FOR A VIABLE CINEMA INDUSTRY IN NIGERIA

 Concluding part-Conversation with Ladi Ladebo.

In a previous conversation, I limited myself to merely giving a situation report on what it means to be an independent celluloid film maker in Nigeria. I did emphasize that during the past two decades, I had the opportunity to also produce some titles on BETA CAM SP video format. Indeed, IN THE NAME OF TRADITION, on Female Circumcision, and THE THRIFT COLLECTOR television series on population and development, received international recognition and awards. My point is that there should be an international standard by which our Nigerian film productions should be recognized.

It is instructive to note that many Nigerian commentators are now more vocal in condemning the self delusion that “Nigeria is one of the major film making nations, after Hollywood and India, ahead of Europe and Asia in world cinema”. How asinine! It is even more painful to hear top officials sing song this absurd notion publicly. One can forgive our top government officials. Their impression is taken from fabricated reports by those put in charge of the Nigerian film industry, aided by all manners of university experts who know nothing about the practicality of making motion pictures. They confuse the art of film making with theatre arts, and therefore, are unable to discern between film images and video. Our industry officials stand before the mirror, naked, but insist they are garbed in expensive BABANRIGA! It is like saying ‘I pray not to be shamed; but since I'm shamed, all I can do is to pray not to die'. Really?

Sure enough, we are all overwhelmed by the phenomenal growth of the video genre. But to witness officials of our Nigerian Film Corporation openly echo the collapse of an orphaned young celluloid film industry is to exhibit a lack of interest in the industry's existence. Why then the name Nigerian Film Corporation”? Why not recommend to the BPE to sell off the Corporation's assets? Why is the Federal Government being deceived into budgeting subventions to an industry for which its guardians have accepted its demise?

You say, Uncle Ladi is angry? You are right I am angry! My brothers and sisters go to international film festivals and get on their knees for their video productions to be accepted for selection in Film Festivals. This is not a value judgment about the content of these productions. It is about our arrogant self-deceit that we can make the world cinema lower its valued standard because we are Nigerians!

We reel out unimaginable figures of how many billions we earn from our home video. And we wrongly believe that the rest of the cinema world believe our self delusion! What we have managed to achieve is to expose our ignorance as filmmakers, and ridicule our nation. When asked at international forum why we do not make films like those of the Franco-phone African countries, I have always been frank to let them know that we are alone without outside assistance in the development of a Nigerian Film Industry. We have no capital to make expensive action flicks to compete with higher budget French Government sponsored projects. It is no news that every Franco-phone made film has a French Production Company that handles the monetary grants given each project up to completion. The few of us are only driven by the passion to make films with our tiny budget, thus limiting ourselves to making simple social development stories that are manageable in terms of filming resources and funds; as opposed to expensive flamboyantly photographed films.

Given the same opportunities, Nigerians are artistically very assertive and can make a great impact in world cinema. As I said in my earlier ‘Conversation' we can only manage the guerrilla film making efforts under our present circumstances with our lack of capital and a sustainable environment. Since the demise of large cinema halls in Nigerian major cities, the only modern multiplex cinema in the country was opened in a Lagos opulent suburb, Victoria Island some few months ago.

The question we should be asking ourselves is what is a film or cinema industry. The word “industry” indicates that it is a business activity. The reason we as a nation of more than one hundred and twenty million people is again setting up some panel of experts forty four years after independence only indicates that our various government administrations have either been afraid of the motion picture industry; as a threat to their political existence; or our industry officials are unable to come up with new ideas. It could also be that our officials are content with only showing faces of our elite nightly on the TV news, and at celebrations and not bother about the larger picture of our very existence as a people with unique identity who should naturally worry about external cultures wiping ours out. If there is a credit that our video makers deserve, it is for sustaining the spirit of the importance of a local motion picture industry even if only as a nagging reminder to our officials. We are left in a slumber by the massive incessant importation of foreign culture through television programmes which are consciously made available to flood our TV screens from the States for relatively low cost.

Our youths are confused about self identity; most don't bother to want to speak their African languages; and as new parents, the new fad is to give their children strictly foreign fanciful names; and as if to accelerate the decimation of our African cultures, our values and virtues have been turned upside down by adopting everything foreign wholesale! But for our beautiful African garbs, Lagos for example, can be mistaken for an American Black community.

