Classics, Interviews

How Emem Isong emerged Nollywood’s most prolific filmmaker

+ Churns out over 12 movies in 12 months!

‘It’s just the grace of God’

EMEM Isong cut her teeth in movie production in 1994 with the movie, Jezebel, a co-production with the late Francis Agu.  She moved on to produce her debut solo film, Breaking Point in 1996.  Nollywood obviously knew she was around when she spent seven solid years producing for popular marketer, Remmy Jez. A collaborative venture that gave birth to flicks like Behind Closed Doors, Games Men Play, Games Women Play, Critical Decision…she instantly became a household name in the industry.

Taking a short break to have her baby, Emem Isong returned as an independent producer with Reloaded in 2008.

With quite a lot of commercially viable jobs under her belt, the movie amazon has now emerged the most prolific Nollywood producer, churning out an average of one movie per month (including co-productions) since 2013!

ENCOMIUM Weekly had an exclusive interview with the MD/CEO, Royal Art Academy, at her Surulere, Lagos office on Thursday, April 24, 2014.  Here, the creative entrepreneur and multiple award winning producer explains what drives and separates her from the rest.

Emem Isong also reviewed her well-received and critically applauded biopic, Apaye and her more recent job, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a movie that campaigns against domestic violence…

At a time many thought the movie industry is lying low, Royal Arts Academy is constantly churning out movies.  How do you do it?

EmemI will always start by saying it is the grace of God, because I can’t really say how I do it.  But I believe very much in Nollywood.  You can say I’m pro-Nollywood.  For us in Royal Arts Academy, we cannot afford to give up, especially when we are contributing our modest quota to the growth of the economy.  There are staff to pay, there are students to look up to us.  So, whether we have the funds, the support of investors or sponsors or not, we keep trying to grow the brand.

Would it be correct to say you have produced about twelve movies from 2013 till date?

Yes, between 2012/2013 to now, we have done over twelve movies.  Some for me, some I produced in collaboration with others, some I was commissioned to do. I have also done a couple of DVD movies, some I worked with Iroko TV.  The major films I have done since 2013 include Weekend Getaway, Mrs. Somebody, Lagos Cougars, Apaye, Forgetting June, Lonely Heart, Visa Lottery, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a co-production with Ini Edo for Achievas Entertainment.  On Bended Knees, co-produced with Chioma Chukwuka-Akpotha.  There is also Blind Promise, co-produced with Susan Peters and Darima’s Dilemma, produced with Mbong Amata.

You were equally busy in 2011/2012…

I think I did I will take my chances with Ini Edo around this period. It was my very first big budget movie.  I brought in a few hands outside our shores for technical assistance.

Can you still recall the very first movie you shot?

The first movie I produced was actually a script I wrote.  That was Jezebel, an Igbo movie.  I co-produced it with late Francis Agu in 1994 (at the very early stage of Nollywood). But my first solo effort was in 1996, Breaking Point, the movie I funded and I also produced.  I have always been funding my movies until I met a marketer/producer, Remmy Jez whom I worked with for seven years.  I think he saw the talent in me and reasoned it was very stressful for me to raise money and make my movies. It was like, ‘I have the money, why don’t you produce for me, then I will pay you a fee?’  Which was what I did for him for seven years.  Most of my early Nollywood blockbusters were produced for him.  Flicks like Behind Closed Doors, Games Men Play, Games Women Play, Critical Decision, were all made for Remmy Jez until 2007 when I took a break to have my baby.  I then went solo in 2008.  My come back movie was Reloaded, which I co-produced with Desmond Elliot.

What really separates a Royal Arts Academy film from the rest?

Quality.  Excellence is my watchword.  I believe in putting out what I want to see.  And I do the best I can. I do not compromise my set standard.  And I also look out for good actors and directors who have the same vision I have.  Those who will understand my thinking and listen because filmmaking is collaborative.  It’s team work.  No one can do it alone.  So, I’m very careful with my team.  If we all work in harmony, like we always do, we bring out the best.

How do you source your stories?

I used to write a lot before, but now I have a lot at hand.  As a producer I do quite much.  You know how it is in Nigeria, where you practically do everything – source script, produce, do premiere and even marketing, which is not supposed to be so.  But we found ourselves doing this.  So, what I do these days is to conceive the story and get my team of writers to work on it.  Someone might also have an interesting story and I ask my writers to write it.  I do the editing.

Can you please share with us the step-by-step of movie production?

For me, the first step is to find the right script.  What do I want to say?  How do I want to say it?  I also look at the audience I’m giving this work.  Sometimes I work basically from my heart.  I don’t care whether it would be commercially viable or not. I just want to say what I want to say.  But sometimes I look at the commercial angle because I’m also here to make money.  When I did I Will Take My Chances, it was a new concept.  The theme was dance, which I know a lot of people wouldn’t understand but I just wanted to make a movie.  Despite all odds, the movie still achieved its aim.  It all depends on what I wanted to achieve with a movie, that determines what I want to make.

