It’s an ambiance so quiet in her Lekki studio, the loudest noise would be from her fingers punching with gusto at her PC keyboard and her lips slurping at intervals from a desk mug within her reach. In laser-sharp focus, Chioma Onyenwe squints at her screen to hand-trace a portion of the movie script she was reviewing. The filmmaker dials her writer on the project to suggest an adjustment.
Onyenwe tells me she’s in development for several projects, one of which is a book adaptation she’s yet to disclose.
Behind her is a massive brown bookshelf bearing several titles, many from contemporary African authors. And to its right is a comfy sofa easily proving useful when pulling an all-nighter becomes the only way to beat deadlines. A few strides ahead of her desk is a mini workstation suited for use during teamwork requiring physical presence. Her studio isn’t bereft of exquisite artwork too, several of them stacked away in a corner and others hanging on the wall.
Onyenwe founded Raconteur Productions, releasing over 20 films, documentaries, web series, podcasts, & theatre.
Having studied Economics, run an MSc in Management at Imperial College London, and undertaken film courses from the Met Film School, the producer leverages her interdisciplinary training to create works across mediums.
Onyenwe’s first feature film ‘8 Bars & A Clef’ was nominated for the 2016 Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). She started the August Meeting Movement, a stage production taking the story of Aba Women’s Riot on a tour.
She made ‘23419’, a One Word Media-nominated documentary widely extolled as Nigeria’s first true-crime podcast.
Onyenwe has done a seven-year stretch with the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) where she was a film programmer and then artistic director all between 2014 and 2021, gleaning intelligence on how the industry works.
A Creative Producer Indaba fellow, her forthcoming project about a dormitory hallway ghost in urban legend was among 10 African works unveiled and selected for funding by the American streamer Topic and Statement Films.
Onyenwe, in our conversation, points out that her works lie in the intersection of culture, history, and identity.
“AFRIFF was a school for me, like Nwa Boi. The exposure to African cinema was a revelation. The big picture for me is not just in creating projects but in building out [a business chain in the industry],” the filmmaker explains.
How would you deconstruct your outset in filmmaking?
I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller. Filmmaking wasn’t something I was fixated on initially. You know that thing when you’re young and you’re told to study Law because you talk a lot. It was that for me. I started reading as early as age 3 and storytelling had always been my thing. It started to crystalize when I was in UNILAG studying Economics. I would go to people’s sets and work as a production assistant, the first of which was for a documentary. I worked in a student fellowship where things go on and on. On stage, you’re made to bring your creativity to bear.
It was around 2004-2005. Then I volunteered for another set, finishing my programme in 2008. I decided I wanted to do another degree in film. My final-year project was about Nollywood where I wrote about revenue generation and how Nollywood can contribute to the GDP, looking at it as a macro industry. I’d gone to Alaba where I met a lot of industry guys for research, including the marketers at the time. In 2010, I would do my master’s in management.
Before then, I shot a web series ‘Goddammit It’s Monday’ where I adapted Woma Efetie’s blog of the same name. It was during my master’s I edited it and started to take weekend courses from the London Film Academy. I saved my allowance to take some courses. After my master’s, I did a two-month course at the MET Film School. That was in 2011-2012. I was in the UK for an additional year and returned to Nigeria to work at UNN. In the UK, I worked at the alumni office at Imperial College. I met UNN’s VC and he said at the time he wanted to set up an alumni office.
I went to Nsukka to set it up and lasted for a year (giggles). It taught me patience. I built it from scratch and played the politics of it. I’d worked in investment banking. In 2013, I decided on going into film full-time. I met Chioma Udeh. I wanted to make a feature film, so I volunteered with AFRIFF to meet with industry people and learn how the system works. At the first AFRIFF I went to, the opening film was ‘Of Good Report’ by Jahmil Qubeka. It blew my mind. I’d done film school but my diet was western. I wasn’t exposed as much to African cinema because, to be honest, there was nowhere to find it. You could hardly see what filmmakers in Kenya and South Africa were up to.
Now you can use Netflix but then there was nowhere to see them. I still made ‘8 Bars & A Cleff’, which was my first film, in 2014. The Jonathan government was doing a ₦3 billion injection for Nollywood, ₦300,000 for capacity building, ₦700,000 for production, and ₦2 billion for distribution. I got funding from the finance ministry to finish my film, which took two years. It was a nightmare. In hindsight, there are things I see I could have done differently. My approach to it had me producing, directing, and doing everything by myself. I was even shooting in my house.
The film came out in 2015 and earned me an AMAA nomination. It came out in the cinema and didn’t do well at all.
