“We want to prove that non-commercial films can work in Nigeria!” This is an ambitious and bold statement from Chuko and Arie Esiri, a pair of independent filmmaking twins from Nigeria. The first reaction to such a grand statement is to be dismissive, to downplay it as a pie in the sky dream. Understandably so. After all, there are easier ways of establishing a career in the arts than by pursuing one in the tough and unforgiving world of independent cinema. It would be wiser to stick to the tried and tested formula that is all too common in Nollywood films of making slapstick comedies and melodramatic dramas. Why fix what is not broken, the critics would ask? The answer to that question is simple: why not?

There is no denying that the standard fare of mainstream movies being produced in Nigeria and Africa broadly leave little to be desired. There has been a dearth of adequate filmmaking on the continent. The reasons for the lack standards in filmmaking are multifaceted, but it can be closely linked to poor human development outcomes across the continent as a result of poor governance, Nigeria itself provides an excellent example. Years of military rule and the resultant economic policies of the time led to the bust of nascent cultural industries (like film and television) that emerged during the boom times of the post independence era. Rampant corruption and destructive economic policies meant that the film industry could not access the funding it needed to grow and sustain itself. The lack of infrastructure both hard and soft led to the erosion of standards and more critically the transfer of knowledge which could contribute  to adequate skills development.   Simply put, art suffers in times of economic, political and social strife. Of which, there has not been a shortage in Africa.

But all this said, Nigerian cinema and African cinema overall can do better. It would be a welcome development to introduce different forms of storytelling to the current melange of offerings? A proper assessment of the situation, free from the limiting effects of binary thinking, reveals that different forms or strands of Nollywood can coexist. Bringing in more thoughtful storytelling to Nollywood is needed to expand the landscape and introduce an interesting and dynamic approach to Nigerian storytelling. The question becomes how can that vision and mission be brought to life? The answer may lie in following the playbook of an American entertainment company that punches above its weight, A24.

What is A24:

A24 is the brainchild of film nerds, Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges.  It was borne out of the insatiable desire to see different stories on the silver screen other than the stale superhero movies that have come to dominate the global box office since the 2010s. The founders of A24 wanted to help great art take its rightful place in the world. This was and still is no small feat to achieve but the little studio that could as A24 was deservedly labelled by the Washington Post has surely accomplished all their stated goals. A cursory glance at their trophy cabinet will reveal a number of golden statues, the most notable being for films like Moonlight and Everything Everywhere All At Once. Both films have won Academy Awards, which is the highest honour in filmmaking not only in America but globally. It is a paradox of the modern world and proof of America’s hegemonic dominance that an American award and therefore by default American standards have become the de facto standards upon which all others judged. However, it is a reality that no one can run away from or one that will change any time soon. The merits of which go beyond the scope of this article.  Moonlight won eight Oscars, the most notable of which were for Best Picture and Best Director. Everything Everywhere All At Once won nine Oscars the night it was nominated and as with Moonlight it won awards for Best Director, Best Picture and it even managed to win awards in the acting categories. Walking away with the statutes for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

Why the A24 model?

A24 can be considered as the go-to entertainment house that can turn independent/arthouse cinema into commercially successful films. The team at A24 was able to do this whilst avoiding trends and ignoring the conventional reasoning that sadly governs Hollywood: which is to put a lot of money into a few movies that generate outsized returns, instead of spreading smaller amounts across a broad swathe of projects. These are movies that are usually mainstream and appeal to the masses (like superhero and animated movies) and are the antithesis of niche.

A24 is able to help midbudget films generate hundreds of millions at the box office. Its size enables it to do so: it does not have the big budget of studios like Paramount, and this enables it to take a risk on smaller films. This is no small feat as most arthouse films do not generate any return on investment for their investors. Only 3.4% of independently made films in America generate a profit and more than 90% do not get a theatrical run. Those figures are American centric but it would be safe to assume that the returns are as dismal in Nigeria and across Africa too – if not worse – considering the poor purchasing power of the average African consumer. The average African does not earn enough to spend on non-discretionary goods like entertainment with most of their money being spent on basic needs such as food and housing.

The fact that A24 is able to turn a profit on films that are usually seen as non-viable commercially should inspire arthouse filmmakers across the continent like the Surreal 16 Collective of CJ Obasi,  Michael Onuoha and Abba T Makamana. A24 proves that there is a market for the type of films that independent filmmakers want to make. An important thing to prove or demonstrate because the reality is that money governs the world we live in. Even for  something that is as pure or should be as pure as art. It is difficult to balance competing interests but one does not want an entire industry to be sustained by the benevolence and goodwill of others. It creates an untenable situation. Relying on charities or philanthropic organisations is unsustainable and thus should never be relied upon as a model.

The corroding effect of capitalism contributes to the homogeneity of the books published, movies filmed and songs recorded. Thus the fact that a successful model has been carved out that truly centres real, unique and challenging storytelling should not be scoffed at. It should be celebrated and emulated where possible. The A24 model should not be wholly copied and pasted on the continent but should necessarily be adjusted to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the African market.

