Culture, Economics and Sustenance – Conversation with Tony Abulu

“I think once Nigerian filmmakers are beginning to get some funds repatriated to them, that are due them based on royalties, it will improve the quality of their films by the fact that they will have more budget to make better films. It will keep them from rushing to do ten movies a year, and before you know what’s happening, the stories are going to get deeper, and the Nigerian audience will become more educated…”…Tony Abulu

His name is Anthony Abulu. You may not be familiar with his name now, but he produced the 1997 US-Nigerian collaboration, Back To Africa, a movie that is still on sale today all over the Internet and has managed to sell thousands of copies in the US and around the world. If you are not familiar with him now, be patient. In a matter of weeks, he will be influencing, with a handful of his colleagues, how you lay your hands on Nigerian movies in the United States.

Tony Abulu is the president of the Filmmakers Association of Nigeria, USA, a new outfit set up by an African culture purveyor, a couple of film marketers and a management veteran. This exclusive interview with Sola Osofisan can be extremely beneficial to members interested in making Nigerian movies because it explores approaches that can be used in the Diaspora to market Nigerian movie productions. Being a long interview, we publish only excerpts of it.

Sola Osofisan: The Filmmakers Association of Nigeria, USA… What is it about? It sounds pretty obvious, but I want you to give me the history and all that.

Tony Abulu: Basically, as you know, I made a film called Back To Africa. I did the whole circuit of distribution. I was in film festivals all over the place, all the way to the African Film Festival in LA and on and on, I did all that. And then of course I was given this distribution deal by Blockbuster as well for the film. So, over a space of a couple of years, I was lucky enough to have had the foresight enough when I signed the deal with Blockbuster that it wasn’t going to be an exclusive deal. In other words, I could sell (copies of the movie) as well.

It turned out that I spent the past five years trying to distribute myself and I succeeded in being able to sell about 5000 tapes and it was done in a very unorthodox method.

S.O.: You want to share the secret?

T.A.: Okay. One of the things that I did was I looked around and I said to myself, if there are black people in this town, if there are Nigerians who are in this country – at least 250.000 Nigerians in this country – and then you have the African American community (and of course you know I use to publish a magazine for 15 years here, so I’ve entrenched myself seriously in the African American community), which is why I did the film of that type of subject matter, Back To Africa, to relate to Diasporic African community. So when I now started distributing my film, one of the things that occurred to me was that it is so sad that there is actually not a distribution mechanism for even black films – not even talk about African, Nigerian or whatever. Black films. None at all. The few people that had a few things here (because I tried almost everybody)… The few people that have some little things here tried to tie it with Blockbuster. And Blockbuster has this philosophy that you have to get your film already shrink-wrapped. In other words, you’ve done it, you’ve packaged it, you’ve shrink-wrapped it, and then you’re going to mail it to their outlet somewhere in Oklahoma for crying out loud. And then they take 8 weeks to decide if they want to carry the film or not – and in most cases, they won’t do it. And then they will just send it back to you and say they’re not interested. In my case, luckily, I got a response from them within a couple of days and by the time I got to find out who this person – the distribution company called Tapeworm Video Distributors – so I came to find out that the person who is their director of distribution there is an African American lady (of course this is a white company) and she told me – because I asked her. I said why did you go so vehemently after Back To Africa. She said guess what, I’ve never seen my father before. And it struck a chord.

Basically, what I now discovered was there’s no outlet at all. I decided if I who’s been in the US almost twenty years, If I can’t distribute this film that I thought about very well before writing out the script that was directed to a particular community – if I can’t distribute myself, there’s nobody ever going to (be able to) do it. Nobody else can do it. If because of the type of the type of clout and the type of connections that I had in the community, so I said in other for any other African to be able to do it, I had to open that door.

So I started… Back To Africa was done in 1997. I didn’t do another film. And I started going around. I started a method whereby I grabbed the yellow pages and the names that I found that were Nigerian names, I put them all together and I would call the Nigerians up and they would bang the phone. (LAUGHTER).

S.O.: Bang the phone?

