Charles Uwagbai is a Nigerian filmmaker and the brain behind some of Nollywood’s blockbuster movies like “Esohe, Okoro the prince”, “The ghost and the tout”, “Brother Jekwu”, “The Black Silhouette” among others.
PREMIUM TIMES caught up with him at his Lagos office where he shared some of the intricacies of his industry and the business of filmmaking in Nigeria.
PT: Is filmmaking all you have always wanted to do?
Charles: Oh yes. Filmmaking is all I have always wanted to do. I started making films, rather, I shot my first film in 2010, a movie, an epic called “Okoro the prince.” The late Sam Loko starred in that movie as well. Alex Osifo and a host of other stars were in the film. But before then, I’ve been involved in other projects, other films. I started out in the music industry, shot music videos, TV commercials before I ventured into Nollywood.
PT: Most of your films tend to have a traditional Edo feel to them. Is this intentional?
Charles: I am very true to my Edo and Nigerian roots and most of my films are very original and relatable. Our culture is what makes us unique as Nigerians. I connect with what make us Nigerians in terms of how we speak right down to our costumes.
PT: What makes a good film, in your opinion?
Charles: A good storyline makes a good film because it is what connects to the audience. When I am contracted to direct a film I take a good look at the script first. If the script is not good, we have to work on it again to make it perfect. Then after that, we can talk about casting and budget and all of that. Sometimes, when writing a script, I have a particular character that I know will bring my characters to life.
PT: Some Nollywood films tend to do better than Hollywood films at the cinemas lately. Does this have anything to do with the quality or hype?
Charles: Well, it has a lot to do with the cast you parade in the film as well as the quality of production. The first things you observe, as a film maker, is whom your target market is when producing a movie.
Toyin Aihmaku, for instance has a very unique and loyal fan base. So, if Toyin is going to make a film for the English speaking (posh) audience it may not appeal to all her fans. She is aware that a lot of her fans are normal everyday people so she can’t make a “James Bond’’ movie for instance because she wants to trend.
So you have to ask yourself, who are your audience, are you satisfying your audience? If you are satisfying your audience, then you will automatically have a successful film. So, bearing that in mind, you have to know who are the people that look out for your films and the best medium that you can reach them on.
PT: You also shoot TV commercials alongside films. Which do you find most rewarding?
Charles: The shooting for the corporate world is more interesting than Nollywood because the money lies in the former. You know, Nollywood is just my passion.
PT: Are you saying that there are filmmakers that are not really making it?
Charles: Well, I can only speak for myself. For me, I’ll say that there is money in Nollywood, because some movies have made it at the box office and outside of box office.
PT: So people really buy movies outside of the cinemas?
Charles: Yes, people buy outside of box office; they buy online. If the industries aren’t profitable we wont have an influx every single day.
PT: So the bulk of the money comes from online sales? How about the people that live in the suburbs?
Charles: They have their own market as well, people still buy DVDs but it’s for certain movies. That is why it is the duty of the filmmaker to properly target the various audiences while casting by featuring faces that appeal to certain parts of the country.
PT: So, if you have to shoot a film to target Owerri or Asaba audience what will you do right?
Charles: First of all, I know that the movie needs to have a lot of actors who speak Igbo or are Igbos. I’m already thinking about what will sell in the east and the kind of story they want to see.
PT: What kind of stories sell better in eastern Nigeria?
Charles: I think human angle and aspiration stories will do better. The Igbo man is someone that wants to strive to make it in life. So, I’ll be looking at stories that about how a poor man toiled hard to become rich at the end of the day.
PT: Then when you want to shoot for the cinema or the Lagos audience what would you do differently?
Charles: When you want to shoot for cinema, you should be talking glamorous or shooting a star-studded film that is either all about romance or comedy.
PT: What are the areas you think some of your colleagues need to work on?
Charles: First of all, you need to identify where you want to sell your movie and how you can make it a success. This is why you see that some movies feature Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo casts. It is deliberate, and you need to be able to balance the choice of cast in any movie. You also need to know where you plan to sell your movie and also shoot your movie for the right time. The truth is that you can’t target every type of audience in a movie. This is why while some people are tearing a movie down others are applauding it. The bottom line remains that you need to know whom you want to capture in your film and make sure you satisfy your audience.
PT: Lately, I see a number of Hausa actors feature in Nollywood. Have you thought about shooting a movie that will appeal to Northerners?
Charles: I think some people have tried to shoot movies up north but I’ve not really done any movie. I’m not so familiar with their culture that is why I haven’t attempted to go up north. But I always strive to put a few of Kannywood stars in my cinema films because I know that it would appeal to their fans up north. In my latest movie, “The Washer Man” for example, I featured five northerners in the film because I know that I’m going to sell out up north.
PT: How have you managed to remain relevant in your industry despite the entrance of many foreign-trained filmmakers into your industry?
Charles: Okay, I think what has kept me going is my humility, even while on set. Then, consistency is also very important, you can’t make one film today and make another one in five year time and think people will remember you. You have to keep churning out quality films frequently.
I was taught at film school to shoot whenever I want to shoot. Basically, if you have a camera, just shoot. You don’t have to wait till you have the best camera in the world to shoot.
Filmmaking is typically storytelling; you just have to tell a story with what you have. If you can’t tell a story with your phone, I wonder what you are going to do when you are given a big camera.
PT: Funding remains a big issue for many filmmakers. How do you fund your projects?
Charles: I am self-funded most of the time and sometimes I am lucky to have investors.
PT: Do you get your return on investments?
Charles: I have been lucky in this regard. With my film, Esohe, released in January, we made a lot of money from it. We toured 10 cities in the U.S. and the movie showed in box office as well and we did other releases and it has made impact, no regret.
PT: Have pirates also dealt with you yet?
Charles: I’ve not been hit directly by piracy and I pray not to experience it. This is why I handle my post-production myself.
PT: What peculiar challenges do you face as a filmmaker?
Charles: Power is a major issue as it eats a large chunk of our budget. Also, actors demanding much more than I can offer, especially when I probably have a budget I want to work with. And because you know that if you pump in so much money into a film, you might not get it back.
The audience also is a big challenge as well. They won’t buy original movies, and they won’t go to the cinemas to watch movies yet they keep complaining that our movies are of low quality. Yet when you pump in money, they wait for movies to come out so that they can buy it on the street.
PT: How do you manage egos of actors on set?
Charles: You try to be as friendly as possible with everybody and I don’t shout on set.
PT: I hear that some actors make really crazy demands on set. Have you ever experienced such?
Charles: Yes, I have.
PT: What is the craziest demand?
Charles: Some ask for ridiculous things that they can’t afford on their own. Like they want to fly business class, they insist on being lodged in a five star hotel or wearing only designer clothes on set.
PT: How much does it cost to shoot a Nollywood movie?
Charles: That’s a big question to ask because its largely dependent on the location and type of film. You really can’t peg a figure to it. You can however shoot a normal basic film between N4m to N10m.
PT: Then the ones shot for cinemas?
Charles: They cost a lot more because even the marketing budgeting at times goes for millions of naira. It can cost as much as N100m and as low as N20m.
PT: In what areas do you think the current administration can assist Nigerian filmmakers?
Charles: I think we need more grants and soft loans for filmmakers and an enabling environment for us to thrive.