One year ago, as thousands of global film and TV industry reps descended on Berlin for the European Film Market, executives from Nigerian production and distribution powerhouse FilmOne Entertainment had good reason to feel optimistic. The company had recently unveiled a $1 million film fund with China’s Huahua Media and South Africa’s Empire Entertainment, an unprecedented pact for the Nigerian movie industry. Production on the first film financed by the fund had just begun, and it looked like the start to a promising year.
That would change in a matter of days, as the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the West African nation, shuttering cinemas for five months and halting production in the prolific Nollywood film biz. Yet the industry rallied in the months ahead, and by year’s end, FilmOne had produced seven feature films in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. “We were able to get these films done in the most challenging period ever,” says Moses Babatope, the company’s co-founder and managing director.
FilmOne launched international sales on four of those titles during EFM. “Kambili” is a romantic comedy, from bankable director Kayode Kasum (“Sugar Rush”), about a spendthrift woman who gets dumped on the eve of her 30th birthday and is determined to prove she’s wife material to win her ex-boyfriend back. Caper comedy “Quam’s Money,” a follow-up to the box-office sensation “New Money,” is the story of a newly minted millionaire who loses his fortune to a gang of fraudsters, starring rapper-turned-actor Folarin “Falz” Falana.
“Sanitation Day” is a crime drama about a race against the clock to solve a murder mystery, from multi-hyphenate Seyi Babatope, who studied film in the U.S. and cut his teeth working with the likes of Hype Williams. Lastly is “Prophetess” (pictured), a comedic drama about how things go haywire after a local seer makes a bogus prediction about a soccer match. Directed by Niyi Akinmolayan, the helmer behind the local box office juggernaut “The Wedding Party 2,” it features Toyin Abraham, the star of last year’s blockbuster “Fate of Alakada.”
The slate reflects FilmOne’s aspirations to tap into the growing appetite for African content with the sorts of slick, commercial fare that can strike a chord with audiences overseas. Central to that mission have been global platforms like Netflix, which has licensed a number of FilmOne titles, and which Babatope says has helped to give the company “an indication of the kinds of films that travel really well.”
The coronavirus pandemic nevertheless upended the company’s 2020 plans. Budgets soared, notes Mimi Bartels, FilmOne’s head of production, while the production teams were often forced to find creative workarounds to unfamiliar challenges. Social-distancing measures meant VFX teams had to work overtime to make crowd scenes come to life. And after running out of disinfectant during a remote location shoot, the crew had to turn to Moko, a powerful methylated spirit with a 95% alcohol content, to swab down surfaces and conform with COVID-19 hygiene protocols. “Everybody on set [was] smelling like an alcoholic for days on end,” says Bartels.
After producing just two to three features per year before launching the film fund, FilmOne hopes to release 10 new titles in 2021, and as many as 12-14 per year after that — movies that can enjoy a theatrical run in Nigeria, where the company’s distribution and exhibition arms both dominate the local market, before launching globally. “This film fund opens up a whole new world of possibilities for Nigeria,” says Bartels. “Everybody really came together [last year] and realized what we were trying to do with this, and just fought really hard to make it happen.”