T.A.: They banged the phone because it sounded like one guy trying to 419 them. You know what I mean? So I said okay, fine, I started thinking of a way to do it. Eventually, what I did was I started going to all these Nigerian parties. All these Egbe Omo Obokun, Asaba World Congress –

S.O.: Uninvited?

T.A.: No. I actually called the organizations and I said that would you guys be interested – that I’m a filmmaker (of course I knew some of them personally) – would you guys be interested in viewing my film? So I would send them a copy of the film to watch. And when they saw the film, they all enjoyed Back To Africa a lot. And then I went on a step further. I said can I rent a table at your party or convention and all the Nigerians would always tell me that they don’t do that. I eventually convinced some of them that I would pay for the table. And I would pay $250 sometimes. $300. And when they hear that you’re ready to pay, okay, fine. You can’t do it inside. You have to do it outside o. You can’t come in… I’m fine. It’s cool with me. I would pay that way and I would go there with my TV set, my 13″ TV with a VCR attached to it, and I would set up a first rate display board and set my tapes there. I was doing research at the same time. I wanted to watch Nigerians’ reaction. Of course you know back To Africa is the only Nigerian film that sells for $20. So guess what, I would set it up and the Nigerians would come there and would say what is this?

First of all, quite a few of my friends would laugh. “Abulu ti pate o! E wa wo Abulu to ti pate o!” (Abulu has erected a stall. Everybody come and see, Abulu has erected a retailer’s stall). (LAUGHTER). They would be rolling with laughter. But I would tell them to just relax. And eventually what I noticed was that the Nigerians would come in with their grandiosity and all that and they would stroll into the party and they would just glance at me for a second. And somewhere in the middle when they start dancing, and they have their beer bottle in their hand, they would walk back out into the lobby and then they would tell me what’s this? I’d say well this is a film that we shot in Nigeria and then they’ll look at the shots – great pictures man. This is American presentation. And eventually, they would say to me, aha, is that a Nigerian movie? Hey look at Lagos! Look at… What place is that? Idanre. Ekiti ke? I didn’t know that we had mountains like that in Nigeria o! And before you knew what was happening, I would have sold 50 tapes at $20 a pop. And I was going like that all around the country.

Eventually, I took – of course you had the African American festivals like Kwanzaa. I did all that, selling 200 tapes. You see what I’m saying? Remember the theme of my film is pan-African in nature, so it appealed to a whole range of people.

Now coming back to the question that you asked, having that as a background, we… Bethels, I used to go to Bethels’ and talked to him as one of the people trying to create an avenue to distribute Nigerian films. I saw that he believed in it a lot. Initially, I would say that some of the films were made in a very sub-standard way. As a matter of fact, I went to Nigeria, I was one of their special guests when they had their conference at the MUSON Center. I tried talking to some of the young guys. What is the market that you’re trying to reach out to, I would discuss with all of them. Eventually, like I said, I realized that Bethels was trying to build something with this.

There’s another Nigerian guy who is from the North. His name is Rabiu Mohammed. He’s in the Bronx. And Rabiu Mohammed, I noticed, was a bit more serious than the usual Nigerian video distributor in that he would take full page ads, color ads, in the Nigerian papers, and pay for it. So I said this guy looks like someone who is taking this as a serious business. So I formed a habit of going to discuss with the man over a space of about three years.

Eventually, I convinced them that we should be able to take this thing to another level. At the initial, they were looking at themselves like competitors and I made them realize that they were not competitors. I called a meeting in my place, I invited Bethels, I invited Rabiu. Luckily, there was another Nigerian lady coming from Washington who had taken it very seriously as well. Her name is Caroline Okolo. And we all met in my place and we had a meeting for like six hours, and I wanted everybody to share their opinion on what they felt was the future of Nigerian video and films. Caroline Okolo has been in the States for twenty-four years and she watches Nigerian films to death. (LAUGHTER). You see what I’m saying? The consensus then was that…I told them, I said what I’m interested in is I want to feed those Nigerians because I know those Nigerian filmmakers back home that don’t get a dime from royalty. People are selling their films all over the whole place and they don’t have a dime.

