Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Vol.2 No.3, April 2009. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com

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Abayomi O. Zuma
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Nnorom Azuonye
Nnorom Azuonye (2)
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INTERVIEWS

 

 

What We Do is Commerce,

Not Business.

 

Interview with Don Pedro Obaseki

 

By Nnorom Azuonye

 

 

Don Pedro Obaseki is a Playwright, Poet, Screenwriter, Film Director, and international Television content provider. A major force in Nollywood, I caught up with him in London in December 2008 and knocked this interview out over a meal and a couple of drinks. I have focused this interview on the Nollywood film-making side of his work.

 

You are one of the key players in Nollywood trained as a theatre artist. How does this training affect your film-making processes?

 

The truth of the matter is that I always believe that as a trained artist, there is the know-how; the technical know-how and the know-what. The know-how is that which cannot be taught. What I think is that my experience and tutelage as a theatre artist has done is that it has given structure to the way I think as an artist. Being used to ensemble play where if one person goes out of tandem the whole structure of the production crumbles. As a director, I am a disciplinarian. I have no room for posers. If you want to pose, you go somewhere else. I am not interested in the star, I am interested in the artist. I am interested in the person who will do the job. I don’t think people should want to buy my film just because of the multiplex of names I put in the film, but because I append my name to it. Also, I have come to a point where I don’t see film-making as an assembly line. I don’t do subsistence film-making which a lot of them in Nollywood do. If I am privileged, I shoot a film a year, maybe a film in two years. For instance I wrote “Igodo” in 1996, but did not get to shoot it until 1998, and it was clearly not run of the mill, or to use the lingo ‘kpa kpa kpa’ films you see out there.

 

What do you consider to be the purpose of film?

 

As someone now very much in the business of film from the age of 10, it is a different ball game. I see film as business. There is a difference between Don Pedro the impresario and Don Pedro Obaseki the person. Don Pedro Obaseki the person sees film as an opinion moulder, a huge opinionator, an integral part of the society that gives birth to it. I see film not art as a mirror of the society. Art as a mirror of the society is useless. I’d rather watch CNN or Sky.

 

Of course as a 10-year-old kid you presented “Children’s Time” for NTA Benin in 1977. What else, together with that experience led you to study theatre arts?

 

You know, sometime in 1979-1980, there was this essay competition for kids in Secondary School. I wrote a story; “Days of Rage” which won the National Essay Competition. It was later picked up by Evans, Macmillan and Longman, and they took me to Togo where I met Kalu Okpi. And by the time I was 14, I became the youngest published Pacesetter writer with “Days of Rage” which was later turned into a TV series.  By the time “Tales by Moonlight” started, I became a little story-teller will Mrs Elizabeth Okaro. Later on, when “Things Fall Apart” was being shot, I became the smallest and youngest member of the crew. I actually fell from the helicopter when they were shooting Amalinze the Cat climbing a palm tree. So, I knew where I was going.

 

I had lunch with friend in London, and mentioned to him that I was hoping to meet you later that day to interview you. He spoke about you as ‘that guy once obsessed with demolishing people’s homes to build his big cinema houses’ That’s not true is it?

 

People are crazy! Crazy! (Long pause) Without the cinemas, the truth of the matter; the entire thing is a joke. So what I thought was try and revive cinema culture, not the way Silverbird and New Metro are doing, because what they are doing, I think, is what led to the death of the old Nigerian film industry of the Hubert Ogundes and the Ola Baloguns. What they do is screen Hollywood blockbusters without a look-in on the local scene. Yet everybody in Ajegunle, Idi Araba, Idi Oroko, Ariaria in Aba, they are hooked on the Nigerian Home Video. I thought, why don’t I get these videos to their neighbourhoods, create the same uppity feeling you get when you walk into a multiplex like the Odeon – create a community centre of attraction in the neighbourhood, and people use the cinema as a way peace. Let me give you an example. There were areas in Ikeja in those days if you walked at 10pm somebody will pull a gun on you. But when Lagbaja started his Open Air Motherland people packed the streets and nobody till date has ever reported that armed robbers came to motherland, and it has been six to seven years now.

