State of Kenyan film industry

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Lauded as perhaps Africa’s greatest export, Lion Heart has captured the imagination of audiences all over the world.

The first all-African production to be bought by Netflix, the feature film has received raving reviews from New York Times, Los Angeles Times and numerous news outlets across the world.

Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Netfilix is said to have paid $3.8 million (Sh380million) to acquire it before its release. Its success has led many to ask when we shall see one of ours climb the same heights and fly the Kenyan flag on the global screens.

Online streaming services have levelled the playing field for film makers from all over the world by expanding distribution. To attract subscribers from all over the world, platforms are increasingly investing in local content from various parts of the world.

The entry of Netflix into the African market is a signal of greater things to come, but how ready is the Kenyan film industry for the world stage.

“We have a lot of great content, Veve is already on Netflix and there are many more that should be considered,” Pitcha Clear Director Andrew Gakinya, said.

“Some of our local films are just as good as Lion heart, in fact World Tofauti (a Kenyan production) has a better concept; Lion Heart is just a Naija movie without witches, but Nigerians are really good at hyping things.”

The content creator believes that a lack of team of work and corporate investment continue to hold back local films. It takes a village to put together a film and, in the absence of a budget, players often volunteer to make the dream come true.

By the time it was being launched, Lion heart was three years in the making; with about one year of scripting, another planning the shoot, a month to shoot and a year in post-production. Though the team was not willing to divulge the full cost of the film, they described it as a passion project that deviated from the traditional Naija movie format to create globally relatable content.

“Lupita is a product of the Kenyan film industry, Shuga put her on the world space,” Andrew explained. “We have the cast and crew required but unfortunately people are not always ready to invest their time unless there’s a budget.”

Ken Waudo is part of Laugh Industries, the production team behind east Africa’s most successful show, “Churchil Show”.

According to him, Kenyan film quality is well above that of its African peers, which is its Achilles heel. The high budgets involved means that film makers are often at the behest of funding bodies, who often have a more humanitarian motive and not mass appeal.

It is for this reason that many Kenyan films make headlines at film festivals and other professional gatherings, but are virtually unknown at home. In contrast, Naija makes many cheap movies which flood the market and with time have gained massive grass roots appeal. He said:

“Our productions are heavily marketed abroad but very little is done locally, but a few people are already doing their own thing even though the results are yet to be seen. We have the best actors, cinematographers, directors and producers, we just need to market our content better. If we made more noise, we would have more Lion Hearts from Kenya, I encourage Netflix to scout for more productions from Kenya. ”

Possibly the most embattled film makers of Africa, Kenyan players have perpetually complained of government interference.

From stringent licensing, prohibitive regulations that make filming expensive, to a film classification board that has banned several local productions.

Despite these hurdles, film makers continue to churn out impressive Kenyan content that has garnered several awards and mentions.

Even Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o managed to bag an Oscar in 2014, and is one of the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood. Though popular and commercially successful, Nigerian movies struggle to win international awards.

David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga has been leading the charge, directing and producing several projects, including the highly acclaimed full feature film, Nairobi Half Life.

Last year he collaborated with various industry players to produce, Disconnect, a film that caused a big buzz in the local industry. He says:

“In East Africa, we struggle to look at film as a serious business. Nigerians adore and consume their own so that makes it commercially viable. We used to laugh at Naija films because they were shady, but they kept at it and kept improving quality to the point that Netflix has taken notice.”

In his estimation, high quality products don’t have a lot of value if not consumed. He admits that Kenyan movies are primarily made for festivals because of the dictates of sponsors.

Nonetheless, various filmmakers continue to produce passion projects with the hope of breaking the mould. The Nigerian strategy to produce low quality but highly popular films seems to be working.

Mass appeal and commercial success has attracted investment which in turn is increasing quality. He holds that a concerted effort to market film, not just in Kenya but across the continent, needs to be made.

With a population of over 1 billion, the African audience would provide a ripe market for Pan-African movies which would easily rival Hollywood. Sighting cultural similarities as a common ground, Tosh is optimistic that Africa is ready for African films.

“I have pitched to Netflix thinking I have the best film they have ever seen and they didn’t even butt an eyelid,” he says “The kind of submissions they get is humbling; people are doing incredible work and we have to compete with the best in the world to secure a spot. Don’t think that you will come up with an idea now and present it to Netflix next week a decent script takes at least a year and another two at production.”