There has been too much of mindless plagiarizing of especially Hollywood films; and which many Nigerian commentators denounce as a gross lack of creativity. Such video movies give an impression that we are more western than the West itself. How can one explain the wholesale plagiarizing of Hollywood films and have Nigerians females running around on high-heel shoes with blazing guns; or our youths emulating the ghetto gangs and pimps of Los Angeles?! I wonder how many Nigerians engage in kissing their girls lavishly with tongues wrestling, on our main streets. I am not certain this is our cultural habit. We have heard how even other Africans now view Nigerians as snake charmers, witches, and black magicians; some even jokingly confess that if they had known a person to be a Nigerian before hand, he or she would have been avoided. It is not that these shameful acts or some miscreants may or may not be present in isolated instances among our people, it is our writers who have been unable to correct the values being dictated by the Idumota, Onitsha, and Suru-Lere home video moguls, that are to blame. The cultural images being projected in most of our home video to outsiders simply reflect self-hate. Why would anyone be attracted to our movies if all we do is debase our cultural values and virtues and shamelessly imitate outside cultures?

We are now told the home video is purely business. And that those who pay pipers have the right to dictate the tunes. Well, if the practitioners rightly accept that film making is business, why are they not spending their purported billions on creating the infrastructures that will allow their standard to be world class? However, in spite of the current confusion about the viability of a cinema industry, only a pessimist would conclude that a country like ours should wallow in self pity about our inability to create for ourselves a film industry that the cinema world can respect. For a viable cinema industry, we need a market. We have got the population with a good proportion of young people. We are also going through rapid urbanization; with a large number of towns competing to become cities; thanks to the new attention our Government is giving to such developmental efforts.

Since we agree that the cinema industry is a business, the role of our government should now be well defined and simplified so that we don't always come back to the same starting point again and again. Just like, say, the Agro industry which is a private industry, the government does make laws and regulations backed with provision of infrastructure to entice people and investment to the industry. The case should not be different in the film industry. My simple suggestion may sound autocratic at first; it is actually a case of being pragmatic in order to compensate for lost time, and to jump-start an industry that is capable of being self sustaining. Every local council should be encouraged to construct a village/town/city center which should include at least a cinema hall depending on the size of the village and or town and city. Every local government chairman is busy building markets stalls as a revenue generating project for the council. Fine! There is also money to be made from properties that can be hired out to citizens for weddings, funerals, and other celebrations with a modern approach. Such can be achieved within a short period. That will give us some seven hundred and seventy potential outlets for films, well spread out to be accessible to all Nigerian citizens. Similarly all real estate developers in the country should be induced to incorporate cinema outlets into their planned structures. This is better encouraged by the state government housing corporations which are in a unique position to insist on such provision in appropriate new major plans submitted for approval. This is to create facilities for film distributors and exhibitors who will take long leases on such facilities. This should create new business opportunities and environment for young Nigerian graduates who can be attracted to the vital marketing arm of the motion picture industry. As new entrepreneurs, this educated group will hold the key to sustainable sources of financing for an expanding film industry. This should rid us of the unverifiable Idumota statistics with which our film industry officials write vital reports to our government.

Marketing of films is a sophisticated business where daily automated reports of ticket sales, earnings, and tax figures for each screen in a complex can be printed out immediately on request. Every participant benefits. Film producers cannot be given fake figures; the state and local governments can project expected tax revenues; and banks and financiers are able to correctly evaluate their business performances. This is when foreign joint ventures can thrive and a Nigerian motion picture industry can become sustainable. It is ironic that most participants in the present confused debates by the stakeholders all talk and look forward to some miraculous windfall from the Government.

In the first place, such infusion of cash is not sustainable as has been proven with the present Nigerian Film Corporation predicament. As it's not unknown in government, it is tempting for the supervising Ministry to divert funds meant for the laboratory, say, to organize an expensive reception for an important foreign visitor or event; worse still, there is the fund guzzling jamborees of “the gains of democracy” which may not be originally budgeted for. Why, then, don't Nigerian film industry stakeholders learn? If we are serious, we only need to lobby our National Assembly law makers to legislate an enforceable and pragmatic laws which will mutually benefit all stakeholders. It is possible to persuade our Abuja law makers to merely help to create a sustainable environment for this vital industry; and for the sake of protecting our unique cultural identity as a people. At the moment, most of the law makers see film making as a matter for Lagos boys and girls; but a Film Act is a matter for every Nigerian alive and yet unborn!

