In February, a high-profile team of Netflix executives including chief content officer, Ted Sarandos visited Lagos to meet with filmmakers and potential partners. The streaming platform took the opportunity to activate the Netflix Naija Twitter account as well as announce details of the first Nigerian original series. Days later, the Netflix team including Dorothy Ghettuba, manager, African original series and Ben Amadasun, director Africa co-production and acquisitions were in Johannesburg for the launch of Queen Sono, the very first African original series.
If all of these engagements hinted at an international streaming platform outlining plans of investing heavily on the continent, more was soon to come. Months later, Netflix doubled down on Nigeria, announcing a partnership with Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife studios to bring to the screens a pipeline of content including an adaptation of the popular Lola Shoneyin book, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Then there was the lavish Made by Africans, Watched by the World media campaign that highlighted some of the African creatives that have partnered with Netflix along the years.
Amidst this flurry of activity, we had some to meet up with two of the executives responsible for delivering on Netflix’s Africa strategy. Kenyan filmmaker Dorothy Ghettuba is a co-founder of the Nairobi-based Spielworks Media. Prior to joining Netflix’s originals team in March last year, she had produced television series such as Lies that Bind, Saints and Higher Learning.
Originally from Nigeria, Ben Amadasun has worked in several countries as a media executive. Before he joined Netflix, Amadasun was the senior vice president and CEO of Econet’s Kwese Free TV. His current role is to maintain key partnerships while driving licensing strategy across the continent.
What is the Netflix engagement with Nollywood going to look like going forward? Dorothy and Ben fill us in on the blank spaces.
Shortly before the worldwide lockdown, you and some other Netflix executives including Ted Sarandos were on a mini tour of the Africa region. What were the most important things you learned from this tour and how do you plan to apply this to your work going forward?
It was an exciting time visiting our partners in Nigeria and South Africa and to do this with our chief content officer Ted (Sarandos). It was just great to meet them and to say, we are here. To have a physical presence and say we hear you, we know you have exciting stories and we are here to help you tell them. Now one of the most important things we did is we met the talents. That was truly important for us and we also realized there was palpable excitement and a strong appetite particularly in Nigeria for Netflix arriving in Africa and Netflix shows being broadcast across Africa.
The other thing for us is it was an opportunity for us to listen to people in those markets, our creative partners, new voices just to get a sense of how they feel about working with Netflix going forward and how they see the future of the industry as a whole. So that was a great opportunity to learn as much as possible from our colleagues in the creative industry.
I like that you say you were listening. What were they saying to you? What are the most pressing issues especially concerning Nigerian film and Nollywood and how is this relationship going to go forward?
We listened and what we heard was that Nollywood is a powerful industry with amazing players and we said yes, we hear you and we are happy to be part of this journey. We also heard about the importance of local Nigerian content. The creatives wanted the opportunity to be able to produce best in class stories.
I am Nigerian and we know that we are very vocal about our views. In some of the meetings, we got great feedback and insights about how we can grow the market. In Nigeria they wanted us to have a bigger marketing presence on the ground, that was quite recurrent. They wanted us to ensure we have a variety of voices in what we are acquiring which is something that we are doing anyway and they wanted to make sure that we have lots of different genres because I recall people asking about our thoughts on kids and animation and family programming. We had interesting, open meetings and we are definitely looking at all those areas. We started the Twitter handle @NetflixNaija and we are working hard to grow our presence.
One of the things we discussed was capacity building and the importance of partnering with local storytellers to do so. We took that messaging with us and we will be working with our partners and Nollywood for that.
Are the details quite clear yet, this capacity building programs?
It is a work in progress but I believe when we have something concrete we will be able to share it with you.
Ben in terms of licensing, conversations with Nollywood filmmakers reveal that they are being paid some of the lowest rates compared to their peers on the continent. Is this true?
It is a question we get a lot from producers. What we do not only in Nigeria but across the other markets we are working on especially from a licensing perspective is that we basically pay market rates. That is to say, what makes sense for that particular market. We know the markets that is why we have professionals like myself and Dorothy who come from the regions. We reflect what these rates are and what the value is to us as a business. That is how we approach these different markets.
So it isn’t blanket rates obtainable across all the African countries.
It is all to do with the individual content.
What do I need to do to have my content excite you, so I can get an offer that is on the higher end?
Quality is important. Ability to travel. Ben I’ll let you continue.
Thank you, Dorothy. Great stories that can travel are coming out of Africa so for us we look at so many different aspects of the content coming from countries. We want to make sure that these stories can engage in local markets as well as travel internationally. We want to make sure the quality standards are quite strong in terms of production values. That is very important to us.
Dorothy, between Lionheart and the untitled Akin Omotoso project coming up, there hasn’t been much happening in Nigeria in terms of commissioning original content. What is up?
