Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Is this the inevitable future??

Its still relatively early into 2011 but as a filmmaker in Kenya, the year already has me rather optimistic. Within the first month and a half of it I have watched Judy Kibinge's 'Dangerous Affair' and 'Killer Necklace', and Nathan Collett's 'Togetherness Supreme'. This in addition to Hawa Essuman's 'Soul Boy' brings to four the number of Kenyan films that I've knocked off my must-watch list in recent times. For the most part, it was screenings at the French and German cultural centers, Goethe and Alliance Francaise, that allowed me to access the films except for 'Soul Boy' which I had the pleasure of watching at its premier open-air screening last year in the Kibera slum where it was shot.

I couldn't help looking back at this with some level of satisfaction seeing as I had waited for quite a while to see these titles. Yet most of my friends did not consider it as much of an achievement as I may have wanted them to. Upon closer inquiry, I discovered that their nonchalance was due to the fact that they had no idea how good these films were. They were indeed aware of the existence of these films but had very little or no interest at all in watching them and their expectations, before our conversations, were extremely low. Used to a staple of pirated copies of the latest foreign films served cheap by vendors, they seem to have come to equate availability with quality. A common question I got was "If these Kenyan films are so good then how come no one has pirated them?" And truthfully, despite wanting to launch a self-important diatribe on copyrights and moral values, I paused to consider the question. Each of the films I had watched was good, with quality in production values and that most important ingredient, the script. If these films were in the vendors' stalls, they would not fail to have buyers, and in large numbers too. Even though this would not result in revenues for filmmakers, it would result in recognition, maybe even popularity. And if the plan for the industry is a long term one as I hope it is, this may not be a bad thing at all. Sort of like taking one for the team. I am truly sorry I have to suggest this but perhaps the four films that I recently enjoyed so much should be compiled onto a 4in1 DVD disc and leaked to the more popular stalls across the city. And no, don't kill me just yet, at least not until you hear my renegade ideas first (especially NO. 3).

All across the business spectrum, not only in music, software, and film but across many other areas, the ease of file transfer over the internet has steadily been driving prices down. It's an interesting equation, that the availability of free movies on the internet is not only hurting the revenues of the movies available on the internet, but also the revenues of those not available on it. The smartest entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the free-for-all nature of Internet business to launch an entirely new model of business. Where they actively seek out users and consumers and offer them commodities and services free of charge in order to build popularity and fan-base(facebook, google), and then sell their connection to these users/fans to interested third parties(read internet advertising) and it’s working. If these entrepreneurial successes are to be emulated, the Kenyan film industry can benefit from some unorthodox thinking. You see, the purpose of filmmaking is to tell a story to as many people as possible and the joy of every filmmaker is to have unlimited access to a large audience that preferably pays for the pleasure of the film. But what if the future of traditional film revenue, like all these other businesses, is ultimately destined to earn nothing? We won’t quit filmmaking (at least I don’t plan to) and we will still need to make a living from our work. These ‘novel ideas’ are just a few ways we might consider going about our work in the foreseeable bleak future.

This idea proposes that filmmakers find, right from inception, a corporate sponsor willing to fund the film expenses and its marketing and promotion purely for the corporate entity’s own marketing purposes. Take Safaricom for example, such a sponsorship would entail Safaricom footing the film expenses and using their media footprint to market and associate themselves with the film. They would be free to decide on screenings and exhibitions and pay for such on TV and local film theatres while using the opportunity to increase their own sales by giving away free tickets to lucky subscribers and running raffles and such. It would also entail an agreed amount of product placement within the body of the film itself and inclusion in the film credits as per agreement.
The Pros:
- A (fat) cheque from Safaricom for the filmmaker and a chance to reach a wider number of viewers and in so doing, establish a fan base that in future will be used to bargain for better terms in similar deals.
- In a roundabout way, the filmmaker would benefit from Safaricom’s large base of subscribers while Safaricom would gain from the increased sales and visibility and be associated, depending on the quality and impact of the film, with the film industry and support for the arts.
The Cons:
- The corporate sponsor would always keep the upper hand in this equation. This would be a disadvantage especially if foreign distribution is secured by the corporate entity and the payoff would be significantly less than it would be for an independent filmmaker.

 This idea proposes a different approach to the issue of gaining fans. It is significantly hindered by the relatively poor penetration of the Internet in Kenya but is nonetheless worth a shot. It involves the use of social media to create an internet presence and then the involvement of the fans garnered via this social media presence in the process of filmmaking and production up to a point where they feel ownership and responsibility for the work. This can then be used to market and promote the work by each fan spreading the word to their friends and fans and creating a widening pyramid effect over the social media so to speak. Fans who perceive a work from its inception to completion will always appreciate the work more and will always be willing to pay a fair fee to access it, as will their friends. At its apex of popularity, the fans gathered by this method not only assure the film of a community of fans upon its release, but can also be used to source for funds and resources from interested third parties in a different example of the third party rule described in ‘the basis’ above. For example, 10,000 fans on face-book who all RSVP an event booked for a given date at a given venue can be of interest to a corporate entity like CocaCola who can be offered the chance to associate themselves with the event and sell their product, for a fee of course.
The Pros:
- A loyal fan following of people who will most probably stick with you for a while and are willing to pay for your work. The kind of fans who will buy the original work if you tell them where to get it and will tell their friends to buy it too.
- A modest paycheck, maybe even a good one, if you plan everything right. You will also completely own your own film and be in full control of its exhibition and sale which is always the advantage most distribution deals take away.
The Cons:
- You’ll need time, patience, and a will of steel. You might want to have a day job for this one as it takes more time and effort to complete a project and plan its sale and exhibition but pays less due to the lack of involved/invested partners, apart from the fans that is.

