The Story ⚡
In 2010, Biodun Stephen left her posh advertising job to become a filmmaker in Nollywood.
12 years later, she has made hits with pictures that have a signature balance of posh and poor characters that resonate deeply with audiences at home and in the diaspora.
Her studio banner, Shutter Speed has now morphed into a distinct Nollywood powerhouse with projects that have gone to big screen exhibitions, Africa magic, Iroko TV, YouTube and so much more.
In this interview, she shares, how has been her journey so far?
What marked the big break for her in this gruelling industry and is she even making money?
Good stuff. Let’s begin.
Turning Point As a Filmmaker in Nigeria?
Actually, there were three points for me.
The 1st was my first film, “The Visit” in 2015, it got nominated for the best movie in West Africa.
The second point was in February 2017 when Ovy’s voice was released on Iroko platform.
The two films were high-risk films and I’ll explain. The visit was a film that had only 4 people in one location for an entirety of 120 minutes. Ovy’s voice was a film about a mute who was writing.
Despite my worries about these peculiarities, Nigerians loved that film. The acceptance of these two films and the fact that people got this message was just a paradigm shift for me and my career.
The third point was in 2020 with the movie, “breaded life”
At each of these points, I knew I was meant to be doing this.
Breaded Life pulled some spectacular opening numbers in its first 2 weeks, what do you think you got right?
I cannot pinpoint a particular act or thing we did but I would say, one thing we did was to believe in the story. We believed it was a good story and pushed it.
The story was with me shortly after I released picture-perfect in 2017.
People wanted a sequel, but I was scared of doing that. Why not set up a story in the same locale with different characters and then bring back as many people from the original play and mix with the new cast.
In 2020, we did just that and went into production. I had three years to workshop the story and It came out great.
During marketing, we got comments that the poster wasn’t doing enough justice to sell the film which was funny to me as I thought that poster was the shiznit!! (slang for the good stuff).
After our opening week, exhibitors were surprised that how can a film that all of us collectively thought, oh let’s just give it a try – could pull such string week on week demand.
They were expecting our sales to tank week on week, but ours stayed strong.
For some reason, Nigerians (that I love ) took it upon themselves to become our marketers. That was it, word of mouth gave us all the push for the film to do well (N88.86 million)
How do you handle the pressure of taking your movie to the cinema as a filmmaker?
As a filmmaker, you should understand that the process of exhibiting on the big screens involves gambling. You’re gambling with your creativity, money, time and energy.
You make a good movie, cross your T’s, dot your I’s and still don’t know what you will get when the movie gets to the cinema.
Nobody knows what you will get.
So, I see the whole process as gambling.
You have gambled four times – Have you made money?
The Visit, Picture Perfect, Joba, Breaded Life.
I have only made money from picture-perfect and that was because the budget for that film wasn’t very high hence, we could recoup sizeable returns.
If you value the N19 million that we made in cinemas back then when the space wasn’t crowded, after the cuts and deductions have been made – we got coins.
That’s the last time we made such decent profits.
Breaded Life did great numbers but we didn’t break even. After the deductions had been made, we were a few million shy of making our production budget back (excluding marketing capital).
That’s very tough to hear…
Yes and the crazy thing is that the market is demanding so much more from producers budget-wise and it’s not a lucrative space.
I am going for my fifth run and I’m worried about the earning power of the average Nigerian.
The middle class is disappearing fast, spending power is getting lower and income is not growing.
Once upon a time, the civil servant wants to have a good time at the big screens. is he/she doing that now?
Right now, I am palpitating for the numbers I will get for a simple lie.
If you notice, our marketing for this title compared to breaded life is not as pushy.
This time, I’m just hoping for a miracle and that the audience somehow are convinced to get tickets to see “ A Simple Lie” from March 25th
Most people only see the glam that comes with being a filmmaker but what brings in the most money for you?
My core strategy as a filmmaker was to grow into a studio. I realised early on that a director for hire is paid less as opposed to a studio for hire.
So I quickly morphed into a studio where I have my space, production equipment and talents that work for me.
Now, when you come to me to make a film, you’re coming to my studio, you’re hiring my space, people and equipment.
The hire definitely comes with a decent fee that can sustain me as a business. It was when I grew into this that I was able to get commissioned projects that made me grow the business and the brand well.
For cinema, turnover is quite long and that’s if you do good numbers.
For Iroko, the way the business has been structured is that if you sell off all your entire rights that’s only when you can make decent money.
For Africa Magic, they will give you a deal that buys only 60% of your budget in return for one-year exclusivity.
