I know it took a while…but we talked so much i totally forgot it was an interview. I’ve taken time to extract the most useful parts of the interview for everyone. Even I had a lot to learn from this and i hope you will too…Enjoy!!!.
N: Let’s start from your experience as a filmmaker. Pre Isoken.
J: I’ve always known I wanted to be a filmmaker, since I was fourteen. But I come from a family of engineers; both my parents are engineers.
N: High school?
J: Air Force Comprehensive School Ibadan.
N: So you’re an Ibadan girl?
J: Well of sorts, I grew up in Lagos but I went to secondary school in Ibadan
J: I then went to the University of Manchester to study Electrical & Electronics Engineering but in my second year, changed to Computer Systems Engineering. Throughout Uni though, I wasn’t really interested in going to classes. I was so obsessed with film making, I spent all my time online googling stuff.
N: What was the critical point where you lost interest in engineering and science?
J: The thing is, I was actually a good science/tech student.
N: So you didn’t need it – you could pass if you wanted to?
J: Yeah, my first year, I got a first class while not going to most classes. It got harder to pull that off as I went along though. Whilst I was doing my A levels in secondary school, the idea of me just being number one at whatever I was doing was enough to drive me to study. But by the time I got into University I didn’t care anymore, like I didn’t care about being number one. I just wanted to do the things I was passionate about. And I think being far away from home, from the influence of my parents was like oya…
N: So you could be a bad child?
J: The funny thing was that I didn’t even get up to any bad stuff. The real bad things were the ones i didn’t even do. Anyways when I was done with University, I didn’t wanna come back home. I wanted to go straight to film school. But parents… I came home and of course they got me a job in Telecoms.
N: Set up!
J: So I spent years changing jobs. I worked as a site engineer in a telecoms company, and then as a software engineer… I worked as all sorts of things. I worked at Channels TV for my NYSC actually, which I really liked. But I just knew there was no future because the salaries then were depressing. I think things got to a point where I just wasn’t staying anywhere. Six months maximum…. And I just sat down with my parents and said you know what, this thing is not working, I really don’t wanna do this. And so my mom came up with the idea to send me to Pan African University. They had this media and comms course.
N: Oh okay you did that?
J: Yeah cos she was like you’re not leaving Nigeria again, you’re not leaving my sight. (laughs) Funny enough, I think it was one of the best decisions she made; I made a lot of friends during the course, including Lala Akindoju and Toyin Poju Oyemade, both of whom I went on to work with on projects at Ndani.
N: What’s the nature of that program?
J: It’s very academic. But it was good. I feel like if you’re going to be a director, it’s actually better to learn about art generally and the art of filmmaking than it is to learn about cameras and editing. Anyone can learn to use a software to edit, not everyone can think like an artist. When I was done with the course though, there was still the problem of where to work. I had an offer from an ad agency but the company didn’t excite me. So I started researching companies in Nigeria with the most exciting Brand. At the time, in my opinion, GTBank was the only brand to doing things that felt really innovative. So I set my eyes on GTBank, applied and as God would have it, I got selected.
N: They had started NdaniTV before then?
J: Not Ndani TV. GTBank had a quarterly e-newsletter called Ndani.
J: I was the new ET (Executive Trainee) in the cooperate communications department, and so I was the errand girl; getting pizza and drinks for meetings, that was me (laughs). I never really had anything challenging but something happened. The bank lost its MD, Tayo Aderinokun and Segun Agbaje became the MD. As a new leader, he wanted to create a new path for himself, so he initiated this strategy project. They put together a bunch of us; young people that had just joined the bank, had us take a test and then selected the top 20. I was one of them. During that project, somehow I was interacting a lot with Segun himself and with other top level executives of the bank. That helped me see the bigger picture of what the bank was trying to achieve and made me more hungry to have a role in that vision. When the strategy project was done, I knew I couldn’t go back to the digital marketing unit and continue to answer angry customers. So I sat in a corner of the office and came up with a pitch for a content marketing platform, complete with show ideas and their titles. Since the brand already had a newsletter called Ndani, I thought it was a great name to call the platform so it wouldn’t be GTBank TV or something like that. I pitched it to my boss at the time, Lola Odedina and then she allowed me to pitch it to Segun. He seemed excited by how ‘non-banking’ the idea was (it was in line with his thinking about banking just being a lifestyle product so should be sold as such), He doubled the initial budget that I had rather timidly proposed. That was how Ndani TV was born.
