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How Chinaza Onuzo Works in Finance and Still Makes Movies

Every Year since 2015, cinema audiences in Nigeria screens a feature film from a production company founded by three individuals called Inkblot

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Damola, Zulu, Chinaza – co-founders at Inkblot

We got the exclusive chance to speak with Chinaza Onuzo who is one of the co-founders and he tells us how they started out the company, their biggest breakthrough so far and why in 2020 he becomes a Director

It’s all good stuff – Let’s Begin

Kindly introduce yourself?

My name is Chinaza Onuzo, Co-Founder at Inkblot productions

Writer, Director of the upcoming movie Who’s The Boss

Tell Me Your Background Story?

So for the context of this interview, I grew up like every Lagos kid. Ride your bikes; run around, do extra-curricular, play football and of course go to video clubs

i watched a lot of Hollywood movies, Nollywood, Bollywood films. A bit of Hong Kong martial arts movies.

So like a lot of Nigerian kids of the ’80s and early 90’s I grew up on pretty much on all of types of content. It was anything and everything

I think that’s broadly the thing that affected most of us, so there was this feeling at some point in your heart of heart that you would make stuff – shoot a movie or write.

But you just don’t know how – For me, I actually thought I was going to be a writer, like write novels but I realized that I could make films so I started to make films

We first did a web series in 2014 called Knock Knock and then moved into feature

2014 – The Department

2015 – Out of Luck

2016 – The Wedding Party, The Arbitration

2017 –My Wife and I, The Wedding party 2

2018 – New Money, Moms at War, Up North

2019 – The Set Up, Love is War

INKBLOT POSTERS - How Chinaza Onuzo Works in Finance and Still Makes Movies
Al Inkbot Movies Till Date

Now we are on 12th film with “who’s the boss”

You studied abroad. Did some research and I see you have a degree in English and M.sc Economics and finance from Warwick University…

Wait by research, you mean you went to my LinkedIn page?

(Laughs) Yes, I did that – Tell me more

So one of the things that happened In the late ’90s was that there were issues with university strikes which led to a number of us going abroad. Some for undergrad, some for masters etc.

I ended up going for undergrad and then masters

The plan was for me to do medicine initially but obviously, that did not happen

I decided to study economics but I also ended up being in love with English. The way the American system works is that you have to study multiple disciplines and so initially I took a few English classes and then I decided to get my B.A in English in addition to my BSc in economics

But then, of course, nobody really makes good money from English. It was just for me.

How Was Inkblot Production Formed?

So my co-founders are all my friends. One of the things they tell you which is a good and bad thing is starting a business with your friends.

When I wanted to make movies, there are a few people I knew that wanted to take this journey with me and two of them were Zulu and Damola

There were a couple of other co-founders but with these things, people priorities change.

Anyway, three of us lasted and in terms of the name Zulu came up with it.

We said we need a name and everybody pitched in, Inkblot was chosen because it represents the messiness of creation

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Inkbot Logo

We were also trying to build a brand first business and the name itself needed to be weirdly catchy, The name “Inkblot” ticked all that boxes

 Cool. It seems you still have a 9-5?

Yes, I am a finance professional working in private equity – That’s what I do for a living

 I also write movies on the side

 How does that dynamics work out for you?

One of the things that I tried to do overtime was to ensure that we had time to write. It was easier in the old days when we made one or two movies in a year, so the spacing was enough.

But the more movies we made, the more our partnerships broadened with other creators

So as long you plan it well, things will go fine.

My partner Zulu leads production so I am not required to be on set every time.

The on-set production generally happens without my involvement

I mean I do show up when I have to, but I rarely have to anymore and in terms of post-production- basically, the director and editor do their thing and we sit with them after to finalize the cut

So for me directing now, it is still a set amount of time that can be planned.

Hence If you say it’s three weeks I am going to do this, then it will three weeks

So which means if you do this once a year, it’s not really disruptive to your work

Inkblot is one of the leading productions company in Nigeria, how has the trajectory been in terms of growth?

Well, it’s nice of you to say

So when we started this business, we knew there was an opportunity given the growth of the industry.

I remember putting up this first page of our discussion deck on Instagram and in there, we believed there was an opportunity, we believed that the growth of the formal sector of the industry will continue.