It was about a dyslexic artist finding his voice. I’ve not done a feature film since then. I’m not in any sort of recovery (laughs). But I decided to take my time and learn, seeing what filmmakers on the continent were doing. So I started doing more work with AFRIFF. I did another course in film production. In-between, with my production company, I did documentaries. I’ve done theatre. Once I knew the story, I then determine what was the best medium to tell it.
When I did ‘August Meeting’, about the Aba women riot, I knew it had to be on stage. Documentaries kept the lights on and, with that, came more commissioned work. With the festival, I started with programme and later became an artistic director for a couple of years. Now, I’m focusing on film and TV. I’m currently in development for a couple of projects, bearing in mind the importance of collaboration. There’s one I’m working on with Melissa Adeyemo, the producer of the film ‘Eyinmofe’. We’re working on the ‘Madam Koi-Koi’ series with Statement Films in the US.
Before that, I did the Creative Producer Indaba fellowship in 2020. We had producers across Africa in a full mentorship sorting out how to get international funding and market films internationally. We explored that international route to market. From the festival space, we see that African films go to international festivals and people still don’t know them. You have Nollywood which has such an audience but is not following the festival route to market. For me, it’s finding balance. I don’t want to lose this local audience and make films they can’t relate to.
Beyond marketing, how else did you leverage your field of study in the filmmaking context?
Economics is broad enough that you can apply it in any industry. Being in AFRIFF was me trying to find structure.
I haven’t cracked it but, when I opted for film, my father’s question was about how that makes money. He didn’t see sustainability in it. Filmmaking is wide. There’s the music videos, the commercials, documentaries, the Nollywood. It’s an industry and one has to find ways to fit in. Breaking it down further to the support services, you have the big players like Jungle providing equipment. How many more of those can we have? We have companies for subtitling.
At the macro level, we have the training and the need to package skills for sale, as Andela did for the tech space. An animation school perhaps, although the setup is expensive. It’s in making sense of the industry’s multiple aspects as well as how to think of filmmaking as a business that the knowledge proves useful. It’s not about just doing projects and turning around. It’s only when we get to a point where Nollywood has its ecosystem fully built out that we have an industry. There’s the economics to thinking about that. The big picture for me is not just in creating projects but in building out. You have to think about what you can export eventually because everyone is competing globally.
You once said structure deficiency in Nollywood informed your foray into filmmaking. How much of that opinion do you still hold, given the level to which movie production has evolved in Nigeria?
I think it still is for me. The supervisor who oversaw my final-year project back in university initially kicked me out and remarked that I was unserious because I left macroeconomic policy to focus on the film industry. But I could see that the creative industry was the next frontier. Everyone wanted to do a master’s in Oil & Gas or Petroleum Economics. Today, what I saw in the entertainment space is now apparent. Whatever happened in music came first.
I see so much potential. Nollywood will take longer because it needs more practitioners to be excellent across lines.
In my first film, the sound guy left the set with my storage card. On returning, I figured I’d lost one day of sound. It was one person’s mess that affected the rest of the film. We look at the film as a top-to-down thing due to the bossy nature of some executives but it’s about every one of the crew members knowing what they’re doing. That way, you don’t have to micromanage anyone and have a director who is expected to be all-knowing. If costume or foley guys know what they’re doing, they’ll be the ones giving you options as the creatives they are. It makes the work easier.
So we’re not there yet. There’s a skill gap that is still present and there’s also the infrastructure and support system.
I don’t know (sighs). I guess we’re better than we were before. It just takes time and we’ve come a long way, to be fair. I feel like we haven’t still sorted sound in Nollywood because the music video guys don’t need sound (giggles). When you think about it, cinematography changes with [affordability]. Imagine an artiste is paying ₦5 million to make a music video in one day and that’s the money you need to make a film in one week. They’ve built the skills.
Editing is choppy because they’re also coming from the music video space. Everything becomes about fast cuts. It’s not cutting corners. It’s just style because he’s used to editing music which is about change. But with film, you have to sit and let the story influence the edits. So it’s in learning. These are the areas where there’s still work to be done.
One readily wonders what your creative process would look like, as a filmmaker.
Reading is really where I start. I did a podcast called ‘23419’ and it was a true-crime audio documentary. It took two years. I took my time collating all data. There were cases in Switzerland, Nigeria, and the US. I was able to amass a 500-page research document. I always want to drill down. While I was making ‘August Meeting’ as well, I wanted to be as true to history as possible, even if it was a case of these events inspiring the project. So I like researching and reading about that intersection between history, culture, and identity. For projects I’m doing now, I’m adapting.
