The last two years have seen a new excitement in cinema in Kenya. Not a week passes without a local film being premièred either in Nairobi, Mombasa or Kisumu. But what are the numbers looking like? Are these filmmakers making money? What role does streaming play? And how does our industry compare to that of Nigeria, the film market powerhouse?
I spoke to two Kenyan film-makers who jointly released three films in the last two years and one Nigerian, who has released over 20 films in the same period.
Reuben Odanga has contributed significantly to Kenya’s creative scene. Through his company Multan Productions, he’s written, produced, and directed close to 1,500 episodes of television shows. Perhaps his most well-known work is the telenovela Selina, which had close to 1,000 episodes and ran on TV every day for several years.
In 2021, Odanga released a film, Nafsi, that was screened at Prestige Cinema, Anga Cinema, Nyali Cinemax and Mega Cinema in Kisumu.
Odanga spoke of his experience doing the film:
“We chose those cinemas because of the revenue share they allowed us. We split the cost of the tickets 50-50 with them. Some cinemas do not have terrific deals. For instance, the decision not to show it at Century Cinemax at the Junction was because, with them, you have to deal with an agent who takes 25 per cent. This means that the film-maker only gets per cent of the ticket sales after the cinema has taken their 50 per cent.”
Odanga had initially anticipated that the film would run for five days, but it did much more, perhaps alluding to Kenya’s demand for local cinema. “We ran Anga for over two weeks; we were at Prestige for seven days. Ten days in Nyali and a week in Kisumu.”
Of all of these, Kisumu was the least performing. “We did not have a première in Kisumu, but we had one in Nairobi, and The Kenya Film Commission sponsored one in Mombasa. The numbers would have been better in Kisumu if we had a première. All our premier tickets in Nairobi and Mombasa sold out. The actors’ experience is essential for the audience; they want to come out to the red carpet and take pictures with the stars.”
Combined, Nafsi raked in Sh1.4 million in the cinema sales against a budget of Sh3.7 million. “The budget does not include the cost of paying self, so the value of the film is about 6.5 million.”
After the cinema run, Odanga attracted interest from a streaming service and is currently re-editing Nafsi for the small screen. He hopes to recoup his investment from the streaming deal and the cinema revenue and plough it all into his next film.
Philip Karanja is a name that Kenyans know well. He began as an actor on the TV show Tahidi High and went ahead to forge a career in directing. Through his company, Phil It Productions, he’s created his own distribution model that combines cinema openings and streaming on a platform they built themselves.
Their first film that used this model was the 2021 release Grand Little Lie. Karanja and his partners invested Sh5 million in producing the film, including the cost of building their digital online platform, where for Sh200, they’ll email you a link to watch the film.
Instead of going to major cinema halls mainly situated in malls, they opted to have their première at the Nairobi Cinema. “With the major cinemas, you have to split your revenue with an agent and the cinema themselves. At Nairobi Cinema, they charge a flat fee of Sh50,000 per day; you, however, have to rent your own screen. The mall-based cinemas also don’t make sense for capacity. The junction cinema, for instance, sits 120 people while Nairobi cinema 825,” Karanja says.
Their Nairobi opening of Grande Little Lie was a success. Over two days, more than 1,200 people watched the film. On opening night, they charged Sh2,500 and Sh1,500 for the second. After the cinema ran, they availed a link on their newly built digital platform. “Between October and December 2021, we sold 20,000 links at Sh200. We made Sh4 million from the links alone. So between the cinema run and the links, we made back our money and turned a profit,” Karanja says.
Had they gone the direction of licensing their film to a streaming service like Netflix for two years, they’d likely have to go through an agent who would have kept 30 per cent of their revenue. Even then, the licensing amount would have probably been in the region of $30,000. The film would have made a loss.
This year, Phil It Productions released their second film, Click Click Bang Bang. The film premièred in July, and they had even more success with it. More than 2,500 people attended the four screenings when the film premièred at the Nairobi Cinema.
“One of the strategies that helped this was pricing. We reduced the ticket price to Sh1,000, making it accessible to more people.”
