He is many talents rolled into one. He is a renowned movie entrepreneur, a media personality and a Public Relations Consultant. He has been in the forefront of putting smiles on the faces of people through his creative artistic skills while bringing joy to many homes. Welcome to the world of Uche Agbo, a man of indelible character and passionate lover of the arts. Uche Agbo is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Okike Media. He hailed from Isi-Uzo Local Government Area of Enugu State, South East Nigeria and holds a Master’s Degree in Theatre and Film Studies which he bagged in 2018 after obtaining his First Degree in Theatre Arts in 2012 both from the prestigious Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State. This young generation movie producer is so compassionate about the Nigerian project, most especially his descent Igbo nation. Realizing the need to further sell the South East to the entire universe, Uche Agbo is the brain behind the Coal City Festival which will be a huge collection of movie stakeholders all around the world. The event should have been held in Enugu State but due to the effects of the Covid-19, it was rescheduled to be held soon. Agbo, who is the National Secretary of Directors Guild of Nigeria (DGN), an umbrella body of all movie and television directors in Nigeria is the publisher of a pacesetter and motivational book titled “BEFORE YOU SACK YOUR BOSS”. He happens to be the first Nigerian director to produce a film acted by just one character titled “SO FAR AWAY” featuring award winning actor, Segun Arinze. Interestingly, Agbo was a second year undergraduate when he produced his first film titled “NAIRA REPUBLIC” featuring Chiwetalu Agu and other artistes. This is a feat that remains almost unachievable till date. In this exclusive interview with ISAAC IFEANYI AGWAZIM, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of TOP SOCIETY MAGAZINE, he spoke extensively on issues touching on the Nigerian and African movie industries, the challenges of being a movie entrepreneur. He also spoke on sexual harassment in Nollywood and how he has been able to fashion ways out of the menace. He is a happily married man and a doting father. Enjoy the interview:
How has life been as a director, producer, media personality and PR Consultant?
I would say it’s a bit of pain, a bit of fun. I feel when you are doing what you like doing and you are doing what you like doing actually, it’s not a work anymore, it becomes leisure and fun. So, being in the media doing writing, as an author, a script writer, a director, a producer, a PR Consultant have given me the opportunity to reach out for the soul of Africa because I pay close attention to what matters in Africa. I would like to see myself as an African filmmaker. So, it’s been fun, it’s been great and it’s been a privilege having the class of movies that could be watched over and over again many years to come and many years behind. So it has always been awesome.
What are the challenging aspects of film making?
Generally, film makers are like entrepreneurs. However, some are while some are not. But for me, am an entrepreneur. So the challenges that are facing other entrepreneurs are also affecting us. But I would be more specific about me as a film maker, the first is funding. It’s not easy to get funding for a breakthrough film project. If you do a million naira projection today, tomorrow you have an idea of N100 million and you are looking for whom to invest on it and for the fact that the film industry is such that many people don’t know how big it is and so many people are not willing to throw their money in it. So funding is one of the critical challenges of film production. The second is power, as am speaking with you, we have been running on generator. So when we are willing to get the best quality we need, we need power but now we run on generator. So power is another critical issue we are facing. Another is data, data is the new oil, so whether we like it or not. I have datas everywhere in the office but they fail even after you pay a huge amount of money, you don’t get value for what you paid for. So data is another issue because ours is an ICT inclined because as an entrepreneur and a film maker, we try to reach out to the world. Film is not just about Nigerian or African films alone, so we are reaching out to everybody. So, we buy a lot of datas to download and upload and all of that and then compensation because we have very tough laws when it comes to royalty. Many people don’t have that royalty. So you make a film and the producer or the executive producer of the film takes it and you don’t get any royalty, you could make as many films, but you could not get to benefit from it ever again, it’s just a one off thing. So when we have very good laws, when you make films you get royalty in the long run. And the mother of them all is piracy. Every film maker would always tell you that one of the biggest challenges is piracy. So piracy is one of our major problems and it’s not going to be solved any time soon. Legislatures I don’t know what they are doing. We have very weak laws to deal with piracy. Many of them you arrest them, you take them to court and yet they get away with it because they explore the technicalities and all that. It’s because of the piracy that people are not being rewarded well because the film producer thinks, ah, how much are my going to make. So, there are many of the challenges, but I would just stop here but I think these are the critical ones.