N: Wow. So you were really critical to the start-up of Ndani?
J: As a video channel, yeah. Initially I thought we were going to outsource all the productions. Infact, at first, I did but I hated the videos that we got. So I convinced my boss, Lola Odedina to let me hire our own team and buy some equipment. My first hire was Mohammed Attah. I saw his showreel and fell in love with his style. For the most part of the first year, it was just the four of us – Mohammad, Kunle Idowu (Who went on to become Frank Donga) and Femi Bamigbetan.
They all doubled as cinematographers, motion-graphics artists and video editors. We would get additional crew like sound recordists when needed. Toyin Poju-Oyemade, joined us later that year. We started off with shows likes Ndani Sessions, The Juice, Young CEO, mostly interview type shows but then soon grew to short scripted web-series. For instance, Frank Donga came about when the guys were just in the house- we used to house everybody in an apartment in 1004 that the bank originally used as a guesthouse. We would work there day and night. Even I slept there sometimes. So one day, I think they were just bored and they started discussing and idea and went on to record it without even telling me. They later showed it to me and I was like, yes ,this is a hit. That was the first episode of ‘The Interview: A tale of Frank Donga’. A few months later, we produced the first season of Gidi Up.
N: Was “Gidi up” a hidden reflection of your inner bad girl that you never got to express?
J: Maybe. But more than that, it was more about the struggles of growing; becoming an adult in today’s Lagos. As a young person, you think everything is possible, you don’t see the obstacles, you’re so hopeful and everybody is telling you it cannot work, it won’t happen. I felt like a lot of young people were going through that. That was how “Gidi up” was formed. I felt very strongly about the show and I though I didn’t have approval at the time, I know if they saw it, they wouldn’t turn it down. So I collected my “Ajo” money, borrowed some more from my mum and used it to produce the first season of Gidi up. Of course, it was all reimbursed.
N: You wrote on Gidi up?
J: Yeah. I wrote the first season. It was the first script I ever wrote in my life. The second season I co-wrote with BB Sasore.
N: So you just got the software and started?
J: Yeah. I was reading scripts of films I like as well. That’s how I’ve done almost everything with filmmaking. It’s research and research.
N: You learn all your stuff from the Internet, read books and you just go for it.
J: Yup. Google and Youtube have been my film school. Try, fail, try again..
N: It’s important because I don’t think there is a day I don’t get asked “oh which film school should I go?” And I’m looking at this person, I know they don’t have money for film school. People have sat with me and I mean big Nigerian producers and filmmakers and they assume I went to like New York Film Academy
J: Did you go to film school?
N: No. I’m a crazy reader. I would read anything…doesn’t matter what they are talking about.
J: I think I was lucky that my parents were not interested in paying for any film school. So I was like “you have to figure this out.”
N: So it pushed you a lot harder?
J: Yeah it did.
N: So raising funds. The BOI thing, how open was it? Did they just put the word out there or did you have an insider? Cos everyone just thinks you get BOI by connection and they believed you had connection.
J: There was a lot of talk about FilmHouse and other cinemas borrowing from Bank of Industry (BOI) and Nigerian Export-Import Bank (NEXIM) and so I started to ask around. A friend forwarded me a link to BOI’s Nollyfund page but warned that nobody had been able to access it and you would need a consultant. At the time, I assumed the processes would be too cumbersome, as I wanted to shoot that same year (2014) so I didn’t bother applying. However, when I was unable to raise the funds I needed by November that year, my Lawyer advised me to visit them, so I went there. I didn’t know anyone. They asked me to submit my documents. Of course my numbers (Financial Projections) were so far off. In my mind we were going to sell 500,000 DVDs, make a million dollars. Little did I know. (Laughs)
N: How much was the budget you presented?
J: So my first budget was epic. Production budget alone was 90 million. I sent it to my distributors and I was asked to review it down, which I did. The BOI process was painstakingly long . It took a year and a half to get a feedback and another few months to get the funds disbursed. At the time they were prioritizing more established filmmakers.
N: So you went to BOI with nothing but an idea and a budget?
