From an idea to the big screen: The journey of producing a movie
How to take an idea to the big screen

Back in 2012, film director and producer, Imoh Umoren thought of an ambitious project to document the life of Herbert Macaulay - the man celebrated as the founder of Nigerian nationalism.  

For six years, the film remained an idea.

“I was still building up my reputation and expertise,” Umoren explains. “I wasn’t that strong enough to raise the kind of finance I wanted for my project.”

By 2018, though, the “indie” filmmaker was ready for the production of The Herbert Macaulay Affair.

Two main factors determine if a film will go from being an idea to a real-life production: the people, such as the film crew and financing for the film. 

Establishing a crew for production was the least of Umoren’s problems because he had developed relationships on previous projects. What he needed was to secure the required funds. 

That eventually came with a single tweet. 

"It is pretty funny, but this is true,” he laughs. “I just tweeted: you know what, I'm going to make a film about Herbert Macaulay, I need money to make a film about Herbert Macaulay.”

He got a Direct Message: “How much do you need?”

“It's the most amazing thing,” Imoh says. 

An investor was interested. 

On Twitter, Umoren’s bio is “everyone’s favourite cousin,” and his followers address him as such. He is that friendly neighbourhood guy. It's a good attribute, But it's certainly not what unlocks financing in the industry. It was just one of those miracle moments.  

 

Film financing

A public call for investments in a different film tells a more realistic story. 

Back in 2017, when Komotion Studios, a creative production company, launched a campaign on social media to crowdfund a one-of-kind 3D animated superhero film, Dawn of Thunder, it didn’t work out.

The film is a novel one, with a storyline envisioned to be capable of competing with the likes of Marvel’s Thor. 

Like The Herbert Macaulay Affair, Dawn of Thunder is historical but centred on the Yoruba deity, Sango.

Although the producers of DoT created a 4-minute 3D animated video sample as a proof-of-concept to push the campaign, it struggled to gain traction.

“It was a colossal failure,” they wrote in a statement. “Nigerians only crowdfund if someone is ill or dying, or a celebrity pleads.”

Getting funds to produce a film can stretch into years, and different factors can cause a delay. Komotion Studios got interest from Silicon Valley investors and Hollywood but turned it down. The foreign firms insisted on a clause where the animation would be produced in English as opposed to Yoruba. 

Eventually, it took close to three years to acquire funds; the film is now set for a release later this year. 

Umoren's experience was very different thanks to the direct message  

Still, it wasn’t just plain sailing after getting in contact with his potential investors - like any business, a good pitch matters when it comes to financing movies. 

After the introduction, his pitch was effective because of an assured return on investment (ROI) over time, through film distribution. His portfolio of previous projects also played a role in getting an investor. 

Umoren’s happy social media demeanour tells a good story, but behind that tweet, there were messages exchanged with documents including the production bible, a budget and profit projections. 

Umoren got an investor who put in half the money to produce the film, while he funded the rest out-of-pocket. 

With the funds secured, he could execute the film.

 

Producing the movie 

Research began in 2018. Umoren needed to focus on one key area: “Macaulay’s formative years as a young rebel.” However, the information available on Herbert Macaulay’s life was spread out in bits and pieces.

The script took seven months to complete and shooting began on the 8th draft. 

In the meantime, his team had prepared a prose version of 20 to 30 pages for actors to familiarise themselves with first.

Being a film from the past, The Herbert Macaulay Affair needed a cast that was true to life. “Almost everybody in the film is quite identical to the real people,” he says.

Umoren worked with one of Macaulay’s descendants—Wale Macaulay—to access archived pictures of all the key personalities he needed for the film. Then the lead characters were selected in comparison. Umoren and his team then chose others through an audition. 

Things had to be done right. Actors were made to watch videos set in the era of production to get acquainted with the mannerisms and accents of those days. 

A scene from The Herbert Macaulay Affair

Source: Imoh Umoren

 

Meanwhile, the crew scouted for a fitting location to shoot the film, purchased props like antique mugs, contracted tailors to sew costumes and carpenters to construct vintage chairs.

Next came the actual production of the film. The cast and crew spent between three to four weeks on-set. It was filmed in both Lagos and Ibadan—a state with buildings that have become relics, which were necessary for the movie’s cinematography and style. 

"I wasn't making a film that will be the biggest of the year. But one that will stand the test of time,” Umoren explains, “I wanted every shot to look like an old picture. So when you look at the framing, the way we set the cameras and position them, they all look like it could have been a picture book from the 19th century.” 

Apart from his ability to work with a limited budget, the drive to utilise a unique artistic style in filmmaking defines his work as an indie filmmaker. 

 

Marketing the film

Umoren released the trailer on social media as an advertisement to excite his audience. “The impact was massive”, he says. “I had calls every day, with  government officials, and the attention was a lot, mentally, I wasn’t even ready for [it]” 

Although he also made use of billboards and did several rounds in the press, such as interviews, to market the film, social media and film merchandising yielded the best results.  

In Nollywood, film-based merchandising—products like T-shirts, hoodies, toys, and mugs, created with the film’s theme—is still one of the peripheral avenues for generating revenue. Not many filmmakers have explored its full potential, so this was a learning curve for Umoren too. 

“I partnered with a T-shirt maker, the design was attractive, and we had a split revenue plan,” he elaborates. 

Umoren and his team sold all the merchandise before the film was released, marketed through social media. Merchandise sales for the film grossed ₦4 million, with over ₦2 million profit generated, and sales are still ongoing. 

“We couldn't even cope with the orders because we weren’t expecting it. Like the hoodies, people will just order large quantities like 100, 200; you know...some companies were ordering too. We got customers from as far as Paris, in the US as well. We shipped to them. Even two weeks ago, we still sold some of the merchandise.”