What is up is we are telling stories. You do appreciate the fact that the journey from script to screen takes some time and I joined the originals team to be able to help with this and to lead with this. We are making great progress. We have signed on with the Akin Omotoso project. We recently announced a collaboration with Mo Abudu. There is also more great news that we will be sharing in the future and as you know, we are doing some work. We are truly invested in Nigeria and we know this is something we want to do, so you will see more shows coming out definitely. And as you can see Ben has been buying more titles. What I can tell you is this is just the beginning for us and loads of exciting things are coming.
Ben, there’s been a spree of licensing Nollywood content of recent. I am curious, what has the reception been like on the back end and according to your data? How are people engaging with Nollywood content, in Nigeria and in international markets?
Obviously, we can’t share details of the back end but what we are doing is making sure that a very large volume of the best quality Nigerian content is available to the market across Africa and the rest of the world. We are getting favorable feedback, very good reviews from different parts of the world. In terms of how it resonates, we can see that there is a lot of engagement with some of the content, so things are looking good from a licensing point of view. I think since the last one year, having the bigger expanded catalog has been received very positively and it has been good for Nollywood.
I can tell you that people are loving it. without getting into detail like Ben said. What we are seeing is that folks are loving it.
We say Nollywood a lot but it doesn’t quite cover the entirety of the industry. There are films that fall outside the Nollywood umbrella and choose to take the international festival route. Are you interested in that kind of content?
You mentioned Lionheart earlier which was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). We look for best in class content.
We have so many creators from different countries and bringing their stories forward is very important in terms of how we capture the lives and experiences of Africans on screen. We look at what comes when they do. Understand that we always want a diversity of content represented on the service so if there is a festival film that comes in, we would consider that as there is some great content that comes from that area.
Dorothy, Queen Sono and Blood & Water are wildly different, one is a sexy spy thriller, the other a sexy young adult drama. But there is also a connecting thread in that they both deal with contemporary South African issues. What kind of original content excites you and your team and will make you pull out the contracts?
What excites me is writers and storytellers who have a very clear point of view of the story they want to tell. I want to work with creators who are passionate about their stories and more importantly, people must be interested in these stories. We want to create a diverse range of content which is why Queen Sono, a spy thriller exists alongside the Akin Omotoso project which is a completely different genre. Blood & Water is a YA series, we announced JIVA! which is a dance drama, and Mama K’s Team 4, an animated project. What I am trying to say is we have many viewers who have diverse tastes and what we are trying to do is satisfy these tastes. And that is what we will do with our Nigerian stories as well, entertain as many people as possible.
Netflix is doing something that perhaps hasn’t been attempted before especially on this scale, an international company working from the ground to tell stories made by Africans for the world. Does it excite you and is it part of the draw for you?
Definitely. Netflix is interested in telling stories from the inside out. For a while, our stories have been told from the outside in but now we have the agency and the power to tell stories from our perspective. That it itself is very exciting as the rest of the world gets to watch and learn what it means to be African. Chimamanda did speak about the danger of a single story and Netflix recognizes the diversity of stories and cultures on the continent. We get to be part of the process, it is truly exciting.
I imagine it is a lot of work engaging with filmmakers from a continent with 54 countries. How do you break your engagement into tiny accessible and actionable bits?
It is a lot. But one of the things that we do is we listen. As we approach every single country we listen and we learn and we improve, rapidly. We know that the markets and people and cultures are different so we work at creating relationships with the storytellers and production partners. Our partners are the ones who know the market and they teach us. So that really is our approach. Every single project is its own unique experience filled with different lessons for us.
We are able to work with creatives from all parts of Africa. On the licensing side, we have bought content from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa. We have been able to work with producers that have strong track records in those markets, proven execution ability to make sure that the great stories can resonate.
If you are engaging with the Genevieves, the Mo Abudus, Akin Omotosos, what are the chances that younger, unknown creators who also have compelling ideas will be able to get through? How do you ensure they do not slip through the cracks?
We get so many submissions from all parts of the creative industry. Producers, distributors, other broadcasters, there is a multitude of sources where content comes from. When we think the story is strong and our audiences can engage, then we consider it.
When a film is labelled an original, how involved is Netflix in the film’s life cycle?
For originals we come in at the very beginning. Some ideas can be in the pitch, idea or script format. What is always important like I said is that the story is strong and has the ability for viewers to watch and enjoy. Our style is a partnership. We work hand in hand with our creative and production partners. They are the experts across regions and genres so all we do is facilitate and help provide an environment that they can produce in the best way they can. We are involved from the beginning but they have the total creative freedom to tell the stories that they want to tell which is why it is important to us that they are very clear about the story they want to tell ab initio. Another thing I can tell you is that when we are working with our partners and looking at the shows, authenticity is very important to us. What we do as a global company is we give them the tools and resources to be able to put their work in front of audiences. That is the value that we have.
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.