As Africa Magic celebrates its 20th anniversary, one of the household names in movie production in Nigeria, Femi Odugbemi, narrates his life-changing encounter with Africa Magic and how the platform has changed the face of storytelling in Nollywood. Excerpts:
How would you describe the impact of Africa Magic on the growth of Nollywood in the last 20 years?
I think the biggest impact of Africa Magic really is that it gave meaning to the work we were doing as storytellers. It legitimized our stories. You have to understand that before Africa Magic, there was a certain disjointedness about the stories we were telling. Many of us were trying to tell stories that could be validated abroad.
The definition of what constitutes the African experience was not as cogent as when Africa Magic gave us a platform. Not only to bring all the stories we’ve been telling as Nollywood, all the stories that were out there in Idumota and everywhere, to bring them into a platform where the audiences can be beyond our borders. What that did was that it brought a lot of meaning, a lot of pride to the stories they were telling. It brought pride to the storytellers. We felt more emboldened to reach further and tell the heritage story of Africa. And I think it built brands. By brands, I mean it built heroes, in front and behind the camera.
In an era of globalization, unless you know and express who you are uniquely in this world, you are very likely to be irrelevant. I think our cultures have been saved, preserved, dignified, projected, and internationalized because a platform like Africa Magic has given us the permission, the confidence to tell our stories.
Looking at the business of storytelling, how would you describe the paradigm shift in the last two decades?
I think Africa Magic created a legitimate economy for the storyteller. It provided an opportunity for our storytellers to license their work and be commissioned to work. But the biggest thing was that Africa Magic platforms provided a lift-off point for a wider audience for the African storyteller. For me, the economy of storytelling is about your reach. Before the Africa Magic channels, your reach was dependent on a distributor somewhere in Idumota or Aba, who could only go as far as his own investment could take your film. The Africa Magic channels delivered Africa to the whole continent, over 40 countries to each storyteller at each screening. Those are numbers that were impossible before the Africa Magic channels came.
It is helping to shut down piracy, which is important because it brought technology into a space where pirates depended on being in the shadows. Once Africa Magic would put the work up for everyone to see legally, of course, it depressed the business of the pirate. But for me, it’s less about shutting down the negative and much more about creating the positive, and I think everyone who has been around, pre and post Africa Magic would understand the entire paradigm shift that it represented.
I think it is important for us to know that even the audience was revolutionized. Before Africa Magic, of course, we all had this impression that Nollywood is for the house girls and house boys, people who did not have anything to do. With Africa Magic, we began to see that this is a cross-generational entertainment platform in which we saw ourselves. Africa Magic made our stories a part of our everyday living, reconnecting us to who we are. The economy of that is that many more filmmakers can access direct income for their work, and many more filmmakers are working on commissioned productions of Africa Magic, both in drama, in non-fiction, and in reality shows. And if you think of how many technical positions have improved professionally since the coming of Africa Magic, you’ll understand the impact.
Let’s talk about the discovery and nurturing of talents. What is the contribution of Africa Magic, especially as you were a director of MultiChoice Talent Factory (MTF)?
Africa Magic has done a lot to provide platforms for performers, especially in front of the camera. Many of the stars, the actors that we all know today, were created on Africa Magic channels programming. I’ll start with Tinsel. Almost everyone who started in the first season of Tinsel is now a big star in Nigeria. They were unknown at the time, and daily exposure through the soap opera created a huge community of stars. Africa Magic has commissioned so many films that not a single person of significance in this industry has not directly received a paycheck from that platform.
That’s why it was so important when the MultiChoice Talent Factory initiative was introduced. It allowed us to look at the next generation and provide formal training opportunities. The difference between the training they receive at the MultiChoice Talent Factory and what they would get in a typical school is that only MultiChoice has access to all these shows: drama, soap opera, telenovela, Big Brother, sports shows, music shows, OB vans, modern broadcasting equipment, and uplink technology.