I try to find collaborators if it’s based on something real. For ‘August Meeting’, I found Emeka Keazor, a historian. I get across to others I do back-and-forth with. What’s tough is knowing a thing isn’t working but not knowing why.
Then you’re stuck. You go back to the drawing board and maybe readjust the POV with the writer. It might also be staffing. Sometimes, people are really great writers but they’re not great for that project. There’s nothing you can do about that. For me, it’s really getting it right from the script stage, even when there’s pressure to move. I had a play last year and I had to ‘abduct’ my writer for three days. Once there’s a deadline and things have to be done, we come together and share ideas. But it starts with working with the right people. And some other ideas hit you much later.
How about Raconteur Productions? What’s it like running a production firm in Nigeria?
I registered it in 2012, so I’ve had it for some time while working with AFRIFF, which is one main event that took only four months of my year, you know, programming and planning. With Raconteaur I’ve done events and stage. Raconteur means storytelling, which is really the mantra. Most of the work is project-based. You staff up when you have a project, which is why I started acting so I can have more of a business. When you’re doing project-based work, it’s almost like freelancing but the goal is to scale it. For me, it’s about thinking of building out businesses.
Briefly, what key insight about Africa’s movie industry did you amass working with AFRIFF?
AFRIFF was a school for me, like Nwa Boi. I worked with AFRIFF for seven years. It made me realise we Nigerians are like Americans in the sense that we think we’re the only ones. The exposure to African cinema was a revelation and it made sense because I sought to push for more pan-African collaborations. East Africa, for example, is good with documentaries. There’s so much happening across regions. It also opened me up to how the business works.
One is developing a movie but, while at that, one wants to get into the market and tell the world about the coming project. People think, especially with festivals, that they’d just submit a film and it’ll show at Cannes. For that to happen, it has to be a French producer, co-producer, or distributor. There are so many directors doing great and Cannes wants to show the best. They’re really following what directors are doing before you even start submitting.
There’s the politics of film that working with AFRIFF exposes one to. And there’s a network because you’re meeting filmmakers, distributors, and sales agents. There’s the education for me which was basically seeing a range of films.
We have an influx of foreign players like Netflix, Paramount, and Amazon seeking to deepen ties with filmmakers in Nigeria. How does this affect the kind of stories we tell or how they’re told?
There’s more funding and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With COVID, people weren’t going to the cinemas anymore. Netflix expanded during that time to create content. There was an influx of funding. It meant we had to upskill at an accelerated rate. We had firms paying for production and there’s licensing. There’s the upside to that.
But it’s tricky. There’s the local-for-local, where they buy content to build their local base. So they’re either buying stuff already here or creating for a local market because they’re trying to build their subscriber base in this market.
Then, there’s the local-for-global like ‘Squid Game’ which, perhaps, wasn’t intended as a global hit; ‘Blood & Water’ from South Africa with the originals when you think in terms of Netflix. These firms are not trying to be saviours. They’re testing out a business model because they have ownership of the content. So it makes sense to hedge bets.
I just don’t want us to get to a point where we’re only creating for those platforms. We need to be able to tell stories in our own way and have ownership. But we need the luxury. You get to tell certain kinds of stories independently of the demands and stipulations of the streamers. They’re good but we just have to be aware they’re doing business.
They’re not saviours. Once their business model suits investing in an industry, they will. If it doesn’t, they won’t.
The banking system in Nigeria doesn’t exactly fund films since they aren’t predictable commercial products. Talk to me about the general economics with films and the place of financial institutions.
To be fair, films are not designed to give you ROI in one year. Film globally is a lifetime revenue earner. More times than not, films don’t make their money back in the cinema during the first run. But now, there’s the streamers and TV. So what happens when, normally, you get a sales agent? They chop it up. They sell to different regions. If it’s a film that can open in cinemas globally, then that’s great. But more times than not, you may be stuck in one market.
And if you’re able to manage your cost outlay, then you can be sure to amass revenue for a film over 20 to 30 years.
Maybe, not consistently but it depends. I was talking about ‘Friends’. That’s a TV show Netflix paid $100 million to extend its licensing by an extra year. And you never know what happens in the future. I mean, there was no Netflix 20 years ago. Different mediums are opening and they keep coming. It gives you a way to earn revenue. Here, it’s still internal. People get a lot of private investors. Do they know you and can they vouch for you? I guess that’s how everyone raises money here. Of course, our rich cousins in music have their own direct route to the source (laughs).
As for bank funding, I don’t know if bank funding works here. There was the Bank of Industry (BOI) which tried to do a Nollyfund. I’m not sure how successful that was in terms of getting ROI. It’s really hard. Maybe that’s why I’ve not made another film. Even when the film makes money in the cinema, as a producer, you’re getting 30 percent. Does that cover the cost? Have you made money? You earned ₦200 million but invested ₦100 million to make it.