          So I said where there is entertainment, there is no room for that kind of violence. I did not demolish people’s homes what I did was get people to buy some of the old cinema structures which had been converted into churches or eateries, or some that were run-down. When we couldn’t get certain places in Surulere, it was in Surulere that we tried to buy other types of structures.  

We don’t have government support. Everything was via people buying equity in Filmex. It is called Filmex.  We were able to get Odeon, when Kene Mkparu was still there, as Technical Partners, before we moved to Israel. So the technical partnership is coming from a firm in Israel. We are still not launched yet. We are hoping to launch in middle of 2009.  Filmex is a model we hope to work, so if we can’t make money on the film, we will from the popcorn.

That question was a blow!

 

You are a campaigner for better earnings for workers in Nollywood, apparently you see a correlation between that and better outputs. What are the factors in your opinion limiting incomes in the Nigerian film industry?

 

I am not one of those who believe piracy is the first problem. Piracy is one of the things that happen when you don’t have structures in place. It is a global problem. But there are certain very very very Nigerian problems affecting Nollywood. First a few of my colleagues under-rated our brothers from the South East. That was the end of the old Nollywood that seemed to have high earnings.  We used to release films that sold 300,000 copies or more. “Igodo” sold close to a million. By that time, those of us involved in “Igodo”, we go buy car for morning, by afternoon we dey ask, ‘this car fine so, or make I change am’? The money was available. You can’t afford to do that anymore. We were releasing five to ten films per month and because they were successful, people turned the thing from art into an assembly line. Simple economics. When a product is supply-driven, the only place it can go is down. But if it is demand-driven, you can up the price. So in Nigeria where everything has gone up in price except pure water, the only commodity the price has gone down a downward spiral is the Home Video product. The wholesale price of a film used to be 350 Naira. But now, it is about 80 Naira, that is 75 cents.

          The only way to control this is to create an enabling environment for people to invest, and I cannot invest in a situation where na everybody dey. Although we have guilds that are very functional, they are not looking at the market end.

          Let me ask you a question. Can you imagine what will happen if we released just 5 films a month and those people at Dusting Road Market have to queue for two weeks to get one copy. What do you think they will do? What do you think will happen if we asked for prepayment? You see, we must reduce the number of people who have access to their films being censored.

 

In Hollywood and the British Film Industry, movies premiere and run in cinemas before appearing on DVD. Although this does not prevent piracy, it does however mean that if the film is not a turkey, it can generate huge box office returns and loads of cash from film merchandise. Do you envisage Nollywood going in that direction?

 

It is the only direction. It is the ability to aggregate these global value chains, as we cannot do anything in isolation, that’s when we will see the tomorrow. However it has to be tweaked to suit our peculiar economic circumstances. I do not believe that the movie necessarily has to move from the can to the cinema to pay-tv to DVD. Those structures do not exist in Nigeria. We are a product of direct to home video which we turned into a global phenomenon. We are a product of the digital age. We Nigerians taught the world that digital film-making can actually be mainstream.

 

The figure for a ‘successful’ Nollywood film of 50,000 copies or thereabouts is not particularly near enough what it should be.

 

Fifty Thousand? I cannot say that. What I can tell you is that most people suggest these figures, I don’t. I own a shop in Alaba so I know. A normal film now in the last one and half years, if it hits 20,000, I tell you the guy who made the film will go and meet arusi. I am serious. So you really have to plan for it to hit fifty.

 

How does your Video Kiosk improve the distribution of Nigerian films?

 

I got sixty million Naira from Diamond Bank and launched Video Kiosk which is a door-to-door video rental service whereby you can place orders for videos and we deliver to your doorstep. I got tricycles equipped with DVD Players, Television sets and huge loudspeakers mounted on them, so they are also mobile advertising tools. I spread it all over Lagos and took 2 or 3 to Abuja. So there is no need for that big madam who hides in the sanctuary of her home to watch our films to go to a video club. I am your video club, don’t come to me, I come to you. It has been hugely successful.

          Before I release a film on my network, I send text messages and tell people, if you dial the video kiosk number you can pre-book. You can pay me with your credit or debit card. So we have created a new vista for this funny-looking, simple, for poor people business, because if I can see the end of an equation, it is easier for me to aggregate the processes to get to that equation.

