Turning Zollywood in to an industry
“We are selling DVDs for $1 a copy in order to stamp out piracy”
How many times have I come across that in the news and asked myself: what’s wrong with these people?!!!
OK, it has been over a decade since I left Zimbabwe for the United Kingdom. I will plead guilty to being completely out of touch with how the film industry has fared since I was last there. It would seem that the “Nollywood model” has established itself there.
I remember when the Nollywood was only just something we were hearing about for the first time and debating its potential to replace the prevalent donor-driven model, which saw international development agencies fund “messagey” films. Producers made a lot of money then; all they had to do was come up with a budget donors were prepared to meet then make a movie at less than the agreed budget and pocket the difference.
As a model, it worked. Producers saw money even if the film itself was never actually screened anywhere. And the products were always of quality, if not in terms of story, but in terms of cinematography, post-production etc. The quality of skill and talent was such that international crews were filming in Zimbabwe and employing locals. There are many Zimbabweans with Hollywood and BBC credits who have never worked abroad.
However, towards the end of the 90s, leading up to today, donors have not been splashing out as much as they used to. As a film student from 1996, I took part in the preparation of proposals that we sent around the development agencies and NGOs. We all thought we were going to get paid, and we were really disappointed when we did not. It was like turning up at a party when everyone else was getting their coats and leaving.
The Nollywood model was coming to our attention. Basically, a movie could as readily be shot on a camcorder, even the ridiculous VHS-C home video camera, as on Betacam. Hi-8 and Super-VHS were also available. U-matic had never really taken off, but there were a few cameras lying about. I shot on a borrowed Hi-8 camcorder my friend had bought in the States. All these formats were superior to VHS, so if you could shoot on whichever you could get your hands on, you could then release the product on home video. You could make copies and sell them on the streets, or hire halls and do your own screenings using a projector. This, we were told, was what the Nigerians were doing and they were making 800 movies or something like that a month.
As digital camcorders became more and more affordable, aspiring filmmakers went buckwild. Nollywood not only produced the model for making the film, but also for distribution. DVD writers, available on every computer, made every filmmaker a manufacturer of movies for home entertainment.
It all seems very well. Independent filmmaking, independent distribution. No middleman. What could be wrong with that? The answer to that; plenty. And it all boils down to the money.
I contend that the Nollywood model is wrong for Zimbabwe’s film industry. While Nollywood itself is booming, it would appear that Zollywood has only managed to acquire its problems. I contend that as long as Zollywood continues to imitate Nollywood, it will never be able to imitate its success.
If it ain't be on page....
The first problem is the quality of the film making, starting with the story itself. The stories are not very interesting. The scripts are badly written. One of the more obvious reasons for this is that filmmakers are reluctant to invest in quality scriptwriting. Zimbabwe has some of the most brilliant screenwriters that I have ever seen or heard of. Names like Francis Zvoma, Karl Dorn, Leonard Matsa and Tawanda Gunda, Rumbi Katedza come to mind. There are several others. Some of these writers, like myself, trained at Zimbabwean institutions such as the African Script Development Fund, the now defunct Vision Valley Film, Television & Video Institute and the UNESCO Film & Video Training Project.
I don’t want to speak for the above-named gentlemen and lady in the matter of paid work, but I myself charge market rates for my screenwriting services and tend to turn away producers who expect me to work for free. The “we will promote you as a writer” argument is ridiculous; how do you hope to promote a writer when it is clear from the onset that your movie is not going to go very far? In fact, writers such as myself would be reluctant to have their name attached to a project that looks amateurish from the beginning.
A good writer helps to sell the movie, especially to financiers. If you cannot invest in a good writer, the chances of you having a good story are diminished.
When guerrilla filmmaking becomes gorilla, and goes bananas
The reluctance to invest in quality spills in to the actual production. I once contacted a Hollywood-based Zimbabwean actor, and they said for US$800 a day, plus per diem and air ticket and hotel accommodation, they would appear in a movie I was consultant to. It seemed like a reasonable fee, especially as name-dropping the actor to TV stations and financiers would have got their attention immediately. The aspiring producer, a Zimbabwean, however, felt that she could have the same impact with a list of Zimbabweans who no one outside of the Zimbabwean community in the UK has ever heard of. In the end, I walked away.