J: Yup. At some point whilst I was waiting, I found out my Uncle used to work with the acting MD. I told him I hadn’t heard from the BOI. Calls were made to help facilitate the process but it still took almost two years.
They have 2 types of loan, the collateralized and the uncollateralized. For uncollateralized loans, you would be attached to a studio that would lease you equipment and handle the post-production. I knew right off the bat that wasn’t an option for me as I needed to be able to control how the film was shot and edit. Also, at the time, I had an executive producer who had promised equipment as their equity contribution towards the project. In fact the panel that interviewed me when my project was being reviewed apparently thought I was crazy when I said I was going to find collateral. I went back to my parents to discuss it and my mum offered to put her property up as collateral. I got the funds and we went ahead to shoot the film.
N: What was the spending like?
J: When you’re inexperienced, you’re often afraid and would rely on other people’s experience to get things done. Even though I had produced and directed a lot of work at Ndani, I had never made a film before and while I knew what I wanted, I didn’t necessarily know how to get it. I ended up paying premium for some people who had no intensions of delivering on my vision. I was lucky though to have a technical team that was dedicated and professional. However, by the time I got to post production, I had blown through my budget. I was fortunate to have a number of people who so graciously offered up their services for free. Nodash and Harry John edited the film, Harry did the colour grading, Victor Etukudo did motion graphics, all for free. The person who was suppose to do sound design however took much longer than agreed and by the time he was done, I really didn’t like the work he had done. This was less than 3 weeks to the Premiere.
N: Wow, 3 weeks to the premiere you were not ready?
J: We were not ready. The thing about doing most things yourself is that you get stuck. You’re chasing one thing and another thing slips through the cracks.
N: It’s funny cos people who do that are usually people who don’t have enough money for a project. Was it that you’re just a stubborn person?
J: Not really. It was just down to inexperience which meant that I didn’t plan my financials properly. I had spent too much on principal photography and didn’t have anything left for post or marketing.
N: Did all that come because you wanted to make a cinema film? You had done Gidi up so you know what things cost? Was there extra pressure?
J: Gidi up season 1 and 2 was basically me and the guys at Ndani stretching ourselves. We never had an art director or costume designer. I did the costumes for season 1 and 2. I’ve always done art direction with the help of everyone else on the project. In my mind, I wouldn’t get away with that with a film, I had to go get the experts. And that was part of my undoing really. Nollywood is still in its infancy and whilst there are a lot of talented and passionate people doing some really interesting work, none of us have really reached the level of experts yet, we are all just learning with each project. I’ve realized it’s best to build your own army of collaborators over time and to treat each film or TV series as an opportunity to build expertise in every department.
N: So you can confidently say even for film, if you want things done, you have to do it yourself?
J: Not really. If you don’t have the budget to hire experts from other countries, I would say find people who, like you, are not yet experts, but have the right kind of experience for the project you’re doing, people who understand and truly buy into your vision and dedicate time towards doing a lot of research into how to execute your ideas cheaply.
N: At least be knowledgeable to know when things are wrong.
J: Most definitely. Know enough about each department’s work to help you best articulate your vision. As directors, we are all interested in different things, for example, I’m really interested in production design and how it helps to develop characters and themes in the audience’s mind. I spent most of the time waiting for funding to shoot Isoken, researching the production design and putting together moodboards.
N: How long did it take, from production to release?
J: A year. But from scripting to actual shooting it was 2 years. So the entire process was 3 years. I sent someone a document recently and I was reminded just how much I documented, hairstyles for each scene and even nail polish polish colour so there were no issues with continuity.
N: Can you share it with us on the blog?
J: Yeah I can do that. If you’re working in an industry where only a few people historically have paid attention to the details, you will be called all sorts of names because you want things done a certain way. I have made my peace with that. You have to know yourself as an artist and as much as you can, accept nothing less that the level of excellence you want.
Click on Isoken Art direction to download Jade’s treatments (Hair,costume and color palette) on Isoken
N: When you got to the final cut and you were watching the film, did you think you had a hit?
J: I hated it. Up until now I have not seen Isoken with an audience before. I still don’t like Isoken, I’m very ashamed of Isoken because all I see, when I see the film, are the mistakes, the errors, the things I shouldn’t have done or could have done.
