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Inside Editi Effiong’s million-dollar playbook

Editi Effiong, director of The Black Book, has no art degree. But he is wielding his experience as a programmer to tell new stories and rewrite Nollywood's history.

Editi Effiong keeps a foot in two worlds — technology and media — and threads their fibres into one fabric. Both industries have chaotic elements and have long held a tangy, sparky relationship with each other. Yet, Editi seems to have mastered stillness, both in work and literally. During a video call, it’s hard to tell if he has a bad connection or is just paying rapt attention. He keeps a static posture — almost frozen — and hardly blinks. But he becomes much more animated when he speaks. “I promise you, I can hear you loud and clear,” he assured. In conversation, he masterfully wields humour and simplicity in his storytelling.

It’s a casually confident demeanour that can only be pulled off by someone who’s good at being quiet and notable at the same time. 

Editi rose to the limelight and stayed in it by wearing several hats, from writing code to being a creative writer, advertiser and filmmaker. But his business persona frontlines his introduction. “I like to think of myself first as an entrepreneur, not an artist,” he said.

Editi started Anakle in 2011 when digital marketing was comparatively nascent to today’s setup. Nigeria’s internet penetration was 11.5%, according to GSMA, more than four times smaller than the current 51.9%. But he wasn’t oblivious to the market’s potential and was ready to make an early bet. “We had a slide that predicted that internet penetration would deepen in five years,” he told TechCabal in a 2021 interview. “We also predicted that more than five million Nigerians would be on the internet and that that number would eventually rise to 30 million by 2016.”

This risk appetite pops up behind each of Editi’s success stories and became more visible in his latest project, The Black Book. It is his first time directing a feature-length movie; but was already a record-breaker before it even reached people’s screens: being the first-ever Nollywood movie with a million-dollar budget. Less than a week after its release, it became Nollywood’s first-ever number-one movie on Netflix worldwide.

But this was no sudden feat. The Black Book’s making connects deeply to Editi’s journey, or as he calls it, his “villain origin story.”


Javascript and movie scripts

Editi has no art degree. Yet he has always been an artist. “I wrote my first novel at 14. It was about 300 pages, I think. I titled it ‘A Mile from Life’,” recalled Editi Effiong. “My siblings noticed that I wrote descriptively. I always write in pictures. I write for people to see rather than read.”

His arc starts like a typical villain’s: reading plenty of books, writing a lot, being denied their first love; and ends with building an empire.

“I was born in a house with books. Tons of books,” Editi said. “As a 12-year-old, I had read the entire African Writer Series. And I knew I would either become a writer or a filmmaker. So, I spent the early years of my life fighting my father, who didn’t want me to be an artist. I ended up studying Environmental Science at the University of Calabar.”

At 17, he started teaching himself to code. After learning web design and development, he got his first work experience helping a pharmaceutical company move their marketing online. He became their product manager and worked for two years.

The idea behind Anakle was to bring the vivid storyteller and the tech bro together. “I started writing scripts for adverts,” he narrated. “And I realised that it’s very difficult to write a one-minute script. You have to describe a product and sell it in one minute or less. Some adverts are only 15-30 seconds long.”

It paid off. Anakle started working with top Nigerian brands like Interswitch, Guaranty Trust Bank and Diamond Bank while in its formative years.

Anakle grew. In 2017, Editi made a short film titled Things Come Together for Wikipedia’s marketing campaign and another for Access Bank. In 2018, the firm launched its film-making arm, Anakle Films. Editi co-produced his debut movie, Up North, in the same year, partnering with Inkblot Productions. The following year, they (Anakle and Inkblot) made another movie, The Set Up. Netflix acquired both films in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Then Editi directed a short movie, Fishbone, in 2020, partnering with the US Justice Department.

“Writing those ad scripts helped prepare me for film-making,” said Editi. “It helped me understand how to get people’s attention faster. However, being a programmer is what equipped me the most. As a programmer, you have to carry a lot of stuff in your head and be able to break everything down. You have to know where every line of code is. If something breaks, you need to know where to find it. That’s very similar to being a director. You have to be able to carry a lot of information at once.”

The Black Book: Nollywood’s new-school business guide

In 2020, Editi Effiong planned to continue his film-making success streak with a new movie: The Black Book. Only this time, it would be bigger than any previous one. “We didn’t plan to make a $1 million movie at first,” he said. “But as we kept developing the story, we realised that the standards we wanted would require a very high budget.” And high standards they did set. It’s Nigeria’s first movie to use camera equipment and lenses from Panavision. For context, Panavision lenses were used for some of Hollywood’s biggest productions, such as The Avengers and The Hate U Give. 