What are those common mistakes movie producers make?
If I should go technical, I think some producers produce films without having the understanding of the audience whom they are producing for. So, sometimes we just make films that we want not the film that the audience want. So, as a film producer, you have to think about the creative aspect, you also need to think about the business aspect. So, one they don’t do research, a lot of them don’t do research and they don’t also hire the right hands, because they just want to gather their friends, relatives and all that and say ok let’s produce. So we don’t have the right hands and they end up getting a bad job. So, some of them also just came into the industry and they don’t study the industry just because they have the money, they believe that they can hire anybody and start making films. That’s not how it works, Nollywood has its own directory and it has its own dynamism. So you must study Nollywood to understand what sells, what works and what does not work before you can part with your money and I can really say if you are a first time producer, hire an experience director and hire somebody that has deep knowledge of the industry. Another thing is that some of them don’t hire good script writers, they want their boyfriend, girlfriend, brother, sister to write it for them and when you get the script wrong, you get the film wrong. So most producers don’t think well and they don’t even try to leave family relationship to get the good job done. Many of them don’t have patience, they want it to be done as quick as possible. You can’t have fast, good and cheap in the film industry, fast, good and cheap, you can’t. its either it is cheap and it is not good or its good and it is not cheap, its fast and it is not good or its good but its not fast. So, you can have all of them in one sentence, but some producers want all of these in one sentence, they want somebody who is cheap, who can be fast and give them a good job and that is not possible.
I would have added these to our earlier challenges but I still would. Producers are producing in this limited law of channel, so nobody is trying to maybe build extra channel of providing new platforms. So these are some of the common mistakes. I feel some producers are not willing to pay, they are not willing to pay in either cash or kind. Because you need to place a value, its either cash or barter. They call it barter. So, if you are not willing to pay cash but you are willing to give something in value so that the next person can also give in return for value without necessarily collecting money. So, these are some of the few mistakes I think many producers make and then, they try to imitate the whites, they try to imitate Hollywood, we are not Hollywood.
The fact remains that every continent has its own uniqueness. We must first of all tell African stories because that’s one of the things that will make you more popular by telling the story of the whole of Africa. But now, we are beginning to try do what the Whites are doing, we can’t do what the whites do better than them but we can do what we do better than the whites. Just look at the Indian film industry, look at Chinese film industry, look at how they have been able to critically use their own stories to build a massive industry without polluting it, so one would think film producers should start thinking about promulgating and encouraging the industry by producing good stories and lastly, I think also that everybody is running the rat race, everybody wants stars, stars, stars. I know that because of sales you need like two or three of them in your film. But I think you must also have to build a system that you have new faces to come on board and then producers don’t build systems in this country. Very few actually build systems, they believe in hand to mouth, make the money and spend the money, no plans, no action, no system, no structure to be put on ground, perchance tomorrow you can no longer produce film, automatically they have given you your money, have you created a system that can actually run around, start paying you while you can rest, while you can travel, live your life, be good. Most producers don’t do things that way. They just want to get it immediately. So, I feel we should improve on that side.
You talk about the fact that producers could either be paid in cash or in kind, can we digress into the aspect of paying in kind?
The kind I meant and I think I have to clarify it is exchange in values called barter. For instance, if you don’t have money as a producer to pay a director his normal fee, you can offer that director 5% or 10% that your film is going to generate. It can be collaboration, it can be partnership, whatever you call it, what matter is you can offer a value. For instance, I am generating a new content with four writers. I don’t have the kind of budgets to pay the four writers, so what I did was to bring them in and tell them that you know what, this is what am going to do, this is the kind of sponsorship am looking for, this is the vision and they bought into it. I told them that am going to give you XYZ percentage when the film gets to the cinema and they all accepted and they are writing it presently. Am not particularly giving them cash but am giving them percentage and so they are writing it hoping that when the film finally gets to the cinema, they will get their rewards. So that’s what I meant by paying in kind and then if you don’t have money, there are other ways. You can offer other services that you have for the person. That is paying in kind, you don’t have to physically pay money, there is a service you can provide that the other person needs. As a director, I may want to produce my own film tomorrow, if you can offer to produce it for me. Am not going to pay you as a producer or if you want to write a script or you can offer to buy a script writer or pay the script writer later. There has to just be a value exchange. If there are other services you can offer, you say okay let me offer this service for you in exchange for this. So to be able to get the right hands, you must be able to stick to the right value. So if you don’t have cash, you must have service value or kind value so that you can get the right hands to work on the project.
