Culture, Economics and Sustenance – Conversation with Tony Abulu

by Sola Osofisan

“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 ( 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.

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1 comment

Anonymous July 8, 2005 - 11:09 pm

Good interview.


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