A good producer needs to think seriously about the cast. Giving the lead actress role to the small house of the friend who is letting you use his luxury 4 x 4 in the film might save you on hiring costs, but if she cannot act for toffee, then you have basically pulled down your own movie.
An ensemble cast for a low-budget Zollywood movie is a very tall order. And if we do not give the aspiring actors a chance, who will? I have a very good idea. How about getting a mix of famous names and newcomers? I met a filmmaker here in Teesside who got Ving Rhames in his action movie. Rhames ate most of the US$3m budget. However, his name attached to the film meant that a bunch of British unknowns were taken seriously enough to get themselves a distribution deal in Hollywood for the action DVD market.
The benefits of mixed casting are manifold. From experience, professional actors are easy to work with. They take their work seriously. Wannabes can learn a lot from the opportunity to work alongside them. Wannabes get their filmographies enhanced too. Look at Eddie Murphy’s old films, count how many of today’s stars may have begun with a brief appearance in one of them. I am going to write a separate article on how Zimbabwean actors can get in on the action.
From all the above, it should be clear that "mixed-casting" means a mixture of seasoned and relatively new actors and not a mixture of actors who can act and people who should not be allowed near a set ever again!
I digress. With today’s technology, the actual shooting and post-production is a breeze. So, why are so more and more Zimbabwean films badly made? Poor sound and cinematography, laughable special effects, hideous locations, atrocious subtitles. The actors try to speak in American accents, and the result is a strange dialect similar to English that nobody north of Mt Pleasant or south of Dzivarasekwa will be able to make sense of.
"It's an African movie, what do you expect?"
There seems to be this ridiculous idea in our Zollywood that mediocre is acceptable by virtue of us being Zimbabweans, that we are doomed to be always catching up with the West. Such an outlook is bizarre, given the number of internationally acclaimed Hollywood productions that were shot in part in Zimbabwe, using Zimbabwean crew and facilities.
When the authorities made the 75% Local Content stipulation, I was still in Zimbabwe and attended a workshop on the subject. A representative of ZBC explained to us what the station accepted in terms of quality; sound, image etc. Major TV stations in the West will also have on their websites the standards they expect of any production they can consider for screening. I hear ZBC has lowered its standards, but I guess they will use this as an excuse to not pay producers. And quite rightly, too. Why should they pay top dollar for shoddy work? Stations in the Western countries, however, pay very well for acquisitions and adhere to very high standards. Those that do not pay anything, such as Klear-TV, BEN-TV and OBE-TV, do not have any quality standards. The other day, I saw an article in which the fact that some Zimbabwean productions had found their way to Klear-TV was being celebrated as something of a triumph.
Logic would dictate, under the circumstances, that anyone hoping to get a sale with a TV station that pays good money would make the effort to adhere to the required standards. The principle applies to any enterprise. If you, by applying poor farming practices, have a poor yield, would you really expect the GMB to pay you a good rate for your produce? So, why don’t Zimbabwean filmmakers make the effort to come up with something sellable? I think it is because of that absurd notion that as Zimbabweans, we do not have to try too hard as that would be getting above our station or something. The other excuse is that quality is expensive. To this one, I say, Shuddup! I am going to let you in on some corner-cutting measures that will not compromise on your quality.
Quality Filmmaking for Free
There are free software packages that can let you really work on that sound. Audacity is a very good one. Furthermore, you can have the sound mastered by a company in Europe. Check the internet. They will charge you, but if you end up with broadcast sound quality, think of that as an investment. Same with the editing. Someone e-mailed me from Zimbabwe about selling their film here in the UK. I asked them routine questions about the production, and in the process, they let slip that they had used a bootleg version of Final Cut Pro. I told them that there was no point in continuing the discussion. No TV station here would accept work that had been done on pirated software, and apparently they can tell. Look, software piracy is theft. People who scream rape when their movies are being sold at flea markets on home-copied DVDs should not think that it is acceptable to use pirated Final Cut Pro or any other software.
There are a number of free software packages that work just as well as Final Cut Pro. They are made by people who share your beliefs, that professional software is too expensive and we should have it for free. The difference is that they do not go around stealing other people’s software, they make their own and then give that away for free. Which is why I would rather have them round for coffee than you lot. A really good package that I recommend is Lightworks. There are others, look them up on the internet.