At the time when we started, there were just 10 cinemas…

Really? 10!

….Yes, we believed there was more opportunity for there to be more cinemas and that there will be more value in the business

Though the DVD market was quite big and existing but the value accrued to the distributor almost 100% and so as a production company you couldn’t track or trap any wealth you created

For example, The Wedding Party 1 apparently sold over a million DVD’s and I don’t think we sold over 20,000 units in our own – that like came back to us

That’s the way these things go, but with the rise of formal cinemas’ chains, DSTV and streaming platforms acquisitions.

we could trap more of our wealth, build a sustainable business and monitor the business’s growth trajectory

What Would You Consider as Inkblot’s First Breakthrough?

The first big breakthrough was well, of course, getting funded to back our first film project but in 2016 two things happened:

First was we made “The Wedding Party’ and the other was getting accepted at the Toronto International Film Festival which showcased Nollywood

These two things effectively transformed the industry and us.

It put a spotlight that said the industry was Important from a global perspective

The Wedding Party breaking records to that degree in that December period showed that there was more potential in the local industry and the people who made it also got famous

the wedding party - How Chinaza Onuzo Works in Finance and Still Makes Movies

So generally, we who were unknown in this bunch that made the wedding party – “ELFIKE Collective” also got famous as of this result

The recognition from this incident proved that we could make film, that we are bankable and a backable film company

2016 was really the key transformation year that we were able to build on into our future projects

What do you think you guys are doing differently in the Nollywood space?

I don’t think we are doing anything differently. We are doing what everyone is doing

But what sets us apart is that we have been able to raise money to make films, make the film and continue to do this year on year

The other advantage we have is that we are not one person.

The strength of all three of us contributes to our success

A lot of film making collective tends to be led by one person. There is that one key leader

For us, we are a power combination that makes us scale faster.

That’s our prominent advantage

Biggest Obstacle So Far?

Hmm (Thinks deeply)

*Getting the funding in place is the number one challenge. You can never have enough money right??

The international market has to be cracked

we released the wedding party two in 22 countries back in 2017 and we thought that will be the start of the international market expansion of Nollywood but that has proven difficult

we found out it was only the big films that can get you there and so what we thought was that we could build a community there,  just like the Bollywood community in the US and UK that allows them to build out their film product with a global theatrical presence –  that has been a struggle for us.

We haven’t been able to crack that international theatrical release.

If we have, that would have significantly transformed the industry.

At the moment, we have what? Like 60 cinemas. Imagine we could release into 60 cinemas globally, this literally doubles earning potential for our films and hence it becomes a steady profit flow

The tickets prices over there are much higher. so if you get your audience to watch there, your film product can do X3 profits which literally improves your ability to make bigger films

So it’s something that in the next five years, we need to figure how to take that our diaspora audience that’s paying for TVOD (Netflix, Amazon, Iroko) build it out and get them to come to a theatrical release in their home markets – This is the Next Frontier

Did you see Forsee “The wedding Party” to be a huge hit?

We knew that it had the potential to be a hit.

Whether we thought it was going to break all cinema records – No

Funny enough, the first person that told me it was going to break records was AY

We were at a mutual friend’s wedding, just before or after the Toronto international film festival (TIFF)

He had just broken his record with a trip to Jamaica

I was congratulating him and he was like haha, don’t worry, wait for The Wedding party – It is going break the all records

 I was like really? and he responded that he was on the production and it was going great!

So my predictions were 150 million. Everyone still mocks me for this

After TIFF, Mo, Moses, Zulu all thought 200 million

That’s the number the team was mentally working on

Nobody saw 450!

The way the audience’s embraced that film in 2016 Christmas –It was a hard year, I am still surprised

It was really a peak release; we got a lot of stories in terms of why people were watching the film

 Somebody said they re-watched multiple times because Sola Sobowale reminded them of their mum who was no more, they saw their own mum in her character and it had a good feeling for them

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Ali Baba and Sola Sobowale in The wedding Party

Another story was how TWP really represented what it means to be Nigerian

So all these parts, you never know how that takes the film and propel it to the market

Kemi did a great job directing it and the performances were strong.

 It had all the elements together, But 450 million – Oh My God.

Nigerians really embraced the film and you can’t really predict this kinda thing

You hope for it, pray for it. But that pull – it dominated conversations in workplaces, everywhere.

