20 Years of Africa Magic: Femi Odugbemi and Victor Okhai Discuss Impact on Nollywood

Two notable Nigerian film-makers, Femi Odugbemi and Victor Okhai have both shared their thoughts, in separate interviews with Potpourri on the impact of two decades of Africa Magic on the Nigerian movie industry, its stakeholders, and how it revolutionised the space for prosperity, while projecting African cultures to the world.

Both were unanimous in their opinions that the birth of Africa Magic in Nigeria brought with it a new wind of change as it took promotion of indigenous storytelling to a new level, while focusing on investment in technology for world-class production, and providing platforms for the development of local talents.

Impact on storytellers

Femi Odugbemi emphasized that Africa Magic has given a new meaning to the work of storytellers, saying it legitimized their narratives and provided them with a platform to soar. He stated that before Africa Magic, storytelling in Nigeria lacked cohesiveness, but the platform brought a new direction.

He said, “The definition of what constitutes the Africa experience was not as cogent as when Africa Magic gave us a platform. Not only to bring all the stories we’ve been telling as Nollywood, all the stories that were out there in Idumota and everywhere, to bring them into a platform where the audiences can be beyond our borders. What that did was it brought a lot of meaning, a lot of pride to the stories they were telling. It brought pride to the storytellers. We felt more emboldened to reach further and tell the heritage story of Africa, and I think it built brands. By brands, I mean it built heroes, in front and behind the camera.”

Victor Okhai concurred with Odugbemi, emphasizing that Africa Magic breathed new life into the film industry by elevating the quality of productions and offering filmmakers the means to express their talent. The collaboration was mutually beneficial, benefiting both storytellers and the platform itself.

Okhai recalled, “I recall that when she first came, when M-net first came in, some of the earliest things done, I remember the New Direction series, those were the early initiatives. After that, there was a need for content for the Africa Magic channel. The late Chico then was the most prolific at the time.

They spoke to our colleagues, and people brought all their films and there were so many and that was the beginning. Now as you know innovation and disruption, by their very nature, are things you never see coming. It starts out like nothing, like who does that. Same way digital technologies started and Kodak despised it and they were like what’s that. But like the proverbial story of the Rabbit and the Hare, a Tortoise may be slow in coming, but it was sure and steadfast, and eventually it won. That is the story of Nollywood and Africa Magic. We started and it exposed us, and to be honest, I make bold to say that Nollywood taught the world to shoot on digital.”

Growth of Nollywood

Both Femi Odugbemi and Victor Okhai shared personal experiences illustrating how Africa Magic provided them with a platform to advance their careers.

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“Today, Nollywood still remains number 2 in terms of output, production globally, it has become a very strong brand, thanks to the works of pioneers, the early distributors in Onitsha, you cannot ignore that, but also the partnership with Africa Magic really took us global; it created a global brand. And if Africa Magic was not there and other investors did not see the success of Africa Magic, they probably would not have come.

When the foreigners saw what was happening through Africa Magic and you obviously, you can see that the staff they are using to do their work are from M-net and Africa Magic. They have helped to stamp us on a global stage without a doubt. Our success stories cannot be separated. We are responsible for the success of the channel and the channel is responsible for our success. So, we are siamese twins, inseparable.

Odugbemi, on his part, believes Africa Magic created a legitimate economy for the storytellers, while expanding their reach and contributed immensely in stamping out piracy which was a cankerworm stunting the growth of the movie industry.

“I think Africa Magic created a legitimate economy for the storyteller. It provided an opportunity for our storytellers to licence their work, provided an opportunity for us to be commissioned to work, but the biggest thing was that Africa magic platforms provided a lift-off point for a wider audience for the African storyteller. For me the economy of storytelling is your reach, and before the Africa Magic channels, your reach was dependent on a distributor somewhere in Idumota or Aba, who could only go as far as his own investment could take your film.

The Africa Magic channels delivered Africa to the whole continent. Over 40 countries to each storyteller at each screening. Those are numbers that were impossible before the Africa Magic channels came. It is helping to shut down piracy, which is important, because what it did was bring technology into a space where pirates depended on being in the shadows and once Africa Magic would put the work up for everyone to see legally, of course it depressed the business of the pirate. But for me it’s less about shutting down the negative and much more about creating the positive and I think everyone that has been around pre and post Africa Magic would understand the entire paradigm shift that it represented,” Odugbemi offered.

Development of local talents

With regards to development of talents, Both Femi Odugbemi and Victor Okhai shared their personal experiences, to narrate their encounters with Africa Magic and how it gave them a veritable platform to launch their careers to the next level.

Odugbemi reminisced, “New Direction was a series that MultiChoice did across Africa, looking for new voices, new directors and everyone pitched a story. And I remember famous South Africa producer Richard Green, MultiChoice executives: Lethe Bele, Masimola Jones, and Bongi Weselani were the ones that came to Nigeria to oversee the pitch. For me I entered a film called Mama Put and I was quite excited to be one of those that were selected to make my film and we made this film on 35 millimetre celluloid at the time. Obviously, it was a very expensive platform.

Back then, I think our budget was $100,000 and I’m talking about 2004. You have to understand what that meant to a young filmmaker like myself, to be given such trust and confidence that my story was worth investing that amount of money into. Mama Put became the beginning of my story. It gave me an opportunity and confidence to make more. Right after I made Abobaku also on 35 millimetre. Not long after that, I and a few others pitched for the daily soap and we won with Tinsel. To imagine that Tinsel is still running today is something I am deeply grateful for.

Since then, I’ve constantly had opportunities to create new work, to produce new work. I feel like I have been given opportunity to express every part of my storytelling ambitions, to build a core production team and a production company that I think is world class. To be able to give opportunity to new faces, new talents, actors, creatives and technical people. To make these stories, for me, has been an amazing opportunity and privilege for which I will always be grateful.

Okhai, who was a founder of a film school, International Film and Broadcast Academy recalled how his two students, out of the blues, won Africa Magic awards and were later commissioned as head writers for the series, Doctor’s Quarters, Tinsel and so many other Africa Magic series. The film-maker also got on the crew train of Africa Magic’s first commissioned series, Doctor’s Quarter, as an assistant director to Jimi Odumosu.

“It remains arguably one of the best series ever, one of the best original series to have come out of Africa Magic. It created a lot of jobs, it built capacity, you can see MultiChoice Talent Factory came as part of a give back. So many people have been trained and so many professions have come out of it. So many people earn their living from Africa Magic because that is what they live and die for, if you may excuse me saying so,” Okhai submitted with a touch of nostalgia. Adding, “My fondest memories are one, when I got the news that two of my students had gotten their debut directions, just seeing what they did for me was a dream come true.

There was validation for what we were doing at the film school because they contested against the very best in the country, they were just fresh out of film school. Another one for me is when out of nowhere I was called to do the project for Doctor’s Quarters, just seeing that work on air was it for me. And the final one for me was the honour of being made head judge at the 8th AMVCA, I just feel grateful.”

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