“That, for me, really opened my eyes into the possibilities of merchandising in Nollywood.”

This was also about peer-to-peer marketing. Social media made the merchandise more accessible with greater visibility, and as people ordered for products on the timeline, others were convinced to buy too. 

Licensed merchandise can be used to create a compelling marketing experience. 

Walt Disney built an entire empire that capitalises on merchandising: Disney World. Moreso, its studio blockbusters, especially superhero films (Thor, Avengers, Star Wars etc.) thrive off selling toys, T-shirts, backpacks, hoodies etc. Any die-hard fan of the Star Wars trilogies isn’t a real one if they do not have the merch. 

Such movies have contributed to the global retail sales of licensed merchandise, which rose to $263 billion in 2016.
 

Censorship and classification

Every movie distributed within Nigeria must go through the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB).

The board watches the exhibited version of the film, then classifies both imported and locally produced films for general viewing (G), the mature audience (18), parental guidance (PG) etc.

“Usually, it’s the distributor that goes through this process. It doesn’t take long, probably a day or two days. But sometimes, if there’s a backlog of films to watch, that might cause a bit of a delay,” Umoren explains. 

Application fees for vetting depends on the runtime of the film and ranges between ₦20,000 (15 minutes) to ₦100,000 (300 minutes).  

“We were given a general rating [Parental Guidance], so it was good for us; it’s also one of our strong points that anybody can watch The Herbert Macaulay Affair. So that’s helping with our next stage of sales,” he says. 

 

Cinema Distribution

The next item on the agenda was distribution. There were three stages. 

The first was cinema distribution and private viewings. Second: Video on Demand (VoDs) and TV. Third: DVDs.

For cinema distribution, a good showtime is important. 

“Half the time, the allotted schedule to watch the movie was wrong,” Umoren explains. “Like who is going to watch a film by noon on a weekday?” 

In Nigeria, there are less than 200 cinema screens nationwide. In 2019, cinemas screened 147 films, so the competition for the best showtime can be fierce. 

Umoren also found that “distribution in Nigeria can be a very treacherous business.” This was yet another learning curve.

“There was a whole ambush marketing,” he says. “It was all sorts of things, deception...you know: I’ll pay for a billboard, and we’ll drive past there, and it’s not up there.” 

There were many stories. 

Director of The Herbert Macaulay Affair 

Source: Imoh Umoren

 

“People will go on the counter and say they want to watch Herbert Macaulay and those at the desk would suggest they watch another film instead. Then, there was a film that was released during this same period, and they changed the colour of the poster to look exactly like the colour of mine.”

When a cinema distributor such as Genesis or Silverbird acquires a film for distribution, they share it across all other cinema chains. The Herbert Macaulay Affair screened across the cinemas for six weeks, under a renewable contract, which was extendable, depending on the film’s performance. So, it showed for another two weeks. 

There can also be some roadblocks at the cinema during the screening phase. One of such is when a cinema is supposed to have stopped showing the movie but continues without making the filmmaker aware. 

Umoren recalls: “Imagine someone goes to watch the film, and then, they are like: Oh I’ve seen your film. Then I’m like: it’s supposed to be out, where are you watching it? And then they are like: I saw it in the cinema! Then, I have to write to the cinema that: you guys are still showing my film, but you are not giving me my money.”

In the business of film distribution, close monitoring is key to avoid all sorts of exploitations. Umoren digresses to explain how someone pirated one of his previous films, Children of Mud into DVD and sold it on Amazon. 

“He probably sold many copies because when we found out, it was out of stock. I wrote to Amazon, and they pulled it down, but it was also sold out anyway.”

It is challenging to avoid piracy in the industry; even the biggest superhero movies are usually out somewhere on the internet less than a month after release. So filmmakers capitalise on other ways to generate profit off their film, especially in the early period of release.

On the plus side, private screenings were another profitable path for the movie.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can bring a newly released cinema movie to you in the comfort of your home. The ultra-rich rent out theatres for private viewings too; this could be one-off, but it does bring in more profit for the filmmaker.
 

Video on Demand

The Herbert Macaulay Affair is entering phase 2 of distribution: VoD. 

On democracy day, June 12th 2020, the movie began streaming on AirtelTV, a Transactional Video on Demand (TVoD) platform which has a rental service, where consumers pay a fee per film to watch for a period.

Umoren and his team have plans to license it to other VoD platforms but have been hesitant to avoid making the wrong deal. 

In the economy of film distribution, he explains, you have to be patient. “Sometimes, you hold on for the right deal,” he affirms.

“One of your favourite VoD platforms offered some kind of money for The Herbert Macaulay Affair, and it wasn’t good enough. Now, they are back with a bigger offer for the same movie. So those are some of the things to watch out for. You could make your film for ₦40 million, and somebody is trying to buy it for five million or two million to stream it for some years. You don't want that at all. You'll want to make a nice profit from the film.”

Subscription Video on Demand platforms like Netflix, acquire movies from filmmakers for a licensing fee under a time-bound agreement. 

“If it is an exclusive deal, for maybe two years, you can't sell your film to another SVoD distributor or platform during that period,” Umoren explains. 

“So the potential profitability of your film is drastically reduced. For you to get somebody's film for two years, you have to pay a substantial amount of money for it. So that the filmmaker does not lose revenue.”

However, while a deal could be exclusive to an SVoD platform, a filmmaker can still license it to television stations and other mediums, such as rental services. 

Film money tends to be in perpetuity. As long as the filmmaker is able to tie down multiple avenues of distribution, and consumer demand stays strong.

The multiple distributions Umoren is working on increases the chances of getting back returns on the investment that the happy investor staked into the film business from the beginning.  

 

Follow our financial journalist on Twitter @fisvyo

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Fisayo Okare

Fisayo Okare

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