Let’s take a look into your Coal City Festival project?
Coal City festival is naturally a film festival that is going to be taking place in South East Nigeria, Enugu State to be precise and the idea in that Coal City Festival is to open the doorway of South East Nigeria to the whole world using the celebration of world festival in the South East. Enugu is central in the history of Nollywood and nobody can doubt that because from the very first perception, it is commercially viable. A lot of people moved down to Enugu to get their films done. Enugu created a lot of stars. All the living stars you can talk about today are from Enugu, so we would play host to almost all the stars in Enugu so it’s not just going to be temporary, it will turn to our base. We would set up cinema there. Am from Enugu State by the way and I believe in the Igbo adage that says take back the wealth home and my wealth of experience in the movie industry has given me an idea that how can we not have a festival in Enugu, how can we not have a viable festival in Enugu. It’s once in a year, people are coming from the entire world to gather in Enugu to celebrate with us. They would get to know the culture, the food, the happenings in Enugu State and that gave birth to that idea and the first edition was supposed to have held before now but unfortunately, the coronavirus came on board and we had to postpone and we are looking at when you have close to about 300 a weekend, and we are planning to stream it down. We will still announce a new date very soon. The idea is that it shall held once in a year and that would be in March every year to have filmmakers, actors from across the world come to Enugu State and share their experiences, we are starting off with a three-day event but we hope to expand it. The Enugu Film Festival is like the beginning of the vision, the vision is to have a film village which is a big studio where anybody can come in. everywhere is calm and welcoming so that’s the vision but we are starting with the festival to be able to bring people to Enugu so that we can open up the entire South East. If you look at Lagos, Lagos has many film festivals going on there so every year, Lagos host a lot of people from different parts of the world. So this is an opportunity to bring people into the South East.
How has the magnitude of supports for this Coal City Festival being so far?
First and foremost, immediately we announced it, we have got a lot of calls from industry stakeholders and they are very much in support of it most especially those who know the roles Enugu played when it comes to the film industry in Nigeria and they were quite supportive. Top on the list is Lancelot Imasuen, one of the greatest directors we have and he was always calling us and he was even the one that led me to my own commissioner for arts and culture in Enugu State. I met with the commissioner and he was so excited about the project, unfortunately this Covid-19 came on board but before then we have met with the Enugu State Chief of Staff and he asked us to prepare a proposal which we have sent across but now that all these have come up, we would still regather after the Covid-19.
As a script writer, what do you think make a good script?
The story is king because no matter how good the writing is and the story itself is not good, it may not come out well. So the story itself which is the lead of your screenplay is what is critical. On the other hand, a movie is supposed to favour the deaf more than it favours the blind. What it means is a deaf person does not hear but he sees, but a blind person does not see but he hears. So if we have more dialogues than pictures then it’s not a good story for me because you supposed to have more of pictures and images. They call it the economy of words. Do more of the showings and less of the talkings and then we have sub-texts, these are the under-laying meanings behind the story, twist and turns, being able to hold the audience, mix around the cinema with them, take them on a journey, put them on edge so that the audience will not want to leave the cinema. Another thing is to have a good structure, build it well, decorate it well, the dialogue has to be well structured so if there are many screenplays, it is a course on its own, it’s a course that can take you months or years to study and master and then again, you never stop reading but some of these points I highlighted are some of the points I know as a
screenwriter and have helped me to do a lot of work people commended a lot.
What does it cost you to produce a quality movie?