The movie also had one of Nollywood’s most diverse crew, hiring professionals from six countries, including the USA, UK, Guadeloupe, South Africa and Nigeria. Among them was Yinka Edward, one of Nigeria’s top cinematographers who filmed some of the industry’s biggest movies, such as The Figurine and October 1. “He is the only one who could deliver the texture we were looking for,” Editi said. “His standards are so high, and of course, high standards mean more money.”

Yet The Black Book‘s record-breaking budget is not its most spectacular detail. It’s the film’s entire production business, which strongly reflects Editi’s tech background. Historically, Nollywood gets funded from traditional sources like the government, banks, foreign investors, etc. But behind the curtain of The Black Book, you’ll find the tech-startup-esque system of fundraising, complex problem-solving, investor updates, product launches and exits.

Meet the investors

On August 25th, Editi made a tweet thanking The Black Book’s 16 executive producers. Eleven of these names rang surprising bells: they were famous tech founders and VC investors. The list reads like a typical tech startup’s cap table. It included: Kola Oyeneyin (CEO, Opportunik Global Fund), Adesubomi Plumptre (co-founder of Volition Cap), Ezra Olubi (co-founder of Paystack), Odunayo Oweniyi (co-founder and COO of Piggyvest), Somto Ifezue (co-founder of Piggyvest), Joshua Chibueze (co-founder and CEO of Piggyvest), Gbenga Agboola (founder and CEO of Flutterwave), Kola Aina (founding partner at Ventures Partner), Olumide Soyombo (co-founder Blue Chip Technologies), Nadayar Enegesi (co-founder Eden Life), and Prosper Otemuyiwa (co-founder and CTO Eden Life). Editi led the movie’s funding round, providing 30% of the budget.

The Black Book isn’t the first movie to get its backing from tech players. But no prior Nollywood film had ever seen such heavy participation from the tech community. “Editi is a member of the tech community, and in early-stage investing, we bet on people,” Kola Aina, Founding Partner at Ventures Platform, an early-stage-focused VC firm, told Ventures Africa. “He had already passed the very important filter of founder quality.”

L-R: Kola Aina and Editi Effiong  Credit: (Twitter)

Editi also acknowledged being friends with most of his investors. “It was a family and friends round,” he said. “I’ve known Kola for over ten years and helped him with marketing design for some of his companies. I have known Subomi since 2012, when we worked together at Alder. I knew Odunayo before she founded PiggyVest. Prosper Otemuyiwa was my intern: I gave him his first job. ‘GB’ (Gbenga) and I knew each other when he worked at Access Bank: Access Bank was my client, and I worked with his team.”

Several of these investors were cutting their first-ever Nollywood cheque. And as expected, the experience was different. Movie financing is a faster money flip compared to venture funding. Subomi Plumptre, co-founder of Volition Cap, described movie investing as “distinctly different” from venture funding. “At its core, movie investing operates on the principles of project finance,” she explained via an email to Ventures Africa. “Each film is a unique project with specific financial and creative objectives as well as timelines. Once the project concludes, an investor exits and gets returns. This contrasts sharply with venture funding, where an investor takes equity in a startup, and the engagement often lasts until the company does another round of funding.”

Big business, big problems

Big-money projects do at least one of two things: solve big problems and attract big challenges. The Black Book did both.

Editi originally had an ambitious six-week timeline for The Black Book’s shooting. The more time they spend shooting, the more money it costs. COVID-19 hindered that, and the team spent 14 weeks instead. “We ran out of money midway,” Editi said. So, he had to raise more money while paying out of pocket for unforeseen deficits.

“He never told me we were out of money until he had put more of his own money to get the project on like nothing happened,” Richard Mofe-Damijo said via an Instagram post. “If a thing was out of budget, he simply paid out of his pocket.”

L-R: Richard Mofe-Damijo and Editi Effiong

The COVID-19 outbreak also meant Editi and his team had to find new ways to shoot. “In the early days, Yinka would set up the camera and control it remotely,” Editi reminisced. “It was cool but wasn’t the most sustainable way to make a film. So, we opted for tightening our COVID protocol instead. We used green bands to indicate the people allowed into the set and interact with the actors. We also employed a set doctor and every week, we had to test for COVID.”

