Plus her multi-million Naira investment plan
Chioma Ude, founded Africa International Film Festival, AFRIFF in 2010 and nine years on, the festival has become one of the most talked about on the continent. In this interview with eelive.ng, she speaks about the principles that guide her operations and further sacrifices she is willing to make for the industry and Nigeria at large.
You have run AFFRIF for close to a decade now, you’ve been in entertainment for over a decade, I wanted to know particularly with AFFRIF, what challenges will you say you have encountered bringing the festival to the stage it is currently?
AFFRIF has five silos that are not independent of each other. There is always the call for entries which eventually becomes the screening of all the movies. Then, you have the training, which the bane of my soul. You have industry sessions where we get people talking and understanding what’s happening in the industry and in the world at large. Then you have the parties that are exceptionally interesting because they make room for networking in a relaxed manner and then, the award ceremony which every filmmaker deserves.
So, for each one treated separately, you will begin to have different encounters to make it possible. For the call to entry, we have gone beyond our problems. In the first year, I remember that we did not start getting films coming in until September even though we called for entries in March for an event slated for November. By the second year, we would get them in August but now, we have got to a point where the programmer is afraid to roll out the call for entry date because we get too many films. I was even shocked to know we have called for entries when he recently sent me a text telling me we are closing in June. Wherever people are in the world, they now go to the festival page on their own such that we don’t have challenges in that area.
And then the training. At the beginning, I funded it hundred percent. I will rather do my things well or not do them well. I knew what we needed at the time and I felt it was very important for me to bring all the lecturers from abroad. I remember I used to bring the script writer from England, she came twice. I would always go back to the students to say how was it, what did you experience, and I found out that the scriptwriter didn’t communicate the way we do things. So, I changed, and things got better and better getting to the stage where people started going abroad on our bill. So, things are great in that aspect as well.
The industry sessions were amazing. From the outset when in started in Port Harcourt because the whole town got involved. When we did in Calabar it was amazing too, whole town get involved. So, for me it was growing the culture of the festival. So, while we were paying for everybody’s flight, accommodation and feeding, we were investing in them to understand what the film festival is all about. Those sessions were very good. By the time a lot of people left, their mindsets about a lot of things changed and we got limitless testimonies.
For the sessions, we would from time to time introduce something foreign. There was a time I brought in the guy in charge of sourcing films from Paramount Pictures and he said bluntly to the participants in Calabar “I don’t need any film, I don’t want any of your Nigerian films, it means nothing to me.” And people were angry, wondering why they paid money for “this rubbish.”
He then went on to tell them how films are sold in America. You sell films based on who the cast members are. For instance, if you have a Chiwetel Ejiofor, you already know his fan base and can guess the number of people coming to see the film because of him and the story keeps you coming. People eventually got his point and I believe that started a new kind of discussion in our local market from where people got to believe more in the sessions.
Then we have our parties. When we started, I went in to understudy the Cannes Film Festival. I was there for seven days five of which all I did was go to parties. I was fascinated with the parties and I met people I never even dreamt of meeting before at these parties.
When I got there, I found a concierge service provider and he said to me if you pay me a thousand Euros I can get you into the best parties! I saw everything, and it occurred to me that a lot of people go to Cannes, maybe 60% of attendees go to the festival to see the stars, to party with the stars, to buy films. There is a lot of business being done, a lot of activities being done outside of watching the films and having discussions.
So I wanted to do that because in our own part of the world, we had not understood how film festivals worked. When I came back, I did our timelines and half was party, half was for work. The team was like, what? But I knew exactly what was trying to do.
I remember that in the first, second and third years, people would come back and say there were no parties like an AFFRIF parties. our parties were that good and that got me going. Of course, there are haters, (which I love because you know they put your name out there), who would say to some of our sponsors “oh that’s just a big party,” not knowing what was behind it or what I was trying to get. And as at the last festival, we did not even pay for one party, they were all paid for, all sponsored! We don’t pay for them anymore and we have one every night, sponsors and industry players now understand the role that these parties play.
And then, have the closing ceremony, which is where I still need funding because it gulps a lot of money. And it is a great night for me because we honour deserving people with awards. People say to me “why don’t we see this person or that person there,” like the big names and I say it is a celebration for the industry, that’s their night. I always try to make it all inclusive and you can only keep trying. The sponsors are there, interested parties are there and most importantly, half the industry, half Africa industry are there and for me I like to keep it that way.
In terms of the feedback that you get from the industry, people you are doing this for so to say, how is that, are you happy with it? You bring everybody – let’s say Nigeria because it is the Nigerian industry essentially that ultimately benefits from this, whether people come from anywhere in the world, Nigerians learn more. So for the industry in Nigeria even for the tourist essence – people that you bring into the country, it’s a lot that is being done for Nigeria.
I hardly get negative vibes. I really don’t. I always welcome criticisms and positive change, so I will ask people to tell me what they think. Sometimes, I get very harsh criticisms, some of them, I will try to explain while others are just basic hitches that events of this magnitude encounter everywhere in the world. But the industry sessions are great, people love the people attend, and I think more than less people are very happy.
So do you feel accomplished?
No, not yet at all, I think like I haven’t scratched the surface.
Can you share some of your plans?