I do agree with commentators who blame the license owners of the numerous television stations spread all over our country for being nonchalant about a sustainable motion picture industry. What in reality are these license owners giving back to their respective communities? If we are to have a really sustainable film industry in Nigeria, each license owner including the States and Federal Government owned stations should, through a new and enforceable legislation, be made to produce minimum of one celluloid programme per year. It could be a special half an hour short documentary about the community and or state in which the station is located; but not the usual politically influenced TV highlight; or it may be a good short story or tele-movie on any subject of interest to the board of each station.

This should be made mandatory and enforced by the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria. To claim that a television outlet is not a charity organization is to deliberately miss the point. Not only will such a yearly production get sponsorship from businesses that operate within the community, corporate institutions will no doubt be attracted to such high quality productions. To begin with, to produce on celluloid will guarantee some serious, disciplined attempt by the appointed producer and director especially a local professional given an opportunity to prove himself or herself. This is only one of the numerous benefits from this simple approach to promoting film making all over Nigeria, and not merely a Lagos thing.

It is only a television station that can approach our banks now and be listened to at the mention of “film production”. The normal question a bank will ask a producer is “who will distribute and or exhibit the completed film”? The answer is more acceptable if a television station is either the backer or the producer. Television medium occupies a vantage position to interest advertisers, and who are not likely to be turned off by well made local productions. This is, of course, only the very important first step which will have a strong ripple effects to energize the industry. The TV owners stand to make money from the film theatrical distribution plus the residual television sponsorship by advertisers. Our moribund film laboratory in Jos should then be ready for upgrading and modernization by way of re-structuring. There are serious problems with a commercial film laboratory run and operated by civil servants with the attendant mentality. A commercial laboratory worth its salt must essentially run at least double shifts. Its focus must be on profit making; not waiting for annual subventions from a Federal Government. In Nigeria, particularly, there must be regional pickup points where producers can have  exposed films collected from, for delivery to JOS, daily. No excuses will do! In our country today, there are overnight buses and courier services that can guarantee such deliveries. While those that work in the laboratory need not all be professional photo people, there is an urgent need to commercialize the laboratory in Jos; and to encourage leading Nigerians involved in high class photography, as individuals or collectively to get into a joint venture at the very least in order to make our only film laboratory viable by being efficient and to meet the new challenges being suggested in this Conversation. The right amount of investment and items to be injected can be better determined by those operators who not only have the skills and know the art and business of photography but who will risk their own investment in the process.

There is no doubt that if we run our laboratory professionally, our neighbors in the regions around us will patronize it. This is not to imply that there are no Nigerians who can commercialize the Jos laboratory. Indeed, we do have overseas trained and skilled laboratory technicians who can be recruited immediately to begin to impart their knowledge to young ones. The industry style today is to shoot on film, have the laboratory print out, by telecine, a video copy with which the program is edited. The actual show print is never made until the whole project is permanently completed from editing to the final sound mixing. By the way, many of our discerning Nigerian advertisers often go to Europe or South Africa when there is a special need for high class photographed commercial with sophisticated sound track for their products and services.

It is ironic but true that Nigeria lacks a film sound studio to mix multi- tracks as required for high class productions. The sound suite should include facilities like a dubbing theatre for laying tracks for special effects, and Foley sound studio which allows for recreation of new clean sound with which to replace the location sounds with discrepancies. This type of professional sound studio may cost up to one hundred thousand pounds sterling. This sized studio will allow for detail track laying with all the necessary effects and clean tracks; and then final mixing as is familiar in our music recording studios. If we have a sustainable film industry, such a studio is no more than a Nigerian can get going through private investment. It is simple. One needs the business to keep such a studio busy for return on investment and to cover overheads. It is best if this is not a government owned and or operated sound studio.

You ask, ‘so what is new about your simple suggestions' Uncle Ladi? One year after the whistle is blown, by my persuasive new legislation, Nigeria can have a film festival of over forty Nigerian films, in Abuja, or any where else with the necessary facilities. That is the time to celebrate. The pre-production including research and writing of the screenplay take roughly three months; the actual production can still be managed in yen to twelve weeks for a good detailed story; while the post production including editing of the video copy, track laying and mixing will not take more than eight weeks. It is feasible to complete a good cinema film production within one year provided the total cash is available and ready as needed. No turning off the tap or reducing cash flow midway! This also takes into account the marketing planning, promotion and advertising. The time program for production of short films is much less than for full length features.

