There is no better example of the benefits of film marketing and distribution than the "Hollywood Blockbuster" phenomenon. Internet radio and newspaper/magazine hype precedes upcoming films by up to a year at times as studios build anticipation for an ‘in-production’ film. Then come the previews and trailers, marketed online and through other media and featured on television and sometimes radio. This intensifies in the lead-up to the release date and usually much publicized premiere almost guaranteeing a decent box office debut. (Of course this process does not excuse mediocrity and a film that serves up such suspense and fails to deliver normally gets shunned almost immediately by critics and viewers rarely earning enough to break even. Such films are "box office flops", an entirely opposite phenomenon to the blockbuster.) But this is just marketing: Upon release, distribution networks pick up the films and ensure their timely release to different film markets in other countries for theatrical release(usually translated or subtitled). DVD distribution companies pick up the same films after their theatrical runs and ensure the production of quality copies that are distributed to different markets for sale and rental. Some films are also signed up for television rights with broadcast companies such as HBO, Movie Magic, Hallmark, e.t.c. Really popular films may sometimes carry on their success in ancillary media such as video games, cartoons, television series and merchandising. For filmmakers in Hollywood, nothing beats this system as they earn royalties (depending on their deals with the distribution companies) at every stage of distribution. This is the reason why Hollywood icons lead the lavish lifestyles that so attract the rest of us and the bulk of the money in film is made from this part of the film-making process: Marketing and Distribution. A fact well worth noting is that until recently, most Hollywood film profit was realized during the theatrical exhibition phase. In recent times though, the proliferation of video technology in the form of DVDs and other media has changed this fact and in recent years, it is the DVD and home video market that has accounted for the bulk of film revenues. In 2004 for example, studios’ revenue from DVD alone was put at $20.9 billion dollars compared to $7.4 billion dollars from theatres in the same year. Today, it is standard marketing strategy to use theatrical screening as a launching pad for DVD release. In fact, theatrically successful films account for about 80% of video store rentals. Many independent filmmakers in Hollywood bypass the cinema all together with straight-to-DVD release, (A similarity with most Nollywood productions) and they have very high profit ratio. So why then is the difference in profits so great?
The first and most important factor here is content/Audience connection. A fact that most filmmakers fail to understand in relation to the phenomenon of film marketing and distribution is that the audience will not buy a film just because it is available or well distributed. They will also not buy it just because it has been marketed well and in markets like Nigeria where conventional marketing does not really take place, films have to sell themselves after release. An unconventional sort of ‘word of mouth’ marketing strategy if you will. Thus the absolute first prerequisite for commercial success is content/audience connection. This is the secret of Nollywood and its fundamental difference with the Kenyan film industry (Riverwood). Filmmakers in Nollywood notably strive for a connection with their audiences first before aiming for lofty intellectual and/or aesthetic achievements and therein lies the problem. That “witchcraft nonsense” that you hate so much is the reason why the Nigerian filmmaker will sell more copies of his film than you, with your "clever" intellectual themes. Most Nollywood films sell up to 50,000 copies in their commercial lifetime. A veritable success by Kenyan standards.
The Nollywood film industry was established at a time when there was a large audience with massive hunger for local content, exactly the same situation that exists in Kenya at the moment. Proof can be found in the recent shift in television programming influenced largely by a hunger for local programming by audiences: It saw local television stations rush to fill their time slots with local content that unfortunately sometimes was under par, but the demand was definitely there. TV ratings repeatedly show these local programs enjoying a comfortable lead in audience numbers. The film industry on the other hand seems to gravitate away from telling the stories of Kenyan films from the sources that the Kenyan audience has clearly shown his preference for. The fact that Nollywood films, with their constant depictions of ritualism and spiritualism, are sweeping the carpet out from under our feet in our own market seems lost to us. There is a marked lack of interest in Kenyan films by Kenyan audiences and in the rare cases when there is interest, it is usually because a film or filmmaker has garnered acclaim in a foreign market and even then, this interest is restricted to the more intellectual and up-market segments of the audiences; a very small fraction of the film market in the country. Why then don’t we tell Kenyan stories in a way that connects with Kenyan audiences; or is there another reason why Kenyans are ignoring our films?