At present, there has been no viable business model for independent cinema in Africa and A24 helps carve one out. The lack of commercial viability of arthouse films in Africa explains the dearth of the style across the continent. The business of film is inherently risk averse and this explains the sporadic nature in which arthouse films are made not only in Nigeria but across the continent.CJ Obasi has shared numerous times that it took him seven years to make Mami Wata. This can be attributed to the fact that film financiers are more willing to fund commercial films than non-commercial films. As the latter are seen as riskier than their counterparts. In light of this it becomes clear why it is important to prove the commercial viability of these films. As it is necessary for their survival. Finding a way to successfully commercialise arthouse films could lead to opening the floodgates of funding that is so desperately needed This in turn creates a virtuous cycle and adds to the tapestry of African cinema.

What is the A24 playbook?

The A24 model is simple really: find an artist, back and support them to a hilt, without wavering in the face of opposition. Without sounding overly idealistic and romantic, the A24 model is built on faith and earned trust. Faith in the fact that people who love art will support it no matter what. It is faith in the belief that audiences desire and want more than the formulaic, cookie cutter, garden variety and soulless type of movies being made today. There is a desire for more intellectually stimulating films and if properly packaged and presented the audiences will hopefully follow by readily consuming said films. It is this bet that has paid off.

All of this sounds esoteric and too idealistic but even the founder of Neon (an independent film distribution company that espouses the same values as A24) has stated that Neon (the company). This simple love of cinema has gone on to build one of the most exciting media companies in recent history, that has ascended to impossible heights (albeit with considerable financial backing from a generous cinephilic billionaire). The success that Neon enjoyed with Parasite (which won the coveted Palme d’or and Best Picture at the Academy Awards) is proof of this. This example is used to illustrate the point that a great business can also be borne from a simple desire (in this case the desire to make art). Passion can build great and scalable businesses.

Backing the jockey and not the horse:

As the topic of funding has been broached, it is important to briefly touch on how this vision to build the A24 for Africa could be funded. Fundraising is a difficult and arduous journey especially in Africa however there is light at the end of the tunnel. Announcements about initiatives to fund the creative industries in Africa are a dime in a dozen. In the past few months these have included announcements from the African Development Bank, Sony and quite recently the African Export- Import Bank. It would not be farfetched to imagine any African filmmaker reaching out to the aforementioned institutions to fund an arthouse entertainment company as discussed in this article. Taking into consideration how ambitious these newly minted funds are, it seems like a match made in heaven.

Turning the dream into a reality

It is important, however, to address an inherent weakness in the opening quote from the filmmakers. The importance of vision has been stressed (which all of the aforementioned filmmakers possess) but it is important to note that vision in and off itself is insufficient . A visionary founder can never compensate for poor business fundamentals or a non-existent market. Ultimately, in business, the market matters most. This brings us to the next point which is where will these movies be watched once they are made? Non-commercial films not only from Nigeria but from Africa can be viable but not in Nigeria or on the continent as yet. The success of these films rests on gaining access to international markets, particularly the global black audience. The reality is that the size of the African market at this stage is far too small. But this can be aided with the help of subscription video on demand platforms such as Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Netflix. The success of The Black Book should be seen as a light at the end of the tunnel that solidifies this point. The streaming platforms could work with African filmmakers to introduce a new kind of storytelling evident with the success that Netflix has enjoyed in introducing K-dramas to a wider global audience. In line with its pioneering spirit, Netflix is already at the beginning stages of this as it is streaming Ebuka Njoku’s Yahoo+ which is a good sign for the entire industry.

That said, the tropicalisation of western business models seldom survive the rough terrain of the African business landscape. Although in an entirely different sector, the African technology sector provides numerous examples of business ideas brought in from the west that have failed on the continent.. An example would be ecommerce which has failed to truly take off in Africa after being positioned as a great disruptive force that would change the face of retail here. None of the major ecommerce players have managed to gain the foothold enjoyed by Amazon which they set out to emulate.  However that should not deter African filmmakers from exporting best practices from not only the west but across the globe. Maybe other filmmakers could draw inspiration from the K-drama local for global model from South Korea. One should draw comfort and inspiration from the fact that M-NET which was the precursor to DSTV was inspired by HBO and that has worked fantastically well on the continent. There is no denying the size, impact and influence of Multichoice (the parent company of DSTV) on the continent.  They are the leaders of African pay television having almost 22.1 million subscribers across the continent. Perhaps, the success of building the A24 of Africa rests on finding the next Koos Bekker ( who is the founder of MNET and former CEO of Naspers). A founder who saw an idea in another market and dared to ask: could that work where I am from? And then had the audacity to test out his thesis subsequently creating outsized returns, not only for himself but for his investors too.

Will building the A24 of Africa or anything of the sort be easy? No! But is it doable? Yes! The best we can do is to allow the market, and most importantly, the audience to decide.

Article by Marilyn Suto

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