Selling the Film
OK, so you have made your Zollywood production at last. You managed to get Delma Chiwereva and Edmore Sandifolo to appear with Samuel L Jackson and Nigel Chinyamurindi. You also managed to bag a popular British urban musician who has never acted before, and a Bollywood starlet, and an Egyptian screen veteran. So, the interest is global. You shot on a camera you borrowed from your friend who was visiting from the UK. You edited on his Apple Mac and sent the final cut to a company in Lithuania that will “paint” the movie and make it look like it was actually shot using a standard film camera. What do you do next? Screen it at 7 Arts, then make DVDs and hand them out to vendors? Get it screened on Klear-TV and crow about how you managed to get a film shown in the UK (by 40000 viewers, none of whom would pay to watch it)?
If you do this, it is not an insult but a candid description when I say that you probably cannot be trusted to cross the road on your own. Again, think of that farmer who uses poor farming practices. He has managed to get it right, by finding a cheap or free alternative to expensive fertilizer and pesticides, but for some reason decides that he will not bother GMB with his bumper harvest. Instead, he is going to open a stall outside his homestead, and sell all these tonnes of Grade A maize to the 30 or so vehicles that pass on most days. Would you trust this guy to cross the road on his own?
The selling of DVDs by vendors in Harare represents the worst part of adapting the Nollywood model. How many copies are you hoping to sell, given the size of the potential market? Would they be enough to return the money invested in making the movie? Then you have the battle with pirates. Incidentally, am I the only Zimbabwean who has ever heard of anti-piracy software?
Making cheap movies for the DVD market is viable for Nollywood because Nigeria has a large population, with the potential for the realisation of substantial sales, even with piracy to contend with. But the same model cannot work for Zimbabwe.
My advice to filmmakers is: go for the Hollywood model for film distribution. Leave the distribution to distributors. Get a TV sales deal. Let distributors know you have something they might be interested in. And you will know they might be interested in it because you have followed all the advice offered above. You got a good writer to write the script, you got some good actors, and you made a good film using quality software. You mention the names of people who are in it, and they will sit up and ask for more information. Next thing, you are discussing a screening.
Say you made a film for US$50000. UK’s Film Four offers you US$20000 for the right to broadcast it for two years. A German station offers the same amount. Then a station catering for the African community in the States offer you twice that. You have US$60000, and you spent US$50000 making the film. You have US$10000 profit already and no one has seen your film yet! Then Kino calls up and says for US$10000, they want to try your film for the DVD market in the States and Canada. With that kind of money coming in, do you really care if someone goes really buck wild with his DVD-writer and has a stack of your film at the flea market? You’ve been paid already.
This, boys and girls is how films make money in the West. And this is the direction Zollywood has to take if there is any hope or even intention of viability. No one is saying you will make hundreds of millions, but you will make a lot more than you would with your DVD-Writer and black & white photocopied sleeves.
There is a small but lucrative market in the West, comprising Zimbabweans living abroad. For a film maker in Zimbabwe, of the Sabhuku Vharaizipi variety, I would recommend Createspace.com. It is owned by amazon, and filmmakers can upload their videos. Like Print-On-Demand self-published books, copies are only made when an order has been made. Createspace also distributes downloads to computers or mobile phones. The beauty of Createspace for such filmmakers is that only people who are genuinely supportive of Zimbabwean movies ill buy their work, people who can place a value on it. I have recommended Createspace to a number of filmmakers who have approached me about distributing their work to the international market. I cannot guarantee millions of dollars in sale with this option, but it is still a lot more better than Klear TV.
Oriit Films Ltd, my company, is moving towards brokering sales deals for Zimbabwean filmmakers. Our services are not free, but we do not take on a film that we feel is hopeless. And if none of the above advice has been taken (good script, good cast, good cinematography), chances are we will think of your film as in the hopeless category before you even tell us more about it.
With the emergence of the digital media, Zollywood has started to stand up on its hind legs. The potential is vast, there is plenty of feeding room at the trough for everyone. But let us all make that effort to put something in that trough worth getting our teeth in to!