For Thomas Oyolo, the journey into film has been riddled with challenges. The now famous face on local Kenyan television, prides himself on being a screen darling back in his rural home, where, he says, he is accorded celebrity status.
Yet for many filmmakers in Kenya, finding the secret to marketing productions and having a chance to reap back the rewards, is a puzzle not solved.
Oyolo says that he produces and markets his own productions in his rural home and some of the series and movies are doing very well, especially the ones in local languages. For Oyolo, making his movies, duplicating them and distributing them by hand is the only way he can satisfy his market and it currently works for him.
Now these tiny specks of success across the country are defining filmmaking in Kenya. Yet there is little headway in terms of local content on the big screen or a proper film industry.
Technology also seems to be a disadvantage to film producers too, as easily accessible pirated copies of international and local films have made producers shy away from the mass market distribution of DVDs.
So, how can tech be used to promote and protect the industry in Kenya?
Technology in production
Some years ago, it was unimaginable for local film producers to have a 35mm film camera, which was the standard in shooting high quality movies and music videos. In fact, the high cost of hiring such equipment made the idea of internationally “accepted” production in Kenya farfetched.
Joan Kabugu, a local film producer in Kenya, explains that now technology offers other gadgets that can make quality filmmaking a reality for producers. She tells IDG Connect:
“The fact that the world is slowly embracing digital filmmaking increases Kenya’s capacity in producing film at slightly lower costs than we would with 35mm film.”
Ms Kabugu can attest to this fact as she has been able to film and edit most of her work with the low cost but high quality digital equipment. Editing software is also becoming accessible for most film producers.
“Professional equipment is now available and our quality can match standards set by the rest of the world. Filming in high definition has made the picture quality superior [and] good quality cameras are also locally available,” adds Kabugu.
“In other aspects such as post production, editors have also upgraded their systems and films don’t have to be taken abroad. A couple of locally edited films have been enjoyed beyond borders, a good example being Ndoto za Elibidi edited by Carole Gikandi, which won awards all around the world.”
Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, has thrived on the basis of available and accessible technology. As the story goes, in the late 1980s the film theatre business was dying. Yet the mass importation of blank video cassettes and availability of cameras opened an immense opportunity. This was made real when the movie, Living in Bondage became a huge hit with home viewers.
Other producers soon joined the fray and an industry was quickly born. Currently the movie industry produces close to 1,000 films per year. The industry is valuated at US$250 million a year.
Technology in distribution
Distribution is probably the biggest headache for most film producers. In a country where the ecosystem is not fully fledged, distribution has become the end of the road for many projects.
The film theatre industry in Kenya has for many years lost its appeal. In fact many former movie theatres in Nairobi have been closed, turned into casinos or churches.
But when IMAX opened its doors in Nairobi two years ago, the theatre business got a boost and thousands now flock to see three dimensional (3D) movies with high quality sound. Since then, other premier movie screening halls have opened up in classy malls such as the Planet Media Cinemasearlier this year.
But this is still not a viable option for many local producers. Many filmmakers have to make their debut in small, local film festivals.
“Kenyan festivals have not reached desired standards,” says Kabugu. “The yearly Kenya International Film Festival needs to upgrade and reach acclaimed status like its counterpart Zanzibar International Film Festival and Durban International Film Festival.”
With availability of quality projectors, movie producers need to think beyond offering the services to urban folk. Simple indoor or outdoor screenings of productions in rural areas would provide opportunities to expand the industry.
Technology in consumption
A huge chunk of entertainment is consumed through home units such as the DVD. The majority of these DVDs are pirated. This is a huge hurdle for film producers.
In fact this vice is so rampant that even in one of the opening scenes of Kenya’s flagship movies,Nairobi Half Life, the main character is seen selling DVDs in his village. It is widely assumed these are pirated work.
But things are changing fast. Long awaited digital broadcasting will dictate new ways to consume content. Already, headway is being made on video on demand (VOD) services in Africa and especially Kenya. VOD services allow consumers to watch their favourite television series and movies at any time, on any device, through the use of the internet.
Nigeria’s blockbuster service, IrokoTV has launched in East Africa, basing its operations out of Kigali, Rwanda to take advantage of the internet developments in the region. Aflix an American based company has also launched its services in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria.
“VOD platforms such as BuniTV could be the future of distribution. Broadcasters such as Mnet and Zuku are also in the distribution chain. They are keen on buying content and commissioning films to be produced yearly. This is definitely a plus for the filmmaking business,” Kabugu says.
The thirst and hunger for local production has seen pay-per-view channels such as DSTv produce original programmes, which are relevant in the market they operate in.
“With the digital age of film we are likely to see more films coming out of Kenya,” Kabugu concludes. “This will definitely make commercial sense for the industry and for filmmakers will most likely start to earn a fair amount of income from their films.”