          But beyond the Video Kiosk, I have tried to move film distribution along in my own way.  I tried for some time. I got the Igbo boys together. But I could not settle the Idumota, Upper Iweka, Pound Road, so I broke away and built a film market in Surulere that caused them pulling out guns and all that. But the Igbo guy will trust me because he does not trust the Yorubas. Zeb Ejiro will want me to be leader because he knows I can deal with the Igbos. You know my mum is Igbo. My wife is Igbo. I speak Warri, and Urhobo. So I became a confluence of sorts and decided to use that as platform for either cementing the industry or scattering it and then rebuild it. You know I am a student of Soyinka, so the Ogunian essence always pervades. Things happen for things to be built properly. Many people are going to be whisked away as you know right now, many filmmakers in Nigeria are going critically broke. But the few who have been able to work out the arithmetic of the distribution process, they are not going broke. Rather they are living large. Forget the artist. Artist will come and artist will go depending on how the man in the open market feels.

 

Is it just your own films that Video Kiosk distributes?

 

No no no. You know, what God has done now, because of the advent of Movistar, I am now, maybe the largest single owner of entertainment content in Nigeria. So what we have done is, four companies I have interest in, we formed a consortium; The African Entertainment Content  Company, we sell everything from Video CDs from anybody, to music CDs because I own a music label. I won a lot of Igbo gospel. A lot. People like Nkem Chijioke. You know that gospel is a lot more enduring in terms of market value. An Igbo man travelling from Onitsha to Lagos is not going to be playing ‘P Square’ in his car stereo. I don’t see myself as mainstream. Video Kiosk cannot be mainstream. We serve as an alternative marketing outlet. We achieve high retail volumes because with 50 Video Kiosks selling a hundred films a week, we sell five thousand.

          The next step we have taken. The government has a drive against piracy.  They are arresting those boys selling videos on the street. The boy you are arresting, he is going to be a thief again. So I put out an advert “You dey sell video for street, call this number” and they call me. I register them with Censors Board for five thousand naira. The guy does not have five thousand Naira. So I thought, if I register one hundred boys, it will cost me Five Hundred Thousand Naira. But to take a shop at Adeniran Ogunsanya, it is going to cost me Nine Hundred Thousand – for one shop. With that kind of money, I can have 180 boys wearing Video Kiosk T-shirts selling my products. By God’s grace, by the first week or second week of January 2009, I will unleash them on Lagos. I have a motto: Every door on every floor, a face in every place.

 

What is the relationship between Don Pedro Media and Movistar?

 

Don Pedro Media in the real sense does not have any relationship with Movistar. Don Pedro Media is contracted by DP and T Media Company Nigeria Ltd, of which me Don Pedro, na me be the DP wey dey inside. Five years ago we took the idea to Chief Dokpesi and everybody thought I was a mad man.  But when Daar Communications decided to go PLC, he put aside some money for some of my pet projects, of which Movistar was one. Movistar is an independent channel owned over seventy percent by Chief Dokpesi as a person not as Daar Communications. AIT owns the satellite segment on Sky, DP and T and Don Pedro Media own what you see on air and the Movistar broadcast license. So what you actually have is, AIT Movistar does not exist. AIT Movistar only exists as a name Sky created on their decoder. Movistar Ltd is equity owned by Daar Communications, DP&T, and Chief Raymond Dokpesi with me as Chief Executive Officer.

 

Offer an assessment of the Nigerian film industry today and how it can contribute to substantial financial compensation for both artists and the nation whilst yielding cultural profit for the people.  

 

I think right now, the culture quotient is a lot higher. The Nigerian home video scene has turned into a mild culture colonialist tool for the Nigerian nation. Because they have colonised the African mindset. You see the Igbo sub-culture within the national culture has been sacrificed by the Igbo filmmaker such that in the last seven years, only three Igbo language films have been shot, against 950 Yoruba films, because the Igbo filmmaker and the Igbo actor has now become the generic face of Nollywood. I think that film as a culture exporter, a culture carrier has succeeded in serving as a major attention getter for the Nigerian nation. I cannot forget the Washington Post headline; “Step aside Hollywood, Bollywood Here comes Nollywood” but in terms of economics, all the economic benefits that have been coming to the Nigerian filmmaker and the Nigerian filmscape has been limited to a very tiny few.