Karanja has some ideas on what could improve the cinema space in Kenya. “We need more screens. If we made Sh2.5 million from one cinema hall, imagine how much we’d make in 10. The cinema halls we have are too few. Nakuru, which has city status, does not have a cinema hall. Eldoret has one. We also need to rethink cinema infrastructure, almost all our cinemas are in high-end malls, and the rent there tends to be more expensive, which then dictates the deals that the owners give filmmakers. We need to get cinema halls closer to the people. ”
Marketing also plays a vital part in the success of the films. Karanja and his partners put in about a Sh1 million per film for marketing, while Odanga Sh500,000 for Nafsi. “For each shilling I put into marketing, I got back three,” Odanga tells me.
Both also employed cross-sector marketing. For his two films, Karanja cast musical stars Khaligraph on one and Bien-Aime Baraza on another. Both artists shared their experiences with their audiences and called on them to go watch the films. Khaligraph went to the premiere of Click Click Bang Bang.
As a way of marketing Nafsi, Odanga also enlisted some cross-sector help. “We invited the internet stars from the channel Over 25 for a discussion on the film just before its premiere. When I asked most of the cinema-goers I spoke to about how they’d heard about us, many mentioned it was through the Over 25 channel.”
It isn’t easy to discuss the film industry in Africa without referencing the juggernaut of Nigeria’s Nollywood. Moses Babatope is at the heart of this force. I first met Babatope in the South of France. It was at Choiseul, a conference in the city of Nice that brings together French capital and African entrepreneurship.
Babatope was in a panel with Kenya’s George Gachara, and they spoke to a group of potential European investors about the viability of Africa’s creative space.
I recently had a chat with Babatope to get a feeling of what Nigeria is doing differently from Kenya. Babatope is the founder and MD of Filmhouse. They own the biggest chain of cinemas in West Africa. They have 10 screens in seven Nigerian states.
Babatope and his partner founded Filmhouse in 2012 and raised $20 million in 2014. The money was to put up cinemas, finance productions, and invest in co-productions of films that would run in those cinemas.
“Quantity wise, the films we show in our cinemas are 50 per cent foreign and 50 per cent local. In terms of revenue, the foreign films bring in 70 per cent of the money while the local films 30 per cent,” he says.
In 2021, Babatope’s company financed or co-produced nine films, which all turned profit. “Wedding Party 1 and 2 raked in over a $1 million dollars. Merry Men 1 and 2 brought in $500,000 dollars. Sugar Rush made $600,000, Prophetess $750,000 while My Village People $350,000. All the films cost between $100,000 and $150,000 to make.
They spent an additional 20 per cent of the production budget on aggressive marketing, paid for and in kind.” Babatope tells me by year end, they would have released 13 more films.
“The thing to do is to make going to the cinema an experience. Gen Z and millennials are very experiential people. When they enjoy an experience, they amplify it by telling everyone on their social media pages. We have this in mind when we build the cinemas and create the ambiance when the movies show. ”
After the films finish their cinema runs, they are often acquired by a streaming service. “Our company FilmOne has aggregator deals with Netflix and Amazon. There is a significant correlation between what movies do well in cinemas and those picked up by streaming services. The box office numbers, marketing for the film, and audience reviews play a significant role in how much the streamers acquire a film. It’s widely considered that a movie that did well in cinema will do well in streaming. ”
Babatope warns that there is danger in relying too much on streaming services. “We must sell our people the joys of cinema-going. Movies are essential for escapism, mental health, and, most of all, retaining and promoting our culture. But, unfortunately, the streaming services might not have this interest, so we must sell directly to our audiences, and that’s through cinema.”
I asked Babatope what we need to do to get the Kenyan scene to where it’s supposed to be. “You have to over-extend yourselves. Different practitioners who are powerful and influential in your market need to come together, collaborate and make as many films as possible. You also must create partnerships to ensure that as many people as possible see those films. When we began, we relied heavily on in-kind marketing through partnerships with the media.”
Babatope also insists that the plan must include engagement with other stakeholders along the chain. “One way, for instance, is to engage real estate developers building malls and similar establishments to have cinemas in their plans. Advertisers must understand their place in the whole chain and plug in accordingly. But above all, the players need to make the movie-going experience an event and feeling that people want to get involved in”
The writer is the Founder and CEO of D&R Studios and the Executive producer of TV shows Young Rich, Foods of Kenya, Sol Family, Kyallo Kulture among others.
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