Keynote address presented by Femi Odugbemi, at the Lagos International Animation Festival on June 6, 2019, at Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos.
Let me begin by offering my hearty congratulations to my brother Muyiwa Kayode and the organising team of the Lagos International Festival of Animation. It’s a herculean task to run a creative festival. I should know. I am a Co-Founder of the IREP International Film Festival and we have held for nine years. I understand the vision to create but it takes character and toughness to organise a festival of creativity every year successfully. Especially in a dynamic industry of young creatives like Nollywood. Well done to the team.
I also want to say thank you for the opportunity to be speaking here today. It is a privilege and I am always excited to exchange ideas and thoughts with storytellers of different types because I truly believe in the power of their passion. Content creation is serious business. Filmmaking is serious business. Nollywood and our TV Industry are together projected to be able to generate billions of dollars in foreign income in the next decade if we can understand and create the structures needed to turn our potentials to profit. Nollywood, as a generic brand name for all content coming out of Nigeria, has the attention of the world. Most importantly it has the attention of its local and diasporic audiences.
The creative industries across the world are in the midst of a pivotal shift, driven by emerging technologies. The extraordinary growth of digital devices, platforms, apps and games has created amazing ways for people to connect with each other and with new ideas and concepts and to share data and content in user-friendly ways. This appetite for content is creating new opportunities for digitally-driven storytelling that Nollywood needs to embrace. Because Content is the foundation of the audience’s “connected experience,” the challenge for Nollywood’s future is how to leverage every available technology to deliver generation-next content that creates compelling experiences and connects audiences across devices, networks, time zones and geography. And we need to start distilling the trends that will fundamentally transform how this content is created, distributed and consumed in the immediate future.
There’s never been a better time in history to be a ‘Storyteller.’ And that’s a wonderful thing. Box-office earnings for the film industry have increased manifold, but what makes this period such a precious one is that there is now, more than ever before, a global demand for African content, African stories, and yes, African heroes. And there’s no overstating how immense an impact that makes. To capitalize on this global thirst for fresh stories and fresh heroes, we must play to what the global demands are. What then is the global demand? One simple word – SPECTACLE.
The whole world took notice when the Avengers took on Thanos for the second time this past May. There is no way you could have missed it. Then came Daenerys, her dragons, the Knight King, and the rest of Westeros. Spectacle. Of the top 10 top grossing films in cinema history, all are wrapped in the spectacular – huge big scenes, massive casts, heart-stopping landscapes, journeys into the galaxies, stunts with hurricanes and massive natural disasters etc.
The reason is simple: people want to be taken into dreams; they want to see other worlds; they want to see the ground shake; to witness thunder light up the sky at the command of Sango; to witness, from the safety of their reality, the collapse of third mainland bridge or the explosion of nuclear weapons in the Sahara. Experiences that are larger than life.
More than anything People want unique storytelling experiences. Our local audiences are waiting for more than we are offering. Global audiences are craving to experience our unique history, cultures and worldviews through our stories. The next-generation Nollywood filmmaker must create new formats and new approaches to storytelling with enough spectacle to respond to this demand. Our audiences have an innate yearning for entertainment beyond the ordinary, for experiences beyond their everyday imagination. Star-studded dramas and comedies are not going to attend the wish list of tomorrow’s audiences and it certainly won’t align with future trends of what global audiences are demanding.
In Nigeria last year, four of the top 10 highest grossing films were superhero and action films, with Black Panther taking number one spot. Unfortunately for our live-action budgets, spectacle costs too much a fortune to make. So Just as there’s never been a better time to be a Storyteller, there’s never been a better time for bold storytellers to enter into the world of animations.
Though at first glance the difficulties of animation may seem more overwhelming than those of live-action, the advantages it offers in this period are great, bordering on the magical.
For one, we can finally tell the fantastic stories we so desperately crave but can’t afford. It’s far easier to animate two deities fighting with thunder and fire shooting across the screen than it is to shoot it and do it in post.
It’s only natural that the fear of the unknown holds back investors and filmmakers, but this is not exactly an unknown. Financially, it’s a sure-banker, as recently proven by South African Animation company, Triggerfish.
Having struggled severely with liquidation in the previous years, Triggerfish, led by CEO, Edward Forrest, kept believing even in the depth of the darkest night and released “ADVENTURES OF ZAMBEZI” in 2012, South Africa’s first full-length animated film. What may have seemed like a lunatic move to some at the time went on to gross over $36million worldwide, becoming one of South Africa’s biggest box office smashes. The money would have been good enough, but Adventures of Zambezi also went ahead to garner critical acclaim with several international awards.
To prove that it wasn’t a fluke, Triggerfish released “KHUMBA” in 2013 to the same kind of financial success, $25million in cinema tickets, and international critical acclaim.
Both films have since been dubbed in 27 languages and are available in over 150 countries. What’s most interesting for us to note is that both films, having raked in excess of $76million, are two of South Africa’s highest grossing films of all time. Think about that for a second. Of all the films ever made in South Africa by South Africans without collaboration with a foreign studio, ADVENTURES OF ZAMBEZI AND KHUMBA are in the top 3 highest grossing South Africa films, with the other film being the 1984 classic, Gods Must Be Crazy. Since then, Triggerfish has been commissioned by the BBC to create an animated series, twice. Further, they are currently working on a new animated film titled SEAL TEAM. If that doesn’t show commercial viability, then I don’t know what would.