Sold out all through for a month

It was people that did that, your marketing budget cannot do that. it’s only the people themselves that can

Phew! – Next question

You are now a Director. I would like to ask, we have directors already doing solid stuff…Why did you feel you also had to step into the ring?

All storytellers evolve; the decision to direct was always going to happen.

The question was just when it was going to happen, what project will it be etc

I have always wanted to direct but the most important thing for us was building the company

This meant building out our capabilities, build out our partnerships. Learn the strength and weakness of our collaborators and then decide what movie project to bring them on board

So the conversation has always been to build out the brand and when it is time if you still want to direct, pick up one of the future project titles and then direct it

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Naz and Zulu On Set of WTB

The directing piece was always part of my evolution but the most important thing was the company

So now we have a bunch of directors we have worked with and will continue to work with.

New voices to work with as well

So for us, Naz is just going to be one Director, pardon my resort to the third person but that’s the goal.

We are not interested in – oh, we are doing four films and Chinaza will be directing all four of them.

Nah, I will just enter the rooster, basically. Yea

Conversations that happen on twitter seem to paint that your film company inkblot has figured it out?

(Laughs) That’s funny!

Is this true?

One of the things that I always tell people is that nobody has figured it out because we are not there yet

The total box office here in Nigeria, including the foreign and domestic, is less than $20 million dollars

This is the less than the opening weekend of bad boys 2 (international)

We haven’t even started the conversation in Nollywood. As it is we are still building out an industry.

Anyone who tells you they know what it is… is a lie

The only thing I spend time doing on twitter when I have all this conversation is that people should not be quick to assume bad faith

That’s my broad point of view

Unfortunately or fortunately, it’s Art but it is business.

Both of these things collide in this industry and will always continue to collide into the future

Figuring that balance is what the industry needs

Now for me as creator, is that everyone should be able to make a living doing this

For that to happen the economics has to be there. My fundamental driver for this thing is that how do we figure out how to build a sustainable industry that people can have a career that is fulfilling and that is the way I think about it

I mean I am a finance guy and my background is in building sustainable enterprises right

So the sustainability of whatever you are doing being it producing, writing, editing, etc has to be part of the forefront.

This doesn’t mean pandering or whatever people are accusing you of doing, but you do have to figure out how the way of building a sustainable front

One of the disadvantages we have, is that in America a lot of Indie filmmakers can lose money because a lot of independent productions serve as a tax write off for rich people

You take your loss to your film and then you add it to your wealth of something else.

So it’s a wash and then if the film does make money – Great, but you still win either ways

Effectively they have designed it in such that if I win I make money, if I lose the government pays for some of the film

With that in mind it is not as straight forward as it looks because most indie films still lose a lot of money but why are still making them?

Well it’s because of the rich folks that are funding them are benefiting one way or the other

You get what I am saying

*Yep

For us, we don’t have that system

Recently, I had a conversation with Uduak and she said in the past almost everyone made money in Nollywood but that’s not true anymore

so how do you build a sustainable industry that now has risk and reward – that’s what everyone needs to think about

Everyone has to find their path to sustainability

*Interesting- Next Question

We did some research and found out there is a huge disparity between paychecks of what executive producers, directors, writers and the talents themselves are getting for working on a Nollywood set

Do you think it can be better?

The fundamental driver of this thing is that there is no enough money in the system.

Production cost drives payment, but

If my film cost 4 Million Naira. I am only going to pay people X, Y, Z

If my film cost 20 Million Naira, I will pay more

If my film cost 100 million, I will pay more

That’s the way these things work. It’s like how in Hollywood right, if you are doing a small independent film you do scale

 If you are doing a blockbuster you are not doing scale, you are charging the fullest rate of your full rate

So the budget drives the bulk of this conversation.

So for me, the question is not what people are paying but rather what is the best way to increase our budget long term so we can pay more

There is a price point for everything, and so if you want to work in a particular segment of the industry, the economics of that segment drives what you will earn

That’s just the way it works

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Who’s the boss movie written and directed by Chinaza Onuzo hits theaters February 28th

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4 Comments

  1. You had always been my mentor and source of inspiration uncle chinaza. I wish you could grant me one day to tell you how well you have coached me.

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