N: Even after the Hundred million naira box office?
J: I can’t. I ran out of the London Premiere crying. I sat in my car listening to music through out the Premiere in Lagos. Did I think we had a hit? Good films have failed at the box office so assuming we even had a good film, there were no guarantees that it wouldn’t tank. I kept asking my distributor “How do we measure the impact of our marketing? How do we know we’ve done enough?”
N: The scientist in you wanted that feedback.
J: Yeah, I wanted to know. Like how do we know that people outside Lagos have heard about us and want to show up?
N: How did you approach marketing?
J: I knew I couldn’t afford an agency and again, due to the infancy of the Nigerian Cinema Box Office, we don’t yet have film marketing agencies that are actually dedicated to getting people to get out of their houses to go and watch films. I had worked in marketing communications already, so I knew I could design my campaign strategy myself and work with a few people I had worked with on previous projects to execute. And so that’s what I did.
Funny enough before we made the film I knew I wanted to premiere in London but I didn’t just know how it was going to happen. We dropped our trailer and a distributor in London called. And that was how London happened.
N: Who distributed in Nigeria for you?
J: Silverbird Distribution.
N: What was the experience like?
J: It was really good. They took a chance on a first time filmmaker and really went all out for me. In fact, the week after our release, 10 Days in Sun City and Transformers launched at the cinemas and everyone thought we were going to get buried. Rosanna, the MD of Silverbird distribution, got on the phone and ensured we got the schedule that was cleared for us. I think we had almost 10screening per day that weekend and it was a public holiday weekend. We made even more money in week 2 than week 1 and that’s rare. I think word of mouth from the film really helped.
Again, I had spent most of my funds marketing the film before it hit the cinemas. Phase 1 of marketing for film is awareness and anticipation (your poster, trailer, press conference, premiere(s), etc) and then phase 2 is ticket sales and you have to sustain phase 2 for at least 4 to 8 weeks, depending on how long your film is in the cinemas. Isoken was in the cinemas for 11weeks. That can be quite expensive if you’re not a celebrity with millions of followers or an influential producer who can get favours. After the first 2 weeks of hype were everyone is talking about it and your cast is willingly posting pictures, it’s just you the producer and your film and you then have to find clever ways to keep your film in the news and keep the hype going. It’s show business, hype/buzz is good for the film.
N: Were you anxious because of your loan?
J: Of course! At some point I couldn’t leave my room. When they sent me the first income report sheet I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I was convinced the project had failed because I didn’t know how to interpret the numbers. The first 2 weeks, we had grossed 60 million; 40million was made in 9 weeks. If I had known what I know now about film marketing, I would have spent our marketing budget much more effectively. I strongly believe we would have grossed at least another 50million.
N: There’s this constant argument where on one side, the distributor would say they can only distribute the film, it’s up to the audience then there’s the other side where the producer would say if you are my distributor you have to do everything it takes.
J: I think you first have to make a film that people want to pay to watch. As I said before, word of mouth really helped Isoken. However, if you have a strong film but a distributor who doesn’t believe in the project to do everything in their power for it’s success, then you’re in trouble. Silverbird went above and beyond for me. They even did some marketing that wasn’t expensed back to the project. But you need to give the distributor a film they can really fight for.
N: How do you appeal to a Nigerian audience and still make the kind of film you want to make?
J: I think two things; authenticity and entertainment.
I think filmmakers who are looking to make films that perform well at the box office (in any country by the way) need to deliver on both. People need to see characters and experiences that feel truthful/relatable to them and you must entertain them. It’s the golden rule of Hollywood. It is why The Wedding Party party was so successful, why Jenifa was such a big hit. Not because they are comedies but because for the less than two hours you’re at the cinema, you are truly entertained and with wedding party for instance, almost everybody in Nigeria has been to or organized a Nigerian wedding, you know the characters because they are your relatives, your boyfriend, your ex, your driver, you even see yourself in there. May be exaggerate but that’s a device for entertainment.
For Isoken, a lot of women resonated with the lead character who was being judged for not being married at a certain age, a lot of parents saw themselves in a different light and started to question some preconceived ideas. I have gotten so many phone calls from fathers saying the film was an eye opener for them.
