We do not churn out 2,500 movies in a year nor are our actors among some of the biggest names in the continent and the world, but when Kenyan film Nairobi Half Life showed up at the 2014 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards, it shook many.
It was quite a shocker and an interesting one at that to hear major producers like Shirley Frimpong-Manso, whose film, Contract, won four awards, say that she was worried when she realised she was up against Nairobi Half Life.
Sitting in the auditorium at the AMVCA last weekend in Lagos, Nigeria, it was obvious that many had watched the Tosh Gitonga directed film and they were very impressed with the movie. They knew any chance they had to win in their categories had dramatically reduced.
Whenever the film lost out in its categories, some Nigerian actors were overheard saying “That is good, it cannot win everything,” something Tosh says he found hilarious.
It doesn’t help that Kenya has major bragging rights from Lupita Nyong’o’s recent Oscar win, something that even Nigeria with her dominant film industry, hasn’t been able to achieve.
Even the journalists were quite baffled by the kind of night Nairobi Half Life had and one South African journalist wanted to find why it was such a hit with the judges and viewers.
“The film made some huge strides in the technical category,” M-Net Africa director for special projects Biola Alabi said. “Judges saw something special in the movie and as a film watcher, you can see the difference that makes.”
While Nigeria dominated the awards, clearly the night belonged to Nairobi Half Life and in a way showed that while Nollywood is the top dog, quality will always trump quantity.
However, as Nollywood has shown, quantity makes a lot of sense and cents.
Nollywood makes about 2,400 films per year, putting it ahead of the US, but behind India, according to a 2009 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report.
“Key to Nollywood’s explosive success is Nigerian filmmakers’ reliance on video instead of film, reducing production costs,” the survey pointed out. “The West African country has virtually no formal cinemas, with about 99 per cent of screenings in informal settings, such as home theatres.”
According to the Guardian, Nollywood’s success comes from keeping it simple. “Nigerian film-makers tend to operate in a fast and furious manner; shoots rarely last longer than two weeks, cheap digital equipment is almost always used and the average budget is about $15,000 (Sh1.2 million).
The finished products often bypass cinemas altogether and are instead sold directly to the “man on the street” for about $1.50 (Sh 100). Most films shift between 25,000 and 50,000 copies globally – although a blockbuster can easily sell up to 200,000.”
Tosh Gitonga, still proud of having scooped four awards but still smarting from losing out on the Best Movie and Best Director awards, believes that quality is something that is inbuilt in many Kenyan producers and directors but we need to go for quantity.
“I love their (Nollywood) attitude and their approach.” He says. “Keep making films whether good or bad just don’t stop. I respect that.”
According to Tosh, Kenyan filmmakers need a mindset shift to produce a lot more films since Nollywood is where it is because they have the whole of Nigeria and the continent hooked on their productions.
“The truth is, a good film is about the story so the story should come first then the quality and all else will follow,” says Tosh.
The Kenyan film industry has a lot of potential. According to a study commissioned by the Kenya Film Commission in 2007, the local film industry has the potential of earning the country up to Sh60 billion annually and generating thousands of new jobs. Reports have it that the sector added more than three per cent to the GDP between 2009 and 2010.
The government-backed Youth Enterprise Development Fund recently launched a Sh300 million loan facility for filmmakers dubbed “Take 254” targeting young and upcoming players in the industry.
The fund provides working capital for young filmmakers and will be for pre-production, production and post-production.
Kenyans aged 18-34 years may apply as individuals, registered groups, partnerships and companies.
Since the country has proved that it can produce high quality films, it shows that with a little more attention and a mindset shift by the producers, then Kenya, not Ghana, can compete with Nollywood.
Mnet is already in the process of shooting over 50 Kenyan movies to be aired on their platforms as a way of helping the country catch up with Nigeria.