 

In your opinion, who are the people making positive contributions to the development of Nollywood?

 

She might not know it, but I think Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, the Chief Executive of AMAA – the African Movie Academy Awards, is doing a great deal. Without the weight of politics, and she is involved in it directly or indirectly, Amaka Igwe. In terms of structure, not the art of film, Chief Raymond Dokpesi who is building a huge film village right now. Also Toyin Subai, Emeka Mba who has been demonised and called names. I think he is doing a fantastic job. He may not be the Apostle Paul, but I think he can be John the Baptist. Also there is this woman in Akure, Biodun Ibitola of Remdel Productions. She maybe owns the largest network for Yoruba films. Then this guy of O.J Productions; Ojiofor Ezeanyaeche. That man, if you are working on his film and he says he will pay you two Naira, if he dies, your two Naira will be there for you. Then of course Kingsley Ogoro and Tade Ogidan.

 

What is your favourite Don Pedro Obaseki film?

 

Eziza. Without a doubt. Eziza.

 

Is there one film you have made that you wish you hadn’t made?

 

Yes. Definitely “Love”. Have you seen it? I no know wetin enter my head. The film made a lot of noise for the wrong reasons. That’s not what film-making is about.

 

Is there one movie in the world today that you did not, but wish that you had made?

 

Pink Panther. Inspector Clouseau. My father got it in the old Betamax format. I watched it so much the tape cut, I carry cellotape join am.

 

Finally, Don, kindly summarise your take on Nollywood: what is wrong, what is good, what needs to change, and how that change can happen.

 

What is wrong is very clear. First the structures are either decadent or non-existent. Structures in terms of the art of film and structures in terms of the business of film. I believe that if we can get the business of film right with enough returns on investment, the average Nigerian film will be a better product and everybody involved will  get adequate remuneration. But as long as it continues to be a garbage in garbage out kpa kpa kpa phenomenon, it won’t work.

          Another thing I think is crucial is that there are little or no training facilities put in place that enables them, filmmakers, to progress in terms of know-how, and skills acquisition. Because it is terrible when you think you know, and then you don’t want to learn more. Many filmmakers in Nigeria are intellectually lazy. I mean, for instance you are making a film about the Nigerian Army and you don’t realise that in the Nigerian Army, except for medical reasons, you don’t wear a beard. Even the police. You see Pete Edochie and he has not shaved and he is playing a Policeman. I cannot see the policeman in him.

          Also we want to go international and we have not got the paradigms right.  There has to be a seismic paradigm shift in the way we do the film for it to be international. For instance our themes must leave the mundane. Our themes continue to be regional, but they need to be as universal as possible. But if you look at up to 90 percent of the basic Nigerian film, they are strictly Nigerian and perhaps to a lesser extent, African. But you see, the basic sensibility of the modern day African is closer to the basic sensibility of the Caucasian than it is to the rural African, to the extent that we now demonise things that were normal and everyday to our fathers.

          Finally, unless we create structures, right processes, it won’t work. Until that happens, we won’t get the respect of financial institutions. We need that for the business to become business. As it is we are making out of pocket expenses. We are trading. That is mere commerce, but business. We are selling, not marketing. The average Nigerian filmmaker is so popular, yet he has no branding. He has no brand equity and no brand value. It is only when we translate our popularity into brand equities that what we are doing will go from a multimillion Naira business to a Multimillion Dollar business. We need to think in that currency to aggregate our real value.

 

Thank you for your time, Don.

 

Thank you Nnorom. I have to confess. I am having fun.

 

 

©2008 Nnorom Azuonye. All rights reserved.

Photos: ©Nnorom Azuonye

 

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Nnorom Azuonye is the Administrator, Sentinel Poetry Movement, Editor, Sentinel Literary Quarterly and Nollywood Focus. He is also the Chief Operating Officer, Eastern Light EPM International - The Entertainment, Publishing and Marketing Services company.
 

 

 

Sentinel Literary Quarterly

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