LONG READ: How The Wedding Party became the biggest critical and commercial Nollywood success story

by Wilfred Okiche

On Boxing Day, Hafiz, 32, felt like a visit to the movies with his fiancé. They headed to the Silverbird Cinemas at the Ikeja City Mall. They both wanted to see The Wedding Party, the star-studded Nollywood romantic comedy directed by Kemi Adetiba. Apparently so did everybody else.

Hafiz and fiancé braved the record numbers of people that thronged Lagos’ largest mall complex only to discover at the box office stand that tickets for the afternoon and evening showings of The Wedding Party had been sold out. They reluctantly decided to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story instead, and made a mental note to purchase the next day’s tickets in advance.

On 28, December, Shola, 28 and her friends headed to Filmhouse cinemas in Surulere hoping to finally catch a screening of The Wedding Party. They had been hearing so much about the film. To make it this time, Shola had to leave her toddler over at her parents. No such luck as The Wedding Party tickets were sold out for the day. Would she fancy a late night screening, to commence at 11pm, the attendant queried. Hell no, not with an eleven-month-old baby at home. They saw Assassins Creed instead.

Mo Abudu, the media mogul who serves as one of the producers of The Wedding Party tied all of these incidences together when she posted on her Instagram page, box office returns of 21.5Million Naira on Boxing Day alone. Add to this, the previous total since the 16, December release, and the earnings hit North of 120million Naira. With The Wedding Party still playing strong over the holiday period, it is now quite reasonable to expect that at the end of its run, the ensemble romantic comedy should eclipse AY Makun’s A Trip to Jamaica as both the highest grossing film of 2016 and the biggest money maker in Nollywood ever.

If the former doesn’t happen because of the limited time frame,- only one day is left till the end of 2016, – then the latter is all but assured as The Wedding Party is proving to have legs and should play well into the new year, following in the cross over tradition of 2015’s Fifty, another huge production masterminded by Mo Abudu.

Team of rivals

The Wedding Party was announced earlier in the year as a blockbuster collaboration between the ELFIKE film collective, a formidable creative team that comprises Abudu’s EbonyLife films, Kene Mkparu’s Filmone, Inkblot productions and Koga Studios founded by the late Chris Jeyibo. If ever there was a Nigerian tent pole production, The Wedding Party is what such a concept looks like for now.

All of these powerhouses represent singularly, some of the biggest and most strategically positioned companies in the film industry and they all brought a unique skill set to the table. EbonyLife Films has waded into the waters of television film production but broke the bank with Fifty, the Biyi Bandele directed study of middle-aged Nigerian urban women. Filmone is perhaps the biggest and trendiest film distribution company in country presently and has helped distribute relatively successful titles such as When Love Happens and Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo.

The guys of Inkblot aren’t even smiling as they work round the clock to bring cutting edge scripted television content to new audiences. See their work with director Niyi Akinmolayan on the sexy sizzler, The Arbitration and last year’s flashy but ultimately underwhelming Out of Luck. Plus the founders have expertise and background in financing. Koga owns a state of art production studio and with it, almost any kind of equipment that can be useful to a production on the anticipated scale of The Wedding Party. The studio had also invested in the romantic drama The Visit starring Nse Ikpe-Etim and Femi Jacobs.

Thus it made sense that these four big guns, who were each behind four of the highest grossing films of 2015 (Fifty, Taxi Driver, Out of Luck and The Visit) pool resources together for a big budget spectacle. With an estimated budget of 60million Naira, this collaboration became imperative.

Mo Abudu, with her propensity to show ‘’the other side’’ of Africa (Read: upper-class Lagos) on film and promote a feminist agenda at the same time, sold the team her story idea and suggested Kemi Adetiba who had previously never made a film to direct.

There were initial reservations to handing the reins of a 60million naira production to an untested person, never mind that her name had become synonymous with quality music videos but Adetiba impressed the partners enough with her fighting spirit and willingness to make things happen.

Adetiba and Tosin Otudeko (Heartbeat the Musical) sat down to develop the script and after several drafts and rewrites, were ready to shoot. Due to the nature of the story and the fluidity of the cast involved, the screenplay was quite dynamic, undergoing several changes at various periods. The scene, about midway into the film, where the bride and groom’s families argue outside the hall on who gets to dance in first is an example.

During one of the workshops, Adetiba, ever in the search for comic moments, suggested both families argue on who goes first. It was made clear to her that traditionally, the bride’s family is called up first but she persevered, looking for how to make comic sense out of the setup.

Adetiba recalled in an interview with Blackfilm.com, ‘’But that’s why the fight is there. They (both families) find a way that they’re both fighting about who dances into the wedding reception first. So we definitely had to fact check tradition, but then we didn’t allow that to weigh us down if you understand what I mean. We used that to our advantage to have more comedy moments.’’

Casting was mostly an open call and the filmmakers insist that Adesua Etomi, Sola Sobowale and even Banky W were all part of an open casting call process. Don Omope, Creative Director of Filmone recalls while speaking with Omenkaonline, ‘’The casting was a big battle, so Kemi (Adetiba), Mo Abudu, Naz (Onuzo) and I led. Banky W was the best male on the audition, Adesua killed it.’’

Adetiba concurs, ‘’ Yes. For Banky it’s actually his first film. He also auditioned. Banky had one or two… Banky just came in and knocked it out of the park. No one had to say anything, it was just like yep! It’s Banky.’’

Sola Sobowale who accomplished the very special task of stealing the film from the impressive cast as the dramatic mother of the bride, Tinuade Coker, has already narrated her casting process on her Instagram page. In an appreciation message to Kemi Adetiba, Sobowale recalled how her daughter/manager informed her of the casting process and railroaded her into showing up for it even though Sobowale had two pending jobs on her plate.

She arrived the venue of the auditions, but without her eye glasses and could not read all the lines clearly. She decided to make it up as she went along and to her delight, her audition was a hit. In her telling, ‘’During the audition, I just remember seeing a lady, full of excitement, joy and eagerness. It was like she couldn’t wait for the auditions to be over. She had already made her mind up at that spot, making me the Tinuade Coker that you all love today. That lady was the beautiful @kemiadetiba.’’

But there were some names they wanted, and badly too. The team had to rearrange dates and schedules to accommodate AY’s cameo appearance. Richard Mofe-Damijo, Ireti Doyle,- who was at the time, recently bereaved,- and comedian Ali Baba all said yes too, capping off a very tedious process that mixed veterans with Internet sensations, and comedians with dramatic actors.

Hello Toronto

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest in the world. Unlike Cannes and Sundance, it is directly related to the Oscars campaign as its September placement usually announces the commencement of Hollywood’s awards season. The King’s Speech, Argo and 12 Years a Slave are just some recent films to be screened at Toronto. They all went on to receive Best Picture Oscars.

For 2016, Lagos was chosen as the TIFF’s City to City spotlight after festival director Cameron Bailey made a fact-finding journey to Nigeria. London, Mumbai and Seoul are cities that have benefitted from this spotlight. The Wedding Party was chosen alongside seven other Nollywood titles to fly the flag for Nigeria.

According to Omope, The Wedding Party’s journey to Toronto started at the 2015 Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCAs) where South African filmmaker, Akin Omotosho expressed interest in Taxi Driver and sent the trailer to his pal, Cameron Bailey. Bailey in turn asked to see the complete film and on his visit to Nigeria, urged the producers to ready the film in time for September. They did and The Wedding Party was chosen as the opening film for the City to City showcase.

At Toronto, reviews for The Wedding Party were quietly optimistic. The big guns (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter) stayed away but smaller blogs like Cinema Axis praised the film’s universal appeal.

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