When the Washington Post was going to do the article, it was me that they called. The guy was on the phone with me for an hour and half and he was interviewing me and asking what do I think about Nigeria. I introduced him to Bethels. I mentioned a few other things. And I told the guy; I said listen, this thing is a phenomenon. What is going to happen is there are people that are going to take this thing seriously and eventually, it’s going to get a lot better. I will give you a hint. There’s an African American guy who’s one of the top guys working on Wall Street. He had invited me to a meeting one day and said that he wanted to get involved in Nigerian films, producing Nigerian films. So I asked him why do you want to do that? It took a little while and he eventually told me that hey, guess what, Nigerian films, people are taking notice. In a few years, it’s assured that Hollywood will take notice and they might want to invest in it and he would like to be the guy who would be the person to collect film money and be the conduit. I said all these Nigerians who have been making films, you think they’re “sugomus”? (stupid).

S.O.: Oh, but he doesn’t care about that. He’s just interested in his own pocket.

T.A.: Exactly.

S.O.: He’s a businessman.

T.A.: You see what I’m saying? So, by the time we all dialogued, we all agreed that the first priority, Nigerian people – the filmmakers – must begin to get reward for their work.

S.O.: That’s very essential.

T.A.: Number one priority. And we said guess what, not only that. We know that when they go to the banks in Nigeria to try to raise loans to make their films, they can’t get a dime.

S.O.: I was still reading online a couple of days ago where a bank manager was saying we have money. The moviemakers never come to us. Are you sure we go to them?

T.A.: Nigerian banks don’t take anybody seriously except it’s trading. Buying and selling, you have your LPO. If you don’t have your LPO, they don’t give you a dime. That’s the kind of business that they think is ideal to do.

S.O.: Where they can translate their money almost instantly.

T.A.: Exactly.

S.O.: They don’t have time for all these long-term things.

T.A.: So we all decided that that would be priority. And then of course by the time we did the computation to see how much it would cost to set up a company to monitor Nigerian films sales, to be able to litigate any copyright infringement and get the right type of staff to run the company, our budget came to half a million Dollars a year. We don’t have half a million Dollars, so we decided to set up a company and try to get some investors in, with the four members as the founders of that company. We came up with the name. Filmmakers’ Association of Nigeria, USA, with an acronym of FAN.

It took quite a lot of thought and I have been thinking for quite a while. We said that one of the key elements in terms of repatriation of royalties will be to be able to work with a bank that will be sympathetic enough to understand all the myriad of issues that are involved in doing business in Nigeria and what it would mean to understand what the filmmakers have been going through and what their future would be like. So we got in contact with UBA (New York) and we made a presentation UBA. Eventually, they felt that it was a great idea what we were doing. Despite the fact that any other Nigerian bank could have done the transfer, we felt that what we wanted to do is a very clear open book situation whereby a Nigerian filmmaker back in Nigeria, all the filmmakers in Nigeria that we get power of attorney over their films (Caroline and myself are going to Nigeria January 16 – 17), we intend to go and talk to the filmmakers and say we need the power of attorney to your films. Once we are given the power of attorney to the films, to be able to challenge anybody who is duplicating the films illegally, what we want to do is once we have that power of attorney, you want to open an account with UBA. We will produce your films. You don’t have to worry about nothing. Every single amount of copies of your film that is produced will be noted. There’s a website. You can log on to it just like your website (naijarules.com). You will log on to it, you will see how many copies of your tapes are produced, UBA is right in the middle so they will know exactly once the tapes are produced, they get the number of tapes that are produced.

Now, we are going to be almost like a clearinghouse. We’ve already written letters and packages to the 150-200 Nigerian video outlets all over the US. We’re asking them to become members of FAN, so that now, they will order the tapes directly from FAN. The minute any company orders your tape, it is noted on the site. You will know it immediately in Nigeria. All the amount of royalty that’s been negotiated for your film, UBA will repatriate all the money to Nigeria. When you go to your bank account, your money will be waiting, without you leaving Nigeria. They’ve never seen anything like it. Caroline Okolo is a management expert. She’s had twenty-something years of management. She was a major manager, top manager at McDonald’s Corporation for years. She is bringing that skill here, into this organization.