Well, the amount you spend to produce a film depends on the script. There are so many factors that influence budget in a film. First and foremost, you have to identify the script you want to work on and you look at the cast, if you are bringing in new faces and all that. If you are bringing in stars, you ask how much are they charging, you look at your crew members so the value is determined by the quality of your cast and the script will determine all of these. Pre-production, meetings will also require money and photography. At the end of the day, the amount of the budget you spent producing this will be determined by the people you hire because it is a service base industry. In the end, the pre-production, production and post production are the same in the world. These are the three stages of production. The standard is universal. There is no place that has post-production before pre or have production before pre. Pre-production is the preparatory stages, production is the photography and post production is the editing stages and distribution. So at the end, you also have to know which channel you want to distribute, do you want to produce it for the internet alone, or a cinema distribution or a TV distribution. So it’s a complex structure but when you get into it and spend sometimes, you will get used to it.
How long have you being in the movie industry and how many films have you shot and which is your best?
Have always been an actor from childhood. That was my block rosary days in primary school but officially the first time I came in contact with movie people was in 2004 when I watched a programme at Minaj Television where they asked if you want to be an actor you should register, so I went there to register in 2004. The late Peter Eneli was the chairman of Actors Guild of Nigeria then. It was tough for me because my brother then was more interested in my education because I was still a young man then. So after all the rigours of going to school and so many other things that happened, in 2010 I produced my first film as an undergraduate. The film was titled Naira Republic, it has Chiwetalu Agwu, Kingsley Obinna and few others. I raised the money as a student and for me it was a breakthrough. I was the first student at Nnamdi Azikiwe University to produce a film and it was a landmark for me. I was in Year 2 at the department of Theatre Arts then so since then I have done 20 of features films, I have done about 12 shot films, 3 TV series. I don’t have preference for my films but the two that have given me joy are So Far Away which happens to be the first ever one man cast film. The film features Segun Arinze. BBC invited me for an interview for that film. The other one was the Final List which was distributed by Silverbird both in Nigeria and Ghana. Another film I would like to remember was Pay or Die. It brought me to act in African International Television Film Festival here in Lagos where I saw a different form of film making that changed my concept of film making.
What do you love being a movie maker?
What I like is that actors don’t die. I played one of my old films and saw a cast who was my lecturer the late Mr. Eboh and I asked myself, this man that has died, why is he still talking. So I know that if am done with my sojourn on this earth, my legacies would still be on. Another thing is that actors are the voice of the nation. Actors can redefine the society which is most important. I like producing African films and not what the whites love portraying about us.
What do you hate being a film maker?
I don’t think I hate anything being a film maker, it’s the other way round. Some people hate film makers and actors. If I don’t like film making I would not be in it. I think it’s fun for me because I like it so much.
Some people attain success in life but lose it along the line, what do you think is responsible for this?
I wrote an article about this issue, to be honest, a lot of us live on a roller coaster kind of life. We spend money as it comes. There is no plan, there is no milestone, there is no career goals, there is no set up, there is no system. You just get a job, get paid and you spend the money knowing full well that you will get another one. But another set of people come on board and producers start giving you less jobs and before you know it, one is out of the way and that’s it. Film makers, directors, actors, producers and every stakeholder should generate and have career goals. How do you invest, you should see this as your source if livelihood and not your hubby. We must begin to think about investment portfolio, live a healthy life, avoid alcohol and know the best things you need for yourself.
Being a film maker, what are those things you need to change in the movie industry?
First and foremost, being the National Secretary of the Directors Guild of Nigeria (DGN), I think I have the privilege of changing some things in the industry. We are putting things in order gradually. The first thing I would not want to hear in the industry again is sex for role, that is somebody is asking me to give her sex for me to give her a role. If I have super power, that is one thing I will eradicate. I know it is like that almost everywhere, we have seen situations where female doctors accuse their male counterparts of sexual harassment. We have also seen that in our justice system as it exists in our industry, if I have the power, I will eradicate such acts. Another thing is that given the right or the privilege, I will like to push for a bill that will increase the law of royalty that will in return increase stakeholders’ money, we also need training. You must be trained. I spent many years to train before starting fully. Even if you cannot attend university, there are film colleges, movie academies and all that. You must improve yourself.
How do you combine being a father, a husband, film maker, a director, a producer, an author, PR personality all together?
I create time for my family because they come first in all things I do. For me I have time for everything. I utilize my 24 hours because every 24 hours that past will determine your next 24 hours. As a busy person, I have people working for me, so I delegate duties to them so everything will not be a burden on me.