Anne Mucheke: Filmhouse is currently one of the leading cinema outlets in Nigeria. What are you doing right?
Kene Mkparu: Actually, we are the biggest cinema chain in Nigeria and the third-largest in Africa. I started with Odeon Cinemas in the UK in 1991, then came back to Nigeria in 2008. Six years ago we set up Genesis Deluxe Cinemas with some partners, but I left in 2010. In 2012, Filmhouse was born and we are now operating 10 outlets, although we’re just about to close one. We are able to harness our knowledge of the industry to build our brand and that’s our business.
AM: What do you look for when considering what shows on your screens?
KM: Filmhouse will only take content our consumers want to see. No matter how good a film is, if it’s not what the consumers want, then we will not show it. Filmmakers need to know what their audiences want and produce something within those lines.
No cinema chain refuses a particular product that will make money. Just as no businessman will refuse to sell biscuits in his shop if it is a brand that people are buying. The seller already knows his market so will be inclined to pick only what works for his customers. It has nothing to do with whether your biscuit is good or bad; it’s all about what appeals to the market.
AM: In your discussion at the African Film Festival (AFRIFF), you mentioned a South African movie that could not show successfully in Nigeria because of audience preferences. Is it that Nigerians are not open to the rest of the continent?
KM: It’s not about Nigeria the territory. It goes back to what appeals to our audience. I could ask the same question: How come Nigerian films don’t show in SA? The film 30 days in Atlanta made a million dollars in Nigeria but [didn’t] show in SA.
The clothes most people wear in northern Nigeria [are] not what will sell in the south of Nigeria. It’s not about how good the clothes are; it’s about what is useful to them. It’s no different with film.
We could not show the film Happiness is a four-letter word because it did not connect with our audiences. If they had, for instance, typecast a Nigerian into their script, even in a minor role, it might have changed the appeal.
We couldn’t play the film Happiness is a four-letter word because it did not connect with our audiences. If they had, for instance, typecast a Nigerian into their script, even in a minor role, it might have changed the appeal. 12 Years a Slave did well globally but did it do well in Nigeria or SA? No. Queen of Katwe probably only did well in East Africa and globally, even though it is a great film.
AM: You’re talking about casting. How big a factor is that when it comes to selling a movie? Lupita [Nyong’o] is probably Africa’s biggest sell right now in the US. Is this a passing wind?
KM: Why should we assume the negative? I do not accept that thought. These are our superstars who have rightfully earned their place on the stage. Movies have to cast the right faces regionally to be able to sell to audiences. If you cast Ramsey Noah or Desmond Elliot in any movie in West Africa, you are likely to get your money in.
Chiwetel Ejiofor was not a phase. Idris Elba was not a phase. Let’s take Queen of Katwe. How many East Africans knew David Oyelowo before this movie? He’s an excellent actor but could he pull magic all by himself? How well is Lupita known in Nigeria? Perhaps Queen of Katwe could have done better in west Africa if it had local faces like Desmond or Ramsey in a lesser role in the movie. It’s about using the actors that will give you the USD20million audiences that you need. Lupita and Oyelewo can give you that in the US but in Africa, you need local faces to be able to sell your movies.
AM: Paul Higginson, executive vice president of 20th Century Fox, was at AFRIFF and talked about Africa’s growing potential in film. Is Africa an important player in film globally?
KM: The US market understands distribution better than anyone else. That is why they set films in different continents and countries. The James Bond film travels around the world – chasing one person from India to China. They fly someone to Hong Kong and Brazil; why are they doing that? They are making it appeal to their big cinema audiences in those countries.
You must know, however, that Africa is not a big target market for film. North America, Europe, China, Russia, Mexico, Indonesia and Japan – those are the markets that are really selling. What comes out of Africa is insignificant. It does not, however, mean that they do not think of Africa. What I think should happen is that they should find other secondary roles to give our actors, then the market widens for the continent. For me, I feel that the more they engage with Africa, the more globally popular we will get.
AM: Comedy and literature seems to have a Pan-African pull, unlike film, which has long been dominated by Nollywood. Think of Night of a Thousand Laughs, which always sells out in whatever African country it goes to. Why haven’t we collaborated that well in film?
KM: Night of a Thousand Laughs is a great product and always includes local players – from Kenyans and Ugandans to South Africans – for the local pull. Would it sell as well if it was only Nigerians? No. If you had only one regional segment, we would not be getting the numbers. Every other industry in entertainment understands this principle, except for film. Filmmakers just get a good story and they expect people to like it.
I don’t know who Anne Kansiime is, but I know she pulls audiences. And I can assure you that I will be looking for her for one of our films, wherever she is.
AM: What do we need to be doing differently?
KM: Black and African filmmakers need to be well educated in the basics of the film business. We know film making, not film business. I have gone to film schools in LA and pleaded with them to teach producers the business of film, not types of cameras. They laughed but they knew I was serious. The directors, yes, focus on film making, but producers need to focus on the business. That’s why I like those Alaba film marketers; they know business. That’s why I connect with them.
AM: Does Filmhouse have space for African film on its screens?
KM: If African filmmakers give us the right product, we shall take it. Nigerian filmmakers ask me why I don’t show more Nigerian films. Why would I put on my screen something that my audience won’t watch and compromise a Western show that will make money? The only cinemas that do this globally are those that are subsidised by government, like South Africa’s community cinemas. Their salaries are paid for.
Filmmakers need to give us entertaining African stories. Many times our African films are about social injustice, which people don’t want to watch in the movies.
Filmhouse is not a government establishment. Filmmakers need to give us entertaining African stories. Many times our African films are about social injustice, which people don’t want to watch in the movies. Documentaries belong to the history channel, not cinemas. Shaka Zulu was a good ‘war, guns and blood’ film with lots of entertainment but it also gave me a lesson in history. Why is it that we want to tell stories that are not entertaining? Why can’t we learn from Hollywood? Our audiences don’t want this – the filmmakers say it will connect but it never does.
Many independent and black filmmakers have built their careers on grants and free money. When your business is not built on free money and grants, your focus will be on money and getting the business to pay your bills. You will make better movies and write great scripts
Many independent and black filmmakers have built their careers on grants and free money. They have no focus on the business side of things. When your business is not built on free money and grants, your focus will be on money and getting the business to pay your bills. You will make better movies and write great scripts. That’s where African film needs to get to.