I would like to cut the Kenyan filmmaker some slack here and say that, it is difficult to define, in terms of class and common background, exactly who the Kenyan target audience is. The differences in economic circumstances and fundamental culture between different groups in the country are so marked and outstanding that there is no definite “Kenyan Aesthetic” in most of the arts, not just film. An English language film will alienate a part of the audience but may become internationally competitive, a Swahili or vernacular language film also alienates a part of the audience and costs you international competitiveness or makes it much more difficult and that's just the beginning. It’s a catch 22 situation, no wonder talented filmmakers find it easier to target audiences that are not exclusively Kenyan e.g. Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu. But this is no excuse, or at least it is not enough excuse to justify the fact that foreign films from all over the world trump Kenyan films in popularity in Kenyan markets all the time. The fact of the matter is that we need to be working harder to discover or create a film aesthetic that will hold unbridled appeal for Kenyan audiences. Something they cannot resist much like the Nigerians cannot resist their Nollywood films. The Kenyan filmmaker must understand his audience and tailor his content to attract the Kenyan audience. Any less than that and the audience will switch to the multitude of alternative film content already available to them in the market (most of it foreign) to our own detriment.
Also important to the stage of marketing and distribution is the media delivery platform. If we intend to sell our films, we must embrace delivery platforms that our audiences are most comfortable with. It turns out that, these days, audiences care about platform as much as they care about content. A film will be ignored in cinemas and theatres if it is available on DVD and ignored on DVD if it is available on the internet and indeed this is usually the case. The closure of the iconic “Kenya Cinema” in Nairobi is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The Kenyan buyer prefers to promote piracy by buying from cheap copycats who win them over by providing everything under one roof, from Nigerian hits to Hollywood blockbusters, to whatever Kenyan material they can find all at throwaway prices. This though is out of the filmmakers’ control as it is only possible to control it by enforcing copyright law, a far-off dream in Kenya as things stand now. Yet as a business model, its advantages for both buyer and entrepreneur are evident; Convenience, affordability, and a wide variety of choices all at reduced cost. With copyright enforcement, it could be a great legal avenue for the business of film distribution. Admirably, several filmmakers in the country have made significant progress towards achieving this end, particularly notable are JITU FILMS who distributed their films via local supermarkets. The commercial success of their method is so far only known to them but I personally bought copies from the supermarket and was pleased that a local film was so readily available and I was not engaging in piracy to acquire it. In order for this to grow into a more established distribution method though, the films as mentioned above, must find the audience connection that will make them popular and thus viable business for the supermarket chains too.
Kenyan filmmakers and indeed all others from Africa need to embrace more audience friendly modes of marketing and key to this transition is the Internet. The core advantage that the Internet provides for filmmaking is helping to create a community of followers, and therein lies, arguably, the most essential element of any awareness or promotional campaign. These communities are areas where visitors can find more information, take part in interactive activities, subscribe to updates and newsletters and chat with other like-minded individuals with the eventual aim of creating greater audience loyalty. FilmKenya is the young beginnings of just such an endeavor. Clever minds in the industry understand that if a film cannot command a following, even before its official release, its chances are at best slim, and it may fail under the massive burden of creative competition. In the past few years, websites have become a cost effective promotion and marketing mix for independent filmmakers and studios alike. A social web promotion and awareness campaign is a powerful option for producers. A quick and effective way to build a community of followers through the internet is to create dedicated film websites that provide features such as, but not limited to, free trailer previews, downloads of images, music, soundtrack, wallpapers, and background materials. Giving fans the opportunity to have access to the story, the character biographies, and to contribute content and showcase their interest in the film will generally help to create interest in the film. Apart from having a dedicated website, tacking your film onto existing internet social networks is another good way of raising a community of followers. That the social networks already have a following that may as well constitute your target audience is an added advantage. Hosting a webcast on websites such as Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, Vimeo, etc, where members of cast and crew can have live interaction with subscribers would make for a good option. These days, the facebook-twitter-youtube equation is fast becoming a standard that creative producers must look to in marketing their productions.
In conclusion: There is no simple answer to the problem of film marketing and distribution in the Kenyan film market. Instead, Kenyan filmmakers face a situation that requires a creative mixture of content revision and creative promotion with emphasis on audience friendly delivery platforms. It is necessary for Kenyan filmmakers and film lovers to collaborate in the search for these and other solutions that will create an industry that is both prosperous and lucrative for our own sakes and for posterity. Contribute your opinions to this blog and join the cinematic quest on Face-book too.