When you walk into UBA, you say this is my ID, because you will all be given IDs. I have an account. I want to see how much I have been able to accumulate as royalties from the sale of our films in the US. And you just go to your account and you check it. You just see the amount and you can withdraw it right there. You see what I’m saying? But it’s going to cost a lot of money to run. What we have decided to do in the meantime is to pool all our resources. I am working full time in it as the president of FAN. Caroline Okolo is the director of operations. She’s working full time. Bethels is the marketing manager for FAN. He’s working part time. Rabiu Mohammed, one guy who duplicates tapes, now, he’s the one making all the tapes for FAN. Top rate quality at rates that even the Nigerians who duplicate those tapes, when they find out the rate that they’re going to get the film, it will not make any sense for them to go and be trying to duplicate fake tapes of any movie. You see what I’m saying? So, this is what we have been able to do.

S.O.: The retailer now, the rate at which they will be getting the movies from FAN, it will be worthwhile?

T.A.: It will be worthwhile for you to be getting it from FAN because, first of all, you don’t have to worry about copyright infringement FAN has all the rights to produce those films. And the filmmakers who are back in Nigeria have already struck a deal with FAN on how much royalty per tape. And it’s going to be an open, fair situation. We’re not going to tell any Nigerian filmmaker we’re not going to take his film. What we’re going to say is this: you’re going to get the opportunity for people… There’s going to be (something) like a brochure that comes out every month and in that brochure, the top Nigerian films are going to be listed in it. I was reading on your website (naijarules.com), somebody was saying how come all the Nigerian films don’t ever have any synopsis. That’s a very valid point. It’s only in Nigerian films that you cannot see synopsis.

S.O.: And you don’t know the year it was released.

T.A.: You don’t know who is in it. You have to guess by looking at the photographs. All that is no more. We’re going to do a thorough job. We have people that will be working on things. There’s going to be a ratings system and synopsis, whereby, the store that is going to order – we call it distribution outlet – that are going to order those tapes, they can see those reviews and they’re going to decide for themselves and say you know what, we want to order (there’s a minimum of fifty tapes), so we want to order ten of Back To Africa, five of Sango, three of bla bla bla, on and on. All the way to a thousand tapes. And we have them categorized. There’s a Bronze level which is like 50 to a 100 tapes. There’s a Silver level which is like 101 to about 245 tapes. On and on until you get to the level of Double Platinum 750 to a 1000 tapes. And each of those levels have different rates. The Bronze level is $5 a tape. The Double Platinum level is like $3.50 a tape. You see what I’m saying? So there’s an incentive for you to want to order more tapes.

So what we’re doing is we’re not fighting with the outlets, all those distribution outlets. What we’re doing is we’re giving them a chance to become members of FAN. So, they’re getting a package. Maybe by next week I’ll mail you that package. You will see the structure, why we have to do this. Because our film industry in Nigeria, which is about the only industry that has been able to sustain itself without government support, which is the only industry that the rest of the world are willing to even listen to at all, if we’re not careful we’re going to kill that industry by just letting it run anyhow.

S.O.: What kind of arrangement do you have for online agencies that rent out movies?

T.A.: What we’re saying is this. We may not have all rights to the Nigerian films. What we want to do is this. We’re hoping that we do. We will go to Nigeria and say to all the producers (I know quite a few of them. Bethels knows quite a few of them. I think Bethels has rights to about 40 films. Rabiu has rights to about 40 films himself and Rabiu paid $2000 to buy the North American distribution rights. That’s what he has been doing. Now, Bethels, he goes back and forth. He says to them, I’ll pay you X amount of dollars and he has talked to quite a few of the producers there and they say, well, we’re not losing anything by working with you. You take our tapes. You can mass-produce it. We trust you. When you make the sale, pay us our royalties. So that’s what those two guys have been doing. But now these are the founding members of FAN. Everything now is under one roof.