I tell you something, every year, you have all these great movies and wonderful shots from all over Africa that people never get to see may because they don’t have vibrant cinemas like Nigeria. So, I came up with something, for all the shots submitted in the festival, I am going to choose the best of the best. So, let’s say I choose a thousand and I put it on a platform and after six months, I’m going to flip the back-end of this and I’m going to show you how many people watched your film. And then, I am going to fund the best 30 directors to do features for me. I have just started working on that. I have sent out letters and I am getting positive responses.
We have started a company called the Envivo Communications, basically a content delivery network. We will partner with Cisco systems which hasn’t had the opportunity to have a CDN in Africa until now. They gave me a huge $3.8m rebate and I paid close to $2m for this content delivery network which we are trying to get running now because I am launching it in Cannes in May. The two apps that will go on mass delivery network will be education (where I believe the country has a huge problem) and entertainment. These are areas where I see gaps that I know I can fill for the development of the country. A movie does not have to stay two weeks in the cinema, it can stay one year before it’s taken out altogether. I’m going to be doing original productions so I’m going to be commissioning for films, I have already selected some of the directors that will be working with me and I have already bought at least twelve new films. But entertainment will start after education takes off. So, for education I have already started signing my clients and when it takes off I will have a community we can put entertainment on for free.
Training is your passion, but you mentioned education now. Do you mean not restricted to people in the entertainment industry? Like educating of the Nigerian child, just enlightening Nigerians?
Yes, its education for a lot of people, there will be a lot of continued training with education courses and technological courses on it. I don’t want to talk too much on it because I have not launched it.
When we started talking about AFFRIF, you talked about training being a burden on your heart, why is it so?
A lot of people out of Nigeria enquire about the film industry and their focus will continue to be on the quality of technical workers or the actors and if you don’t have that, we will keep running around in circles. So, how do we get that? We needed and still need to train people even though I knew from the outset this wasn’t something to make money from. Since we started, I have heard some great, great stories of the impact we have made, which I hope to be able to put together one day. People send me emails I don’t even know who they are, I don’t remember their names. We send people to places for training and they come back to tell of how much they gained and go on to become the best in that same area. It is part of the reasons that children of wealthy people in the country can now come into the industry. So training is key! Back then everything was – “I can do it, let me do it but there is so much more to it and that gap is what we say we must fill.
You sense a lacuna in capacity in the industry, in eight years now going nine, are you happy with the quality of training you have initiated and the results?
Yes, I am very happy. You know sometimes, I have found out that it is beyond the training, it’s also the exposure. Most of the people that travelled hadn’t traveled before then, they got to travel. I started a new programme, a school where I am partnering with the French. I will start with training until we build the school. So my partners have a programme where they send children to different countries in the world during summer so they that we can understand different ways people make films. This would make co-production seamless. The globe is getting smaller and smaller, and so it must get smaller with other things too. Last year we had the first set, we had five countries participate. The children that won during the festival went to Finland, Burkina Faso, France, my students don’t stay in Nigeria, those other countries come here. I didn’t get a sponsor for it last year because it was a new programme so we had to do it ourselves. But we still succeeded in doing it and all these students came to Nigeria, it was amazing. This year they’ve added more countries, they are going to Myanmar, Italy, Poland, France, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. This exchange programme exposes them to the way things are done elsewhere.
What did you do that made you get the kind of support you have gotten, because it’s tough in Nigeria?
I tell you what, if you give me hundred million for the film festival, I will spend hundred and ten, it’s just who I am when I’m passionate about something. It got so bad that our sponsors in the bank even noticed. I didn’t realise that they monitor the accounts. Last year, the MD of a bank got up and he says this is what they discovered we had spent more money than the total sponsorship we got for the festival so that gives us credibility. We have recently got an offer to come back to Port Harcourt for the next four years. That is, because people can see that I give it my all. The truth is you must have other means of livelihood if you want to do things the best. Sponsors must see that you are really carrying their brand. We do our best to see that the brands get the best from their investment beyond putting the names up there. I give opportunities… just different things, I think that’s my nature and I think it’s because I studied Marketing. But that’s just who I am. I am not saying other people don’t earn it, I’m just talking about me.
I know you didn’t start with entertainment, did you ever envisaged that you were going to be here at some point?
No, I never did but I tell you what, whenever my maternal uncle sees me he reminds me of something that happened when I was little. Apparently, when I was very young maybe eight or nine, he came to the house one day and asked “Chioma have you filled your form for the federal school, which school do you want to go to?” And I said I wanted to go very far. We had this calendar in the house which had different women. I mean every month has a different woman and the heroic things they achieved but I was always stuck on Queen Amina. I think she was on the first page, with her spear. It was a really cool picture, with all these men behind her I knew I wanted to go to Queen Amina College. So from very young I knew I wanted to be a leader of men, you can put it in very plain language that way. And so when they asked me which federal school I wanted to go to, I didn’t know where Zaria was, but I thought it was really far and I wanted to go to Zaria.
I have a love for movies and even now, I don’t go out much. I could be in my house all weekend and be excited because I know I will go to Netflix and chill. So I had a love for movies regardless, and I had a love for Queen Amina, I wanted to be that Queen Amina on a horse with her spear with a throng of men behind her.