Leave behind the commercial considerations and let’s turn our attention to artistic concerns. As a nation, we are blessed with a rich literary history and this is a great thing because it gives us a strong hand and a unique brand in the global content wars. As storytellers, we have a responsibility to showcase cultures and traditions that connect us, rather than divide us.
While I think, effort is required in finding more truths about ourselves as people to tell our stories, there are stories of us already out there and easy to access in our literature, in our paintings, in our arts. Nigerian literature is recognized and respected across the globe and I think it is a good first step as filmmakers in changing the narrative of how the world perceives us. I have read literature that describes our realities so beautifully, in ways that make me appreciative and proud of the experiences that made me who I am.
Consider for a moment your favourite stories from childhood, the folktales—the ones that terrified you and the ones that fill you with wonder. I cannot tell you how many times I have dreamt to see D.O.Fagunwa’s “Ogboju ode ninu igbo irunmole” or “Ireke Onibudo” or Wole Soyinka’s “Death and The King’s Horsemen,” as a feature film. I actually recently heard that Cyprian Ekwensi’s “The Passport of Mallam Illia,” is presently being made by a Nigerian Animation studio. These are exactly the African stories that the world is yearning to see
Of course, knowing the right stories to tell is great but knowing how to tell them is even more important. While spectacle is the name of the game, storytelling is far more important as a meaning-making emotional experience for today’s audiences. It is all about the story. Great storytelling has what I call the ‘X-Factor.’ There’s a magic to its theme, its performances, its locations, and there’s an overall emotionally connecting strand to the story that I call its ‘humanity.’ In practical terms, how does a storyteller identify the right story that possesses the ‘X-factor’ that will connect to an audience?
Here are a few tips.
Does the story have an original premise?
Are the premise and the story new or fresh?
Does the story itself have a strong narrative structure with a beginning a middle and an end?
If the story is non-linear, does it make sense?
Does the screenplay feel like the writer is taking us on a journey?
And does it connect emotionally?
Does the script have a distinct and original voice?
Does the story have vivid characters?
Are the characters new or fresh?
Do the dialogue and tone feel consistent from scene to scene?
Does the conflict propel the story forward?
Do the main characters take strong action that propels the narrative?
One of the myths of content development in Nigeria relates to the misconception that the Nigerian audience has no appetite for any kind of story that does not slavishly reflect their primary existence. I stand and will always stand firmly against this dangerous myth, for I believe it is at the very centre of our industry’s lack of innovation or a desire to try new things, which stands in heavy opposition to what cinema and storytelling were meant to be—windows into other realities, times, and experiences. I strongly believe that the Nigerian audience is smart, savvy and more than ready for high-intelligence storytelling…in fact, beyond belief —which requires that something not necessarily require proof—I know that they are, and proof can be found in how readily they consume stories such as Game of Thrones, Vikings, Avengers, Black Panther, and all the other stories you listen to them talk about with their friends, families, and coworkers. The Nigerian storyteller must understand that we want to peer back into the distant pasts and gaze into far futures, and we are intellectually ready to make the leap. Animation makes this leap possible.
Children’s programming is huge across the world of content everywhere else apart from Africa. It is astonishing that in a country like Nigeria with such a high population, children’s programming has been so totally neglected by our entertainment industry. The arrival of Disney to our doorstep in the guise of Disney+ should send us a warning signal. It is an initiative that shows that they value the market potential, and if they, the reigning kings of the box office, consider the market viable enough to invest in, then we would be shortchanging ourselves not owning it with storytelling that shapes how and on what terms our children view the world. Beyond entertainment children’s programming is actually a battlefield for the mind and soul of our children. Content is their first window into the world and it shapes how they view their heritage, their nationality, their sense of a global order and their history. Animation offers a dynamic digital language to help us connect our children to heroes of their own cultures, their ancestors and history, all embedded into vibrant shapes and dynamic movements.
The race is on for who will have the biggest library of original content, and any filmmaker that can create global demand stands a great chance at making it to the promised land. Animation enables your content scale up in spectacle, while keeping your costs manageable. Finally, we can have car chases, as well as our very own superhero stories. It would require innovation, creativity, resourcefulness, and a lot of sacrifice, but in the end, when it’s all said and done, we would finally be tapping into a new market that’s been waiting for us for decades.
I close by going back to where I began. There’s never been a better time to be a Storyteller. The audience is ready, willing and demanding experiences beyond the ordinary. Spectacle is the language of entertainment in the immediate future. Animation, Computer Generated Imaging CGI, Artificial Intelligence, 3Dimensionality and many more inventions integrating live-action are the currency to creating the future of storytelling. You are the new army and creative leaders shaping our response. Your vision and your stories are what Nollywood is waiting for to confront our yawning gap in innovation and to take our industry into a bright new future.
-Femi Odugbemi, fta.rpa. is the Academic Director (West Africa), Multichoice Talent Factory and Co-Founder/Executive Director, IREPRESENT International Documentary Film Festival