about storytelling in Nigeria, but storytelling across Africa; story telling from cultures and places that we may not have gone. I am hoping that when these kids come out, they are extremely conscious and aware about not just the formula for storytelling but the inspired love of untold stories.
One of the problems we have is the audience knowing where you are going when the story you are telling is a regurgitation of a story already told. Our audiences are also extremely sophisticated. They are exposed, thanks to MultiChoice. They are exposed to different kinds of stories from many different places. So, today, we are different from 1990 where the number of stories a viewer can see is very few and so, anything goes. Today when they watch a Nollywood film, they are making a decision, a conscious decision to watch that film. We owe them that one and half hours of their lives. We owe them that value; we owe them for their time, money and excellence. And that is why this is so critical because the filmmaker is the very beginning and end of value in storytelling.
Why should these supposed students go to this particular film academy before they can make it?
You are absolutely right. You don’t need to. As of today, you can Google, with a cup of coffee by your side, you can learn everything I learnt in school. What you cannot achieve is the network that this particular project brings. This is actually going to be a network of incredibly passionate, incredibly energized and commonly empowered group of sixty. That means if I am a graduate of MultiChoice Talent Factory, I can call up a fellow colleague of the academy in Zambia, I know him immediately. I don’t have to travel to know him, by the time we add the portal, which is our online exchange, all the students are going to be in the network. That is one of the empowering things in cinema. Because it means that my storytelling awareness is not restricted by geography. I can find a story in Zambia, Kenya and when Africa begins to tell stories that collide, we begin to discover some additional value for our audience. We are all very similar, yet so different