Our first film festival need not be called ‘International'. The world will, of course know about the film festival of Nigerian films consisting of shorts and feature length ones. It is important that we learn at first to organize and run our film festivals before making it an international ones. The cinema world would be curious; and from then we can enter the world cinema market. If this realistic environment is provided, that's all we require to get started. There are details, of course, including tax incentives to investors and non-complex regulations which will form part of the FILM ACT. Just remember I have been in the thick of it for about three decades. I can sit here and list more benefits by going this simple way. First, if the expert panel today comes out, I bet you, there will be a call on the Federal Government to inject billions of Naira in to the industry. That will be the beginning of the end for our dream once again. If the expert panel advises our government to invite some international experts, Nigerians will question seriously the possible drain on our purse. And this is likely to stall our forward march.

What is so impossible about a nationalistic persuasive legislation that requests our television license owners to be a little more business conscious rather than be complacent with advertisers coming to them? We prefer to jostle for TV and Radio licenses strictly for minting Naira! Like some other Nigerian producers, I had the experience of being told by supposed Marketing Directors of our NTA and private stations to personally search for advertisers and then come to buy air time to broadcast our tele-movies! Some of these same marketing executives see nothing wrong in importing outdated, foreign culture situation-comedies which our multi-nationals pay the equivalent of one thousand dollars per episode for, in addition to TV sponsorship fees. Maybe you ought to compare this with sponsoring some forty Nigeria films of good quality available for these same multi-nationals whose target customers are Nigerians. The beauty and necessity for doing this is that film distribution, exhibition plus the attendant merchandising businesses will contribute to an economic boom. Our laboratory can function like a real commercial one; and exportation of Nigerian films will become really sustainable. Then you can talk of competing with other Nigerian export oriented industries.

There is yet another compelling reason why we might want to experiment with this simplified model. We have not even begun to tell the world our stories and folklore. There is every possibility that the stories and screenplays that are likely to emerge will reflect our rich cultures and diversity which is not a bad idea. Indeed in our country, Nigeria, we very much need to know more about ourselves in order to respect one another more naturally. There are beautiful aspects of the various cultures that are yet to be exposed for the benefit of humanity. For everybody to become aware of these through high quality film drama or documentary will only guarantee our democracy and assure us of a strong legacy for growth into nationhood. A good screenplay will essentially have to be well researched and written. This means every section of the country can tell its own particular stories.

Our television, particularly the NTA, has not lived up to our expectations. Go there and request for anything beyond one year old. If you can not be ignored for who you are, the usual answer is “Oga, sorry, the tape has been wiped”! But why? You ask. “We don't have money for new tapes”! The celluloid negatives of our important stories and cultures are better cared for by the film laboratory. These will be readily available to future researchers and the coming generations. In 1977, Nigeria expended huge sums on FESTAC. The entire coverage and recordings of the Second World Festival of African Arts and Culture of Black people which were recorded on the old TV two-inch professional video tapes of old. These collection is now almost totally destroyed through abandonment. We probably have lost the potential legacy of that event and the export earnings, for good. Nigeria has the talents, the skills, and the professionals with exposure required to achieve my simple suggestions.

It is instructive to note that our emphasis here is not on the government holding the hands of Nigerian film makers in achieving these goals. It also does not forbid or minimize home video making. What it does is that the good and willing independent film makers will be patronized by the television stations even if only for this special yearly productions. As the men are being separated from the boys, potential investors, including the banks will take a more serious look at the industry. It becomes possible to syndicate capital for major film projects with the existence of large and increasing number of cinema exhibition outlets. Joint international film projects become viable. China and the rest of Asia today attract foreign investments to their film industries because these countries have developed the local pools of the various skills which Hollywood, for instance, will consider in making a decision to mount a huge international production in these locations. South Africa is a more visible example. The big multimillion dollar film projects are not the preserve of just one area of the world. Hollywood is constantly anxious to use new exotic and interesting locations, but only if some local and cheaper inputs are guaranteed. These include trained manpower and other logistically proven opportunities. While we repeatedly engage in confusing debates, many international productions which require African locations are mounted in Kenya and South Africa.

We have a penchant for going for the most expensive styles of doing our things. It is easy to consider the simple way too simple. But are simple ways unworkable? If we can be seen by the rest of the world to be taking a pragmatic approach to the development of our own motion picture industry, in which we protect all participants through laws, and workable rules and regulations, Nigerians will not have to go cap in hand begging to be allowed in the company of world film makers at film festivals. We will be invited on our own recognition.

©ladiladebo2004