New York-based filmmaker, art activist, Tony Abulu was currently in the country to grace the African Movie Academy Award (AMAA) ceremonies. He also spent time firming up marketing schemes for his latest film, Crazy Like A Fox. ANOTE ANJELORUE encountered Abulu in Lagos and engaged him in a chat. Excerpts
YOU have an association in the US. What is its relationship with Nollywood?
I’m the president of the Nigerian Filmmakers Association in the US. We’ve been working with the Filmmakers Cooperative of Nigeria. I was instrumental to the bringing of 40 top Nollywood stars to the US in 2004 with the hope of introducing the Nigerian film industry to a more global audience, and more importantly, to find distributors. The basic concept is finding distribution for Nollywood content worldwide. We’ve been at it for a long time and we are happy to have secured several deals with major distribution companies. All Nigerian producers have to do is to shoot films in high definition cameras.
We made Crazy Like A Fox by Black Ivory Communications of which I’m president and based in New York because we noticed that way we were shooting on the regular DH, which was very difficult to find international distributors. We believe that if we package our products well with high definition format, which the whole world is using, we’ll find distribution. We believe Crazy Like A Fox will open the doors to international distribution-ship for Nigerian films. We have Karibi Fabara in it, he’s Nigeria’s number one actor in the US; and Angel Fershgenet. We write a story, which Americans will appreciate; we did the film with half a million dollars, the average American film is 50 million dollars and above. We did it like that so it won’t be too far-fetched from the Nigerian experience. If Nigerians shot with budgets like 200-250, 000 dollars, they will be able to enter into distribution channels globally. They are shooting good movies but the channels available for them for distribution are limited by virtue of their budget, which is 50,000 dollars. You can’t shoot a film like that and expect it to go globally. Crazy like a fox is like an example of what that kind of money can do. We are very fortunate to be selected to the American Black film festival, the biggest black film festival in the world. It’s very difficult to get in there. 412 black movies applied worldwide, they selected only 12 feature films. Crazy like a Fox was nominated for best film and best inspirational film. And we’re competing with films that were shot with millions and millions of dollars, and in 35mm.
We’ve signed deals with several distributors in the US, who distribute over 200 million per title worldwide. We’ve also signed with Silverbird to distribute for the whole of Africa.
I’m talking with my colleagues in the Nigerian film industry. People like Paul Obazele, president of Association of Movie Producers (AMP), we’re talking on how to move the industry forward. Filmmakers Association of Nigeria in the US is working to stop piracy of Nigerian films in the US. The problem with Nigerian films is not that they are getting less in quality. As soon as a DVA come out in Nigeria, somebody sends it to the US and it’s all over the place. We had a copyright conference in 2005 with the US Department of Justice, US Copyright Commission, Intellectual Property Institute, the US Board of Patrol and Customs. Adebambo Adewopo of the Nigerian Copyright Commission and Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board were also there including the Justice ministry. It was a major conference. The US government pledged to help Nigeria with a patent. They asked us to form an NGO, which we have done. They gave us attorneys who are working with us for free. It costs over 250,000 dollars just to prosecute one case of copyright infringement.
The problem again is that Nigerian films are not copyrighted in the US, so you can’t accuse anybody. For four years, we tried getting Nigerians to copyright in the US… Right now if you watch a Nollywood film, the music is all Nigerian, which is very good for the Nigerian musicians. They are using their own music and spreading the business around and thereby improving the quality of the outcome in music as well as in films. We are ready to move to the next level, which is intense global distribution of Nigerian films. What does it require? First is to shoot in high definition format; secondly, the stories have to change a little bit.
Yes, I was going to come to that. How can Nollywood improve its stories to attract global audience?
As I said, when I came in 2003, we were a little elementary at that time. Many have improved their stories. It’s different when you want to tell an indigenous African story, which is just meant for Nigerians. If you want the global world to watch your films, you have to be able to retain what we call your African-centric personality, which is your Nigerian personality but at the same time, the film must be able to relate to people around the world. That’s the next level and that’s where we’re going to work with some of the producers in term of story telling and scripting and so forth.
In what way are you going to partner with Nollywood to write better stories for good content?
Well, it’s a little bit difficult because artistes are very creative and everybody believes they have their own ideas. So, if you’re not careful, people feel you want to infringe on their own creative input and idea. But I will say this: everybody is free to tell their story the way they want to because they raised the money. But if you’re looking for a global audience, you must give them what they want.