The question you ask… The online services we’re going to send everybody a package. There’s a fee to join the package o. There’s a fee of a $150. Like I told you, it’s going to cost us half a million Dollars to run this thing. Once they have paid their $150 –

S.O.: To join FAN?

T.A.: To join FAN. Now FAN is not a retail outlet. We don’t sell single tapes at all. We only sell to distributors. What we’re trying to do is when you become a member of FAN, you get all the services that I’ve mentioned. You get the brochure, you get the online service to be able to order tapes, the ability to ship the first grade quality tapes, and these tapes – the way you’re going to know the difference in fact is that there’s a logo that we have designed that’s going to be on every single FAN tape. It looks like a fan. And it’s green-white-green. You have FAN on it.

We feel that we’re going to sooner or later – because we’re ready to litigate anybody that is selling fake tape. We have attorneys that are already hired, serious American attorneys. By the way, we’re dropping an ad in all the Nigerian papers. We call it a beware ad. Beware of Nigerian film pirates. And in that ad, we’re explaining to them that they can become legitimate members of FAN, so when the now become members of FAN, they have access to all those tapes. They can order any amount of tapes they want. Any amount of titles. The minute they order any tapes, it’s going to go straight into the computer. The minute that order is made, the Nigerian guy who is in Nigeria can go on his computer and access it in two seconds. Right there and then, the Nigerian will say they just ordered ten tapes of my movie, they just ordered a thousand tapes of my movie, so he can easily calculate, based on the royalty rate that has been agreed upon, that X amount of Dollars is coming to me. Within a week max, with electronic transfer from UBA, he would have gone and collected his money.

These things, as you know, you live in the States, you know it costs money. One of the things that the Washington Post said in the article, which was a little sad, is that all these films that are being sold…the Nigerian (filmmakers), they hate it to death, but they don’t have the type of funding that’s going to be required to litigate some of these cases. That’s where we come in.

S.O.: How are jackets going to be handled?

T.A.: These things are already being done here. Like I said, Rabiu has the right to some of the Nigerian films and the Ghanaian films. The name of the company is Ghana Nigerian Videos. He’s very well known because he used to sell his Nigerian films for $2 because he bought the rights. The reason why he was doing that, he was saying that the Senegalese and the Malian film distributors sell tapes for $2. And there’s no way he can undercut those guys after paying for the North American distribution rights in Nigeria. He was compelled to want to sell lower than them and eventually begin to raise the prices on the tapes. What he has been doing is this: when he buys the right to a Nigerian film, he does two things. One, when they send him the master tape, he checks it to see whether there’s any foreign music that is in the film. You know Nigerians, they’re talking about rights, and meanwhile, they’re using other people’s music without paying for rights.

When I did Back To Africa, all the music in the film, Fela’s music, I was in Fela’s house like a week before he died. I went to negotiate the right to Fela’s song. I told Fela, Fela didn’t come out. I’ve known Fela for a long time. He was sending a secretary from his bedroom to me. That’s how I knew that –

S.O.: He wasn’t himself.

T.A.: He was sending one dark-skinned girl. I was sitting in the living room with some of my people. Fela said I should just please try to pay something so that some of the people there can get something. I said I would go and think about it. By the time I came back, because I didn’t know how much to tell Fela there that I was going to pay, by the time I was going to go back, Fela had died. So I went to see Femi. I went back to Nigeria s second time and I went to see Femi and Femi said how much did my father tell you to pay? I said your father didn’t tell us to pay any amount, that he said we would negotiate. So he said how much am I going to pay? I said well, I would pay 20,000 Naira, and I used “Lady”. And Femi said it was fine. I told my guy to take care of it and I came back to the US.

What Rabiu does is he plays the tape. If he just sees any foreign music, he returns the master tape to Nigeria and he tells them to remove it and put on authentic music that you have rights for. Which is what they do. And then when he gets that… One of the ways you know fake Nigerian tapes in the US is that the covers are always plastic. Guess what? Rabiu also gets photographs from the filmmakers and he designs a brand new jacket – cardboard like the American films. When he does that – beautiful covers, very well done – he shrink-wraps it. All this he does in-house. Which is one of the reasons I invited him as one of the founding members of FAN. Because he already has that facility.