Aside from the professionals and equipment, logistics was one of The Black Book‘s top expenditures. Editi regards it as Nollywood’s “most logistically advanced” production. And he has reason to. The movie was shot in different locations, and each point had an iconic, capital-heavy setup. “We had to rent an entire barge to do the Takwa Bay [scenes] logistics,” he narrated. “Also, in Kaduna, we had to build a sort of military base. But to get to the place where we had enough land to build the sets we wanted to build, we had to build a road by ourselves. And then we graded land the size of an airstrip.”

The idea of building roads is not far removed from the Nigerian ability to self-organise. People operate a Bring Your Own Infrastructure (BYOI) model to thrive in areas where the government doesn’t provide.

Editi Effiong (M) with members of The Black Book’s production team

Netflix: The exit

It took more than decade-long friendships to raise a million dollars. Editi had to make a formal presentation, and everyone had to see a clear exit. According to him, only a streaming service could provide that. “Going to the cinemas would not have been a great exit option for us,” Editi explained. “There are 64-68 cinema screens in Nigeria. And only about four have broken the million-dollar ceiling.”

The cinema business in Nigeria has been vulnerable. At the end of 2019, the National Film and Video Censors Board NVFCB reported that only 20% of Nigerians went to cinemas all year long. But in the United States, 44% of adults go to the movie theatre at least once a month. Even after recovering from COVID-19, Nigeria’s economic uncertainties make cinemas too much of a risk for such a high-budget movie as The Black Book. “We needed to get the money out as soon as possible,” Editi said.

Anakle had a new task: find a streaming platform. “I didn’t have the relationships required,” he said. “I just believed that if we made a good enough picture, it wouldn’t be hard to sell to Netflix or Amazon. We pitched the story to Netflix, and their answer was very clear: ‘Go ahead and shoot; if you make a good enough picture, we’ll come on board’. It was a bit slower than expected, partly because our process was quite meticulous. But in the end, I’m glad we went with them.”

Happy investors, happy industry

When Editi announced The Black Book’s investors, it became obvious that the game had changed for Nollywood. It wasn’t just because the movie was high-budget but because a new practice of publicly announcing investors had started. “I feel like publishing that investor list was a big moment for Nollywood,” he said.

Nollywood has struggled with fundraising for years, partly because there wasn’t much information about where to get funding from. Historically, Nollywood gets its funding either via relationships or from traditional sources like the government, banks, foreign investors, etc. And on both occasions, the public barely knows who supplied funding.

The Black Book also showed how Nollywood has become more attractive to investors, including those in the tech industry. For instance, after a successful exit, some of The Black Book’s investors have upped their bets on Nollywood. Volition Cap created a new $20m fund to invest in African stories. Kola Oyeniyin wrote a blog post narrating how Editi’s film inspired this move.

“Unlike many investments we’ve done, where we chase founders and project owners for updates, Editi operated an incredibly transparent reporting process. Something a lot of venture builders need to learn to do in this part of the world,” he said.

Every week, Editi sends out an email providing updates to his investors. On our interview date, two days before The Black Book’s premiere, he sent another. “I keep my investors looped in every step of the way,” he said. “They understand how film works now because I made sure everyone was involved and informed.”

Successful exits are the most crucial attraction points for investors. Kola Aina believes they “create a new category of angel investors” with more experience and resources to offer. “This is one of the reasons we desperately need more exits and liquidity for founders and their investors,” he said. “It creates a beautiful cycle of life.” Olumide Soyombo told TechCabal that he has gotten as much as 2x and 3x of his investments in Nollywood.

Editi acknowledges that more investors will troop into the industry, and The Black Book won’t be the last million-dollar movie. “The money coming into the industry over the past few weeks has helped the DFIs restructure their fund for Nigeria,” he explained. “I’ve talked to institutional investors and tech bros who would like to come in.”

On his part, Anakle acquired RMD Productions Limited, Richard Mofe-Damijo’s film company. RMD takes up the position of Chairman, Board of Directors, at Anakle Films. According to Editi, this partnership will yield more million-dollar projects. “Our slate alone has a couple of million-dollar projects in them,” he said. Editi has a goal to raise a $10 million fund to back the next generation of African filmmakers. “I don’t think one tree can make a forest, so I won’t say this one film will change the entire Nollywood. But everyone who worked on this film was changed by it.”

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