A New Frontier for Nollywood: Remakes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Africa’s entertainment capital is shifting gears.
Take a look at the top-grossing American films and you’ll find just about nothing but reboots and sequels. It took a former health economist to see the opportunity for Nigeria. And as those who know Charles Okpaleke can attest, when he falls upon an idea, he pursues it to its logical conclusion regardless of the obstacles in his path.
Last year’s Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, which marked Okpaleke’s debut as a movie producer, finished its box-office run as not only the top-grossing Nigerian film of 2019 but also one of the most successful of all time, earning 163 million naira ($454,000). Okpaleke has more reboots in the pipeline, setting the stage for a lucrative reordering of Nigeria’s movie industry.
Okpaleke, 37, a jet-setting businessman and the father of twin daughters, is known for his splashy lifestyle, documented on his social media pages, and for innovations in urban nightlife. With his brothers Elvis and Jeffrey, Charles founded Play Network, a networking and hospitality lifestyle chain with an elite clientele. Play Network runs nightlife destinations in Abuja, Lagos and Calabar, and has recently expanded to Namibia and South Africa.
A huge fan of Nollywood, Nigeria’s prolific but severely under-structured film industry, Okpaleke decided that as a first-time producer entering uncharted waters, a logical move would be to remake Living in Bondage, perhaps the most influential Nollywood film.
To make maximum impact, I needed to go back to the beginning.
The son of two police officers, Okpaleke spent his childhood days climbing trees and riding bicycles in the southeastern town of Aba, an atmosphere that encouraged self-expression. Like the rest of the country, a 9-year-old Okpaleke fell in love with the novelty of watching people who looked like him and spoke his language on the small screen when the original Living in Bondage was released in 1992. Prior to that, with no movie theaters operating in the country, Nigerians got their entertainment primarily from Hollywood and Bollywood.
Living in Bondage was the unlikely and hugely profitable brainchild of businessman Kenneth Nnebue, who was trying to unload a large stock of blank videocassettes imported from Taiwan. He figured he would sell more tapes if they had content dubbed in. Nnebue hired a cast and crew of mostly newcomers and shot the now cult classic, a cautionary tale of a man who sacrifices his wife for money in a desperate bid to get rich. Living in Bondage was an instant hit despite its choppy production values, and it essentially birthed the straight-to-video culture that has been christened Nollywood.
Okpaleke’s splashy, big-screen sequel — movie theaters returned to Nigeria in 2002 — picks up more than 25 years after the events of the original. “It is my first film project and I felt like to make maximum impact, I needed to go back to the beginning, to the film that started it all,” Okpaleke says.
To make his way within industry circles, Okpaleke reached out to pal Ramsey Nouah, one of Nollywood’s biggest movie stars. Once Nouah agreed to direct, the two men flew to Nnebue’s country home to sign a deal. “Everything happened so fast and if you know Charles you know that once he has his mind set, he is very aggressive,” Nouah says. “I was quite overwhelmed by his process.”
Following the success of his first effort, Okpaleke has gained a reputation as the go-to executive for remakes. He has secured 10-year rights to at least three other Nollywood favorites, all to be released by December 2021: Rattle Snake, an action drama that riffs on themes of betrayal and revenge; Nneka the Pretty Serpent, a supernatural thriller; and Glamour Girls, about sexually liberated young women in the big city.
“I think Glamour Girls excites me the most in terms of what we can do with the story,” Okpaleke admits before quickly extolling his other projects. His impact is already being felt elsewhere in the industry, as other producers hunt for promising intellectual property to remake.
But not everyone is impressed by Okpaleke’s Nollywood playbook, and stories of his success may be overestimated. According to figures made available by Play Network, Living in Bondage cost about 200 million naira ($560,000) to produce and market, making it one of the most expensive films to be produced in Nigeria, and a money-losing project so far. Adesegun Adetoro, who runs the film blog Movie Pencil, says the film “showed that Nigerians can propel other genres that aren’t comedy to significant box-office earnings.” But the box office looks even worse, Adetoro adds, when you consider that producers tend to get only a third of the returns.
Okpaleke, who studied medical laboratory science at the University of Nigeria and has a master’s degree from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, says there is still a path to profitability for Living in Bondage through private screenings and streaming/video-on-demand platforms. Meanwhile, the movie will return to theaters this month for a limited theatrical release.
But Okpaleke insists that short-term profit doesn’t drive his work in film. “I am betting on the future,” he says. “Not the now.’’
OZY’s 5 Questions With Charles Okpaleke
- What’s the last book you read? Good Strategy Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt.
- What do you worry about? I don’t ever want to wake up and find I cannot afford the life I want, so I am constantly on my toes, working and pushing. Being able to take care of my family, afford what I want, pay someone’s bills, travel when I want, these are basic things that are important to me.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? I can’t think of anything that isn’t dispensable.
- Who’s your hero? My late father.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I don’t have a bucket list. I am a spontaneous person, so whenever I stumble on something I feel like I must do, I go ahead and do it immediately and clear it off my list, so it is always empty.