Filmmakers also need to be very aware of the audience they are making their film for. Is it a predominately Nigerian (living in Nigeria) audience or a global audience? If it’s a Nigerian audience, keep in mind the level of cinema and art education your audience has. Bear in mind the level of poverty in the country and what that means in terms of their realities are and what they consider authentic and true. It’s not to say to replicate those realities alone in your work but to ensure your work isn’t tone deaf and as such unable to connect with your audience. I think AY’s films do so well at the cinemas not because they are the funniest films but because Apkos feels ‘real’ to people.
My litmus test for a film that will do very well at the box office is a film that hairdressers or receptionists will ‘gist’ about . moments in the film (Sola Sobowale hopping along on the dance floor) or a line from the film they just can’t stop saying (Apkos’ ‘Their dad!’). I suspect it will be ‘Makanaki from ‘King of Boys’.
But I don’t think all films need to be made for box office success. Filmmakers need to know whom the audience for their film is and find a way to reach that audience. For instance, if you tried to make Inception or Melancholia in Nigeria, you would struggle to find an audience at the box office because even the ‘middle class’ wants to watch Girls Trip and Avengers instead. So by all means make your art how you want it but don’t get frustrated that you don’t have a much of a local audience or your film isn’t picked up by any local distributor but films you consider ‘trash’ are. The exhibitors don’t hate you; the world isn’t against you. It’s a symptom of a greater Nigerian problem (education, poverty, etc). Perhaps, the sad reality is that Nigeria is working against us all (the poor man doesn’t want to be poor and not have any care for art). Instead, find an audience internationally where there’s a broader audience for art and cinema. It is hard work but all the paths to being a filmmaker are terribly difficult. We’re not entitled to anything, not cinema time, not the audiences money, not the distributor’s dedication to your work, nothing. You have to fight for it all. I’m not sure that’s something a lot of filmmakers here understand. We think we’ve done the work of making the film so we’re entitled to someone else doing the rest of the work. (laughs) If only the universe worked like that.
N: I think Women make up the target audience today and commercial films should cater to that
J: I agree that women bring men to the cinema but I also think men are hungry for films as well. We just haven’t engaged them enough with productions from Nigeria. It’s easier to produce stuff for women. Drama, comedy, romance… it’s simpler. Projects like 76 (war film) and even 10days in Sun City (an action comedy) being in the top 10 highest grossing Nigerian films at the cinema box office of all time show that men want to see films as well. I think 76 could have even done better if it was marketed as entertainment not as a historical film. Nobody wants to go to the cinemas for a history lesson.
N: Same thing with 93 days. We all thought it was a documentary. If you had made a lovely romance story set in the drama of the Ebola period you would have made a hit.
J: Exactly. So the first draft of Nigerian Trade I sent to a friend he was like Jade, don’t make the 93 days mistake. You have to draw characters that move people and get people to react in a certain way.
N: Is it all set in Nigeria?
J: Nigerian Trade? Yeah. So it’s a temptation when you are writing a script and you just document everything that is happening. If you don’t cause people to feel anything with all you have in the film, they won’t care.
N: How profitable was Isoken?
J: We had a terrible UK run actually. Whilst we had a sold out premiere, the actual cinema release (in 15 screens across the UK) was a flop and unfortunately, we has spent quite a lot in marketing, it just wasn’t effective as the level of awareness was really low. That really affected our overall profitability. However, the income window of a film is really wide. Just last week, my distributor called to say we got a deal with British Airways.
Besides money though, the real success of Isoken is in how much I’ve learnt. From scripting, film financing, production, post production, legal, film marketing, film festivals, to distribution and sales, I don’t think I could have learnt this in any classroom in the world, certainly not at this scale. Also, what the film has done in terms of establishing me as a filmmaker (won the Prix du Public at Nollywood Week Paris, Best Foreign Film at BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, AMVCA Best Film West African and Best Director, and it’s nominated in 7 categories at the AMAAs), cannot really be quantified. So in that regard, Isoken has been very profitable.
N: What would you have done differently?
J: Cost efficiency. I may have been able to achieve the same results with less or better results with the same amount of money. You can only be truly cost efficient with experience though. So I’ve also learnt to forgive myself for my mistakes.
N: What was the least effective marketing you spent the most on?