The students that come out of the MultiChoice Talent Factory are not only well-versed in theory but have been immersed in the process. We are creating a generation of filmmakers and storytellers who will take everything to another level, not just in broadcasting but also in filmmaking, performance, and addressing the questions technology will pose. We are about to enter an era of immersive technologies, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality, which will become storytelling tools. Initiatives like the MultiChoice Talent Factory are essential to answering the challenges of the future. I am thrilled that MultiChoice had the foresight to see 20 years into the future and prepare the professionals of 2030 and 2040. That’s what the MultiChoice Talent Factory is about.
Back in the 2000s, I was one of those who benefited from something called ‘New Direction.’ It was the first film opportunity for a young filmmaker to create a film. That opportunity gave me my start in my career. This makes me commit myself to paying it forward. There is a way in which MultiChoice and the Africa Magic channels have been part of the success stories of so many generations of our filmmakers, and I am excited to have benefited from it.
Talking about your personal experience, can you delve a bit into it? What was your experience with the first story you were commissioned for on Africa Magic?
New Direction was a series that MultiChoice did across Africa, looking for new voices and new directors. Everyone pitched a story. I remember famous South African producer Richard Green and MultiChoice executives came to Nigeria to oversee the pitch. I entered a film called “Mama Put,” and I was excited to be one of those selected to create my film. We made this film on 35-millimeter celluloid, which was a very expensive platform at the time. Our budget was around $100,000, which was a significant amount in 2004. You have to understand what that meant to a young filmmaker like myself. It gave me the confidence to create more. Right after, I made “Abobaku,” also on 35-millimeter. Not long after that, a few of us pitched for the daily soap, and we won with “Tinsel.” To imagine that “Tinsel” is still running today is something I am deeply grateful for.
Since then, I’ve consistently had opportunities to create new work and produce new work. I feel like I have been given the opportunity to express every part of my storytelling ambitions, build a core production team and a production company that I think is world-class. I’ve been able to give opportunities to new faces, new talents, actors, creatives, and technical people. Making these stories has been an amazing opportunity and privilege for which I will always be grateful.
Talking about the future you spoke earlier about how MTF is nurturing talents for the future, so what do you expect of storytelling in the few years?
I think what is clear is that Africa Magic already knows that the future is about that nexus where creativity meets technology. I think what is important is that culture of constantly innovating, that culture of constantly raising the bar in terms of technical quality in terms of storytelling, in terms of access and reach to audiences, that culture of bringing audience measurements to the table and making storytellers and creatives accountable for the stories that are telling, that culture of impacting with stories that also matter to the psychology, politics and obviously the narrative conversations going on across Africa. I think that culture is going to be the difference.
You headed the jury for the 9th AMVCA. Can you talk about the impact of the AMVCA on the industry?
The AMVCA is often referred to as the Oscars of African storytelling. It has brought glamour, sophistication, and recognition to the African storyteller and the African story. It has rewarded excellence in storytelling and performance. The AMVCA has brought dignity to our industry and celebrated Africa. It has become a gathering point, a networking opportunity, and a recognition portal across the continent. The AMVCA incentivizes people to reach the next level in their careers. If you win an Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Award, your career is boosted, and your name recognition, income, and confidence are enhanced.
What is that evergreen moment (s) on Africa Magic?
I’ve been blessed to have many moments on Africa Magic, but I think when the very first episode of “Tinsel” was aired, I remembered weeping with joy. It was not something I thought was possible because it was so hard. The learning process to make that happen was so hard. Bringing the team together was so hard, the lack of facilities was so hard. Watching that first episode really touched me because it meant a lot, not just for me but for co-producers and actors who believed in us and more than anything else, for MultiChoice and Africa Magic, who, knowing that we did not have the experience to do this, invested trust.
So yes, that will always be an iconic night for me, and it gave me a lot to be thankful for. I’ve had that same moment several times again, obviously, like the 100th-episode watch party of “Battleground.” I lost my voice because I was just so happy about the reception that series had.