Our last movie was called American Dream. It’s an indigenous Nigerian story about three young Nigeria men. One of them is hell bent on going to the US; one says he isn’t going anywhere, that he’ll stay and get involved in politics and get the country better; the third one says he’s in the middle of the two. We followed them to have the story developed to the end. You’ll be amazed how the world is responding to that story. It’s a comedy and people are tracking us. Everybody can identify with the immigrant aspiration that is there.
It shows you how Nigerian young people are thinking; how they want to fit into a global community. And the world would like to see something like that. In most Nigerian films, you’ll see the name of all the characters in the story with none being African or Nigerian name. not a single one; they all have English names. If people are watching abroad, it’s what they feel: You mean there’s no Nkechi, no Ngozi, no Segun; there’s no Ade, no Razaq? The film itself stands out looking fake; it looks like a fake version of an African American film. The way the people are talking, the accent obviously is not an American accent; it’s trying to be like an American accent but to Americans, it looks fake. You don’t want to present something that is fake to the world; you want to present something that’s authentic. Even when you’re speaking English, you speak like a Nigerian, so people will know this is English-speaking African country. It’s our own personality, that’s what I’m talking about. You tell a young man and a young woman falling in Nigeria falling love, it’s going to be totally different from young people in New York falling in love; it’ll be different to from those in India. Look at Shun dog Millionaire, how
The story went, the kind of music, the setting and so on.
Unfortunately, our own culture, we have allowed it to be something that is not protected. We’re just letting it slide away. We never really plan here; in the world, everything is planned. We cannot afford to just let it be whatever it is. It’s being influenced by places. It’s not just the problem of the filmmakers; it’s the problem of the Nigerian contemporary culture. That question has not been asked. And that is, what is contemporary Nigerian culture? That is what influences the music. If you notice now when our musicians are beginning to sing in a version that sounds more African — they are speaking Yoruba, Igbo languages in the music —people are beginning to buy the music. That is how we used to buy Fela, Sunny Ade, Obey etc.
And I praise the young Nigerian musicians a lot. That’s why we try to include Nigeria music in our films and pay for the rights. We did it with Fela’s music, with King Sunny Ade’s music. There’ll be D’Banj, Wande Coal, TuFace and the others in our next movie. We want to take all those guys to a global market, whereby the world begins to appreciate what we have; but it has to be authentic. Most Nigerian filmmakers are young; they are being influenced by the contemporary culture. But they have to go back. When you talk of Tunde Kilani from a deep cultural background or the new movie Jenifa, the film goes back to the authenticity of the culture. It shows how Africans are trying to fit into a modern world. Does it work or does it not work? So, the viewer that is watching sees the authentic African personality and then sees the other personality that is trying to be fake, and then he can follow it.
Until that problem is solved… what is contemporary Nigerian culture? How do you define it? What is contemporary Nigerian personality? How do you define it? That’s the only way we can create cultural products that we can sell to the world. Otherwise, all the products we’ll produce will be fake. We can buy that ourselves here in Nigeria but nobody else will buy them.
What has been the response in your interactions with practitioners in the industry with respect to these issues you have raised?
Well, I think they have responded positively. We’ve spoken to some of the producers on several occasions. We’ve going to get more of them involved. They’ve going through a lot of issues now because they have to make their films better. Luckily, a few banks are getting interested in what they are doing. But I always say that the government has a major, major role to play. It’s very unfortunate that our government has not understood its role.
What kind of role should government play?
There are several roles. The Nigeria Film and Video Censors Board is doing a major job in trying to help them in forming a distribution chain in the country. Emeka Mba is well traveled and understands the process. The problem for them right now is the 20-in-1 and 15-in-I DVDs coming from China that are flooding the country. Government has to go ahead to stop them; if they don’t stop them, there will be no film industry in the next one or two years. Government has the role to stop them.
The other critical role that government can play is to create an endowment fund. The 20,000 dollar films cannot take Nigeria anywhere. Slumdog Millionaire was shot for 50 million dollars — an Indian story shot by a British producer; and everybody is screaming that it won all the awards. Where can a Nigerian producer find that kind of money to produce such a film? Hotel Rwanda was shot for about 25 million dollars and it won award. The money came from their government. Nigeria government has a lot of money.
And they are re-banding Nigeria?
I love the fact that the Minister is re-branding Nigeria though people don’t understand it. They are accusing her of wasting money and all that. Every country re-brands continuously. You have to understand that you’re competing with other countries in the world for attention for your products. That’s the bottomline. Name any single product that Nigeria is making that is on sale to anybody… the only one is the Nigerian movie, a cultural product.