J: My premieres (Lagos and London)
N: Were you able to pay your BOI loan back?
J: Yes. Thank God. The cinema earnings paid back the loan. It ended up being the quickest payback for Nollyfund content scheme till date.
N: Was it without interest?
J: 10 percent. We borrowed 36m, inclusive of 1years interest.
N: So you added your own money?
J: I did, from personal funds; salary, savings, everything and then family members contributed to the project.
N: So roughly about fifty million?
J: Yeah. I can’t tell you how much I spent on marketing cos it was too shameful.
N: So the fifty million is outside marketing?
J: Oh yes.
N: So technically, if it was just based on cinema it would have been a loss?
J: Oh yes. There’s no film industry in the world that relies as heavily on cinema revenues as we do and it’s really because the channels/platforms to sell our films to the local audience don’t really exist at a scale that makes them interesting (piracy and technology have killed DVD and broadband is too expensive for VOD )
N: So where else have you made money?
J: Apart from the cinemas in Nigerian and the UK, we first made money from sponsorship and ticket sales for our Lagos premiere. We’ve licensed on TV in Africa and the UK, as well about 15 airlines now. We’ve also made money from Amazon TVOD. The french version of Isoken has also shown in cinemas across a francophone Africa and is currently being licensed on TV and VOD.
N: If you were to do it again, would you have borrowed money?
J: Yeah. I’m still borrowing from BOI. Unfortunately the process seems to be taking just as long as the first one did. I went back to them for a slate of films. I’ve become very passionate about Nollywood and as an industry and I am very optimistic about its potential for growth. I think that growth will depend largely on building innovate distribution structures that solve problems peculiar to our environment. But I also strongly believe that great films (great storytelling combined with commercial success) are required to jumpstart investor confidence to attract the funding required to solve these problems. I hope to be part of that growth over the next decade and the right funding mix is required to do that. So yes, I will continue to borrow for the foreseeable future.
N: If you don’t have a mummy that can put their house down, what do you do?
J: Filmmakers live to make films so I would find a way. One of the films I enjoyed the most in the last year was Kasala by Ema Edosio. She shot it for about N4m. She’s been to many festivals around the world with the film. Same with Abba Makama and Green White Green as well as C. J. Obasi with Ojuju. There are many paths to becoming a Director. I definitely acknowledge that I have had the privilege of having a parent who was able to do that for me. However, there are directors who don’t have that privilege and somehow they are finding a way to tell their stories. You can too.
N: Would you say that Isoken is your stepping stone?
J: A romcom would probably not have been the first thing I would have done as a director; it’s not really what I wake up and dream about. My experience with “Gidi up”, “Skinny Girl In transit” and “Rumor has it” taught me that your ego as a filmmaker is going to cost you. ‘Rumor has it’ is perhaps the creation of mine that I hate the most. However, I couldn’t have anticipated the way it resonated with people. I got phone calls from people I respect saying they loved it and related to it in a way they didn’t really connect to Gidi Up. I think I realized that if I was borrowing from the bank with my mother’s house as collateral, I couldn’t really afford to make a film just to service my artistic ego. So the challenge became, how do I make a film that would resonate in the market given what I know about the audience but not lose my identity as a filmmaker.
N: There is a theory that it is only a great story that can sell a film regardless of the stars.
J: Oh no. If I had made Isoken with a different cast, Isoken won’t have made what it did. The cast guarantees you interest and curiosity. Then you have to deliver on the film to grow that interest. A star studded cast can’t sell a terrible film. Word of mouth will very quickly kill the film.
N: How much of Nigerian Trade can you share right now?
J: Just that it’s an action crime drama. It’s inspired by true events. (laughs)
N: Are you getting stunts people from outside the country?
J: Yeah. We’re going to have a car blow up scene, shootout scenes.
N: Where can people watch Isoken now?
J: Right now on Amazon and on TV.
N: The industry is moving forward and some people are saying it’s not.
J: If you’re looking objectively at the industry you’ll see that it’s actually moving forward. All you have to look at is the quality of talents that the industry is currently attracting as well as the new crop of investors who are starting to take interest in the industry. If you’re looking for looking to ‘hammer’ right away, it might not be the industry for you,because it will take time and significant work. But in all, I’m excited about the future of Nollywood.