 There is nothing novel about this idea; it is the JITU/Nollywood model albeit with slight modifications. Basically, it involves ‘pirating’ your own productions and distributing them either yourself, or with the help of identified businesses and selling them for equal or lower prices than the pirates would. My idea though, involves the creation of an umbrella distribution body for Kenyan filmmakers that puts together compilations of local productions on 4in1 DVDs and markets these via local businesses like supermarkets(JITU style) and retail outlets and then sells the packaging and compilation to third party corporate entities e.g. having an advert in the DVD along with the films. The revenues are thus made on two levels; the sales of the DVD compilations themselves(albeit for low prices) and the sale of advertising space on the DVD packaging and in the DVD content. These revenues would then be shared out between the filmmakers and distribution body as per agreement. I haven’t worked out who would cover marketing costs in this model yet but it is likely to make more business sense for the distribution body to do so. This idea is probably the most sustainable one considering that traditional film exhibition has taken a hit from the proliferation of home video(and assisted by piracy) which in the future is only bound to increase as home video systems become more comprehensive entertainment packages; now even 3D-video is in the living room.
The Pros:
- A decent paycheck, maybe even a great one if the marketing and film quality work together to drive anticipation/demand up and therefore allows the distributor to charge the third parties more for advertising and to sell the DVD for more.
- Relative artistic and creative freedom during the making of the film.
The Cons:
- The films will be pirated anyway, so a given percentage of revenues will still be lost. Compared to traditional film exhibition and distribution methods, the profit margins for this model are significantly lower than ideal(but still better than the current status quo in the Kenyan industry).

Now back to my suggestion, that those Kenyan films I watched this year be compiled onto a DVD and ‘leaked’ to the pirates; do you still think I was being unfair?? Unlike the music industry that (despite being almost utterly ravaged by piracy) always has live performance to rely on, film exhibition, from which the bulk of traditional revenues used to come, is dying rather than improving. New models of filmmaking like 3D-film offer glimmers of hope but are at odds with the direction in which consumers of film are traveling which is towards a home based, cheap content culture. The future doesn’t always turn out as we expect it to and the proliferation of the “free-on-the-internet” culture is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The smartest among entrepreneurs have already embraced this future and are finding ways of working with and around it and I suggest that the film industry in Kenya and all over Africa do the same. If this does not happen, filmmaking and distribution will(and is already in grave danger of this) soon become an obsolete model of business.

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  1. Interesting take, especially the pirating your own movie and leaking it to the media, sort of creating a viral effect that leads people to look out for the real film. As for the internet one, I find that unless you can wrap a social cause to the film, like Franny Armstrong did with 'Age of Stupid (2009)' where she used global warming campaigns and got the Indie world a crazy but efficient distribution network,its quite a tough thing to pull especially in Kenya. But yeah, its time to think of unorthodox ways of distribution. Barasa.

  2. ok. the best idea is to make the movie for TV. like what they had in US and i believe europe. call it 'movie of the week' now, the media house funds the film and holds the mandate to censor if necesary, and you make the film for them. the media house depending on the strength of the movie will then find advertisers to recover their cost. the benefit being, nobody can pirate such a movie, since the only copy is owned by the media house, and they can show it as many times as they want. they can air it any time they like.

    one big advantage being we are headed towards regional television broadcasting.
    and also pay TV via the internet circa Zuku.

    if this works, then, we could have independents sourcing financing for their movies, then, making these movies have the media houses bid for them, say after screening in regional film festivals.

  3. Thanks Karanja, that idea was in my mind when I wrote this article but I left it out coz from my experience(and I currently work at NTV) local media treats the film industry as if it does not have a stake in its growth and is content to wait for the industry to pick up by itself rather than offer such helpful initiatives to help further its development. You should hear the kinds of exploitative offers that Citizen/Classic TV make to local films seeking to be shown in their AfroCinema broadcast segment.

  4. Nice exposition. My two cents: Total Sellout would eventually morph into a just another marketing campaign (print, sms, events, TV spots) a la Michael Power, with the film being somewhat incidental. plus, i'd fear for the team having to do rewrites and edits overseen by a corporation's marketing department. combine option 3 and 2 succesfully and you have futureshorts, (google the word) a model that has had some good traction, but dealing with shorts. I think PayTV (esp. pay per view or set top box downloads service like netflix) would also be quite viable once the challenges of infrastructure, adoption and amassing a critical mass of content to justify the investment are surmounted. An alternative radical idea would be to produce primarily for specialised audiences (think of a Movie made specifically for screening in say, secondary schools or the congregations of a given church or members of a given movement / cause)the concept here is much like renegade idea number 2, only that the plan would be to cover the costs of production by counting on a minimum turnout / purchase from members of the target group, with the intention that the films overall merit would later win a following outside the narrow primary target... just a thought

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