S.O.: So you’re going to explore using his facilities?

T.A.: Exactly. That’s what we’re using for now. He has his dubbing system and he has his staff.

S.O.: So you’re going to be making your jackets here?

T.A.: We’re going to be making all our jackets here.

S.O.: Do you have a warehouse or something?

T.A.: Yes. We just procured a place that we’re going to be using in Washington. Caroline Okolo is going to be operating out of Washington, DC. She’s going to be the person that will be running the basic operations of the company.

S.O.: Yes, I was going to ask how you plan to coordinate things, with your director of operations in Washington and you guys in New York.

T.A.: The main office will be in New York. We’re trying to see if we can get an office in the Nigerian building now. But the warehouse itself, because of the expensive New York spaces, Ms Okolo is running the warehouse out of Washington, DC. Anywhere in the US, we will ship orders to those outlets.

All these things are not easy as you know. You live in the US. There’s a lot of work. And that’s why I’m full time. That’s why Caroline is full time. We don’t do any other job. My company, I just put it on the side because we believe – personally, I believe two things. When I look at Nigerian films, my film that I was going to do after Back To Africa was American Dream. I have signed on Ossie Davis, Rubi Dee, John Amos, top American actors. It was going to cost me $700,000. As a matter of fact, they’re all still waiting for me to do that film today. I tried to raise money. I got some of my friends in Nigeria that I knew had money, some flew from Nigeria to come and meet me, all the promises all fell to nothing. When I look at Nigerian films, I feel that there are few filmmakers in Nigeria that you can take their film and show to a foreigner, let me just put it that way. Some of the films are very nice. They’re very funny and all that, but some of them degrade our personality, which is why the president said please try to make films that are going to edify your culture and your country.

S.O.: Well, some of them don’t fully comprehend the power they have.

T.A.: They don’t know the role of film. And if you notice when you watch Back To Africa, I did it just like a docu-drama. The first half of the film I just did like they’re just going on a site seeing (tour) just to show them what Nigerians like because they don’t have a clue. Nigerians will start a film, won ma koko show gutter to ti doti (they will focus first on the dirty drains).

S.O.: Sometimes it’s relevant to the story.

T.A.: Of course it is, but you have to strike a balance. Why do you think Hollywood in those days when they want to make a movie, they go to Acapulco, they go to some beautiful places? All their lead actors look handsome beautiful, because it was the most important PR tactic for the US. We all wanted to come to the US, we all wanted to come to Soul Train. When they asked Hakeem Olajuwon about 15years ago why he came to the US: Soul Train. We all got here to fin out all the Soul Train dancers, few of them finished third grade.

S.O.: So far, Nigerian movies coming into the US, because they have been informally imported, they have slipped under the government radar. The way it’s going now and you make it legal, everything is going to change. It’s already being noticed now by the government because all of these publicity in the papers. They’re already seeing this. These things have to pass through a rating system. How are you guys handling this?

T.A.: It’s one of the things that we’re doing. We’re forming an advisory board of Nigerians and some Americans. People like Ossie Davis, John Amos… We want people who have been in the film community, all the people that run all the film festivals, even the one that Tunde Kelani is coming. They’re like my pals here. I’ve known them for years. They are going to be members of the advisory board. We’re going to have a situation where some of them will screen some of the films.

S.O.: Tony, what do you see as the future of Nigerian movies in the United States?

T.A.: I think that if we’re able to do this FAN thing well, I think by the grace of God, the sky is the limit. I think once Nigerian filmmakers are beginning to get some funds repatriated to them, that are due them based on royalties, it will improve the quality of their films by the fact that they will have more budget to make better films. And by so doing, it will keep them from rushing to do ten movies a year, and before you know what’s happening, the stories are going to get deeper, the quality of the films will get deeper, and the Nigerian audience will become more educated. Ultimately, it is not just the film. It is not an issue of film. It is a question of culture and how it translates to economics and the sustenance of our people as a whole. Film is just a conduit to it.

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