But the government is not putting anything into culture as much as it gets in terms of image laundering?
That’s what we’re saying to them. What indigenous product made by anybody in Nigeria can they sell to anybody? The only country that did it was Ghana because of Kente cloth. It took years and millions of dollars in branding before they got it through. In the African-American community, we can do the same branding with Ase-oke and Akwa-ocha. We’re taking our culture for granted because we have oil, which has taken us out of our element. We’re making so much money from oil, we have totally relegated what is going to save our people when oil runs dry in the future.
Nobody is interested in our culture because we haven’t branded it; nobody is willing to pay a dime for it… the only thing anybody is willing to pay for is our film, and we’re looking at the filmmakers dying. And we yab them, we criticize them but South Africans are buying them and showing them on their TV television. The whole world is switching their movies. Where is the support? Are we going to wait until they die even when we share 50 billions in the reserves, for whom? We can’t just put 100 million dollars in an endowment fund account for them and insist on quality as a minimum requirement for accessing the fund?
Is it not in the place of the Nigeria Film Corporation to persuade government about such funds?
They can’t do it alone. The government ought to pass the money through the NFC. The Managing Director, Afolabi Adesanya, would like to help the industry but he’s handicapped. Where is the finding? It has to come in from the government. Spike Lee got 40,000 dollars from the US National Endowment Fund. They saw the potential in him. He raised additional 50,000 dollars to shoot She’s gotta have it and it went to Cannes films festival. Look at what Spike Lee has become today and the number of people he has employed.
I’m not waiting for the government because I can raise my own money in the US. But Nollywood is here. The banks are not giving them the money; nobody believes in them. The government that’s supposed to raise them up, it is not doing anything.
The argument sometimes is that their stories do more harm than good to the image of the country. Is this a valid argument?
How can the stories be strong enough when they don’t have money. They shoot movies for 20,000 dollars and the whole world is watching. If you give them 200,000 dollars, will they not do far better than they are doing now? There’s no funding, so don’t expect more. Maybe individuals have to do it.
When I took the National Troupe to the US in 1992, it was amazing the response we got. So, it’s your culture that creates the opportunity for your products that you can sell. You first of all find that culture, brainwash everybody into accepting it, which is what they have done to us in Nigeria. They brainwash us to watch their movies; then you want to look like them.
Branding is coordinating your culture in your country; make it appreciated by the indigenes of your country and then ship it abroad. It’s not just for people to love you; it’s for economic reasons. You don’t go and spend your money on CNN when you don’t have a product to sell. If you spend one million dollars to advertise, you make 10 million. And we have people that can do it.
The way the re-branding is going, it seems focused only on publicity. How does that profit Nigeria?
You do not spend the money by just talking or taking adverts. You spend the money by way of social responsibility. You have to have a constituency that loves you to death. That’s where you spend the money. With five million dollars, I can raise one billion dollars for this country. African Americans spend 900 billion dollars every year. Not a dime of the money comes to Nigeria; not one cent. Nigeria doesn’t get one dollar. And they are our brothers that were stolen from us and we’re just looking! And they hate us to death. Their attitude is: ‘you’re the big brothers, what are you doing?’ That was why I took the National Troupe to tour the black community in the US.
You’re letting the culture just die; you have to know what to do with the branding. The culture is going to die the way we’re going. All your kids are imbibing other foreign cultures. It shouldn’t happen. You create that culture, monitor it and you influence the world, with the culture. That’s why the world will want to wear Aso-oke to watch your film. You have to know what to put in the film.
The country has allowed 20-25 years of our culture to elapse without doing anything with that culture. The young kids don’t know anything about our culture. We make them believe that our indigenous culture is backward; so everyone wants to be like American but, eh African Americans want to be like Nigerians. When they come they are disappointed because there’s nothing left for them to see of our culture; so they go to the hinterland. They go to Ghana that has branded her culture.
Branding is continuous; if you cannot brand, you cannot sell. You remove oil from Nigeria, what is left? The whole of Nigeria will starve to death; we won’t even be able to pay our civil servants. 98 percent of our revenue comes from oil. What we’re saying to the whole world is that we don’t have sense or brain to create anything else we can sell. Where is our mind; we all go to college and we can’t create a product that we can force down the throat of somebody else. And we keep buying their own. The world doesn’t work like that. If we don’t quickly wake up and understand how the world works, we’ll be in a mess. We must be very diligent and hardworking. We have to be creative; it should be number one.