I did all the math on all of this business model and figured out that commissioned projects bring in the most money and that was because it was 100% risk-free.
With me getting this type of project, I was able to save to build my brand and business.
How did you build your name in the industry?
Coming from an advertising background where there is always strategy implementation, I asked myself what was going to be my strategy in the first few years of making films.
it was either I owned my content or leveraged with a platform that can own this content.
I did the latter and made sure to build a catalogue of films people can trust.
This might not work for everyone but it worked out for me.
Honest Truth, is Nollywood growing?
Yes, we have grown a lot and at the same time, I think we are losing focus.
There was a time there was “Story“but no technical expertise to back the story up.
Now, we have the technical expertise but the focus has been drawn to big-budget movies without good story and context.
Just paparazzi. We need to go back to the drawing board.
Nollywood travels globally on a phenomenal level because of its stories and we must not lose that.
Story and Performance are the most important to the audience as this is what sticks not the lightning or camera movies or locations.
Considering the fact that you were once an actor, how do you feel is the right way for directors to approach actors?
For me, it’s all about the energy. Being on the same wavelength.
If I send you a script to read and I don’t get engagement from you. it means you don’t resonate with the story and I might just find another person to work with because you might not give me what I want.
It’s as simple as that.
Same for my crew, you should see the movie as yours. If the movie is seen as yours, you’ll put your all into it and make an excellent movie.
Another important thing directors need to do is to gist and talk with their actors. Make them feel at home.
It helps movie production in the long run.
As a director, you should also be willing to listen to new ideas from your actors, nobody knows it all.
In terms of Partnership and Collaboration, how do you approach them in the industry?
Well, people reach out to me and one thing I make sure to do before embarking on any form of partnership is to write a contract agreement.
A partnership doesn’t necessarily have to be in monetary form. It can be my story, my Intellectual property. We have to come to an agreement whether I’ll take 70%, you take 30% or vice-versa. At a point where there is IMDB, credit is very important, my name must appear in the work I write or take part in. I don’t violate the terms of a contract, for instance, its Shutter speed and Shock.
That alone can cause disagreement or quarrels. The arrangement of names is very important.
Is there a project you would love to do that scares the hell out of you?
I’ve been working on a project for four years now. This is not a case of there is no money to shoot it. It is what I am demanding of the actor.
Definitely, I can’t think about the censorship battle with NFVCB.
Where we are with censorship right now, there are some stories that should be told but haven’t been told because of censorship and it’s a major problem.
If I find that actor to go on that long journey with me. I will definitely make this picture.
We can’t be coasting around this type of story as we need to get to the root of the matter.
And the root is very very ugly. However, when you have rules that hinder you, it causes a problem.
On the issue of censorship, how do you think Nollywood can fight it?
I think we need to sit down and talk about it. The Nigerian personality is very heavy on hypocrisy. We don’t like to discuss our truth. We don’t like to accept our truth.
So, if we aren’t willing to stand face to face with our truth, we’ll keep being in denial.
There’s a new lie about Nollywood being the cause of yahoo yahoo and ritual.
I can’t even remember the last time I saw a ritual movie.
We have moved from different eras of stories.
We have moved from that ritual era to poor boy meets rich girl era, travel to Lagos and you will be rich era, domestic violence era. We have moved and moved and are now in the comedy era and we are shifting away from that to blue-collar jobs and Ghetto films.
How is Nollywood the cause of yahoo? If you watch a film and it’s glorifying a particular act. it’s a different thing, but saying it is us when it’s so obvious that this is our reality.
Definitely not Nollywood.
Global streaming platforms are picking interest in our stories, what does that mean for producers?
This means growth.
International streamers seeking Nollywood titles shouldn’t be seen as a favour because these platforms are making their money from this move.
Once they stop making money, they will pack up and go.
Right now, they have identified there’s a market for what we are selling and they have decided to buy it.
Personally, I see it as an opportunity to be seen with other filmmakers on the same lane.
All we need to do is to up our game and position ourselves properly to gain more respect.
Can you kindly share your 2022 slate with us?
There’s a lot of collaboration this year.
Four movies would be going to the cinemas this year; Omoge Suzzy, A Simple lie, Stranger, Finding Ikeju.
Also, I’m working on some new movies as collaboration: “Sista”, “Hotel Labamba” and “Don’t hurt me”.
2022 is going to be a great year. Collaboration is the way to go now.
What should we expect to see in a Simple lie?
It’s a beautiful movie. You’ll laugh so hard, the characters played their role perfectly. It’s a reality of life. You’ll leave the cinema laughing after having a good time.
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