There’s a cost-revenue outlay. That’s why people are still fine with TV. At least, African Magic will fund it and you’ll know you’re earning a salary for a year. It’s still a very risky endeavour and we don’t yet have that institutionalised funding. It’s why the streamers are so attractive. Whether it’s a licensing deal or an original, you’re seeing money.
There’s been talk about copyright protection in Nollywood and underpaid writers. I’d imagine you have strong takes on this, given your legal struggle over ‘Okafor’s Law’. I want you to speak on this.
I don’t know if I’d advise anybody to go to court (giggles). I mean, it’s been two years and a lot of stress. It’s a very expensive process that’s demanding in terms of time and effort. I think we have to test the system and that’s what things like that do. It’s a Nigerian thing. There will always be oppression. On the one hand, people need to start to ask for what they deserve but also earn it. To be fair with writers, you have to sign contracts and stipulate credits.
But there’s signing a contract and there’s having it upheld in the first place. It’s also about protecting yourself by working with those you’d vouch for. You have to protect yourself because, I’m sorry, the system won’t protect you.
Provide value so you’re not replaceable. I’m not saying it’s just A-listers that deserve to get what they’re worth. But there’s a reason they can negotiate for things like backend. If you bring value, it’s a much easier place to negotiate from. On the malpractice thing, it’s good that people are speaking up. Just don’t be afraid to walk away if it doesn’t serve you. Get things in writing. Even if it’s a verbal discourse, send an email after. Build a network. There are these things that can protect you so you don’t have to deal with it as much because the court system would be what it is.
How did that case end? I know there were indications you were set to appeal the court judgment.
What people didn’t realise is there were two cases. And that case, in a sense, is still in court. They just haven’t been coming to court, something for which they owe me money. It’s the type of thing that took so much out of me. It was a very interesting process. I mean, we lost the case and there’s been talk about an appeal. I didn’t know if I had that energy. Is it worth it? At the time, the first thing we asked for was an apology and actual credits. But I don’t really want to rehash it all. There was so much told about it and it’s not something I want to define me moving forward.
It’s good that it happened when it did. I think it was good for the industry and it served its purpose. On the appeal, I haven’t given it much thought because I don’t know what more can be gained. It’s not about money. Beyond what was due to us, why I don’t regret it is that it served a higher purpose. It wasn’t personal. It was about a thing being wrong. There was the protection that came out of it and hope for writers to know that contracts should be signed.
As for the corporates, they’d now be more careful and do things right. The thing about law is you just have to do the right thing, whether you like it or not. The case definitely served its purpose if it made more people do things right.
Filming in Nigeria is predominantly location-based, where actors work extreme hours of the day. How far off are we from having state-of-the-art studios in which quality visual effects can be done?
We don’t have a studio system that much, so it’s been about finding the right location that serves that. I know Kunle Afolayan is building a film village so I guess he’s doing that. Niyi Akinmolayan talks about building sets. We might get there but it might not be Lagos because I don’t know if there’s space. It’s a huge investment. We’ll grow into it.
You’re the one to casts your net across mediums, doing a thing in theatre, TV, film, documentary, online content, and even podcasting. What’s the deal and how do you choose what medium is best?
It doesn’t feel like doing different things. It just feels like telling a story, which then picks the medium. The podcast had a TV element but I felt it works as a podcast too which is also a good way to show proof of pitch, just in case we want to take it to television. For theatre, it was about a call to action that was urgent. For documentaries, it could be a number of things, including a social issue case. I’m currently working on an immigration documentary. There are different elements. The different one is art because I curate art, something I started during the lockdown in 2020.
And diving into art? Damn!
(Giggles) I was pensive at the time, so I rubbed minds with my siblings. Before the lockdown, I was in Kenya and wanted to go to the art market. I wanted to get a painting and they started locking down. I had to return to Lagos when they were closing the air space. I never got to pick up that art piece. Sometime around June as well, I went to the art market here in Lekki and it was empty as they weren’t even opening market. I thought to set up a platform where you can sell your art internationally. Because of my film leanings, I was able to reach out to set decorators and people who I knew would likely need African art apart from regular collectors and Nigerians in the diaspora.
That’s how ArtDey started and we’re almost two years old now. We had art in ‘Bell-Air’, so they got a lot of pieces from Nigerian artists in the show. It’s business, straightforward buying, and selling. I’m back to my Nnewi route.
So what are you up to when not making films?
Ah, a lot o! I’m a deep-sea diver. I work out. I drink, like everyone else. For me, it’s important to enjoy the journey.
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