Like when I did Lagos Cougars, I wanted something on a lighter note.  I wanted something that people would laugh and think.  It’s not a big deal, these things happen.  So, why are we shying away from them? I have failed commercially in some of these not-so serious movies.  I like to do such stories at least once a year.  I get a script first, then find a director who best interprets it.  Some directors are good in a certain genre.  So, I look for the best. I invite the director over and we discuss the ideas we are exploiting in the movie.  The thing with me is that even if I wrote a story, it doesn’t stop with me.  We must still discuss it from all angles, we workshop it, deliberate on it before we can now call for audition.  But I call for audition only once in a while because it’s a serious exercise.  What I do is when I call for audition, I take note of everybody’s performance. I also record it, so when I need a particular character I refer to my previous observations on that particular act. It’s only when I don’t find the person that fits into the character that I call for audition.  After this is sorted out, the next step is to shoot.

Emem Isong

Emem Isong

What will change about Royal Arts Academy in future?

We hope to get better and better.  You’ve seen Knocking on Heaven’s Door, I’m sure it’s better than our previous productions.  Apaye was also better than what we did before it.  So, we are aspiring to get better and better.  We are also hoping to offer courses in filmmaking.  We are currently only doing courses in acting and screenplay.  We are not doing the proper filmmaking courses. I know we need skilled personnel to do this.  Sound is still our problem in Nollywood.  So, I’m bringing in local and international resource persons to expand our courses.

Does being a woman producer give you any advantage, restraint or both?

Quite frankly, I really don’t know.  I know I have not had it easy, not because I am a woman. A lot of people when I started did not think anything good will come out of me.  Maybe because I’m a woman.  So, you will see this surprise on people’s faces when they realize I’m a woman.  Many, up until a few years ago, thought I was a man. I was like, why, is excellence men’s monopoly?  Is excellence gender sensitive here?  So, everything good has to be from a man?  I really don’t know if being a woman has affected me negatively or positively because I have not got any favours neither have I received any grant because I’m a woman.  Everything I have got is based on my person, not my gender.

You made a very salient point that you are not supported with grants or corporate sponsorship.  Are you not saddened by this development?

I’m very, very saddened by this.  We, filmmakers, should be supported.  Yes, we’ve been hearing of grants I’ve not got any.  Corporate Nigeria is another sad one.  Apart from endorsing artistes, they should do more in terms of productions.  I tried to get some support for my last production, but I got practically nothing.  This is not how we would grow the entertainment industry.  We need support in the area of branding our movies.

You are perhaps one of the most celebrated female producers in Nollywood.  How do some of these awards you get almost every year make you feel?

I feel good. I’m grateful.  That means I’m doing well in the industry.  It’s right to be rewarded for hard work.  When you get some of these awards, you are most especially appreciative of the fact that your labour and the stress are not in vain.  I’m glad but like I always say, I’m not moved by awards per se.  If I get it, I thank God, but if I don’t it’s not a big deal.  What matters to me most is if my job is done right.  Do people like what I have put out there?  Am I reaching somebody?  Am I putting a smile on somebody’s face out there?  As long as I succeed in doing that, I’m good.

Do you treasure any particular one in any special way?

I appreciate almost all the awards that come my way.  I’ve got from almost everywhere.  So, I don’t know which one I would say is special. But I like the ones that actually go out of their way to recognize women like ELOY (Exquisite Ladies of the Year) Awards, where they celebrate women.

Also related to awards is the fact that your recent movie, Apaye got about four AMAA 2014 nominations?

I was surprised actually.  Nomination is good even if we don’t win in all, it’s okay.  My actors did their best.  Clarion Chukwurah was very good.  I wasn’t surprised she got a nomination because she was very professional.

What are your chances?

I don’t really know, but let the best win.

Emem IsongHow is Apaye doing?

It did well in the cinema.  We just released it on DVD today (Thursday, April 24).

The movie has been receiving critical acclaim from film critics.

I’m glad about that.  When I’m commissioned to do a movie, my objective is always to make sure my client is satisfied, pleased and happy with the quality.  And when we premiered Apaye, the Executive Producer, the financier walked up to me and said, “Well done, you have done very well.”  That was all I wanted.  The family I did the movie for were very pleased and satisfied and I was very happy about that.

What is happening to your language movies?

The language movies are a bit low at the moment.  I don’t really know why.  Maybe, the market is the issue.  For me, they were even doing better than the English movies, but there has been a drastic drop in sales in the past two years or so.  Maybe, it is because of the fact that too many of them are being churned out and a lot are not being properly produced.  And you know, you cannot take the audience for granted for so long.  I’m still committed to making at least one a year.  My state governor has been quite supportive of the movie industry there in Akwa Ibom and I pray he continues in this direction.

I keep saying it’s not always about money, let government give us an enabling environment to operate by checking some unnecessary taxes, especially at the cinema level.  There is also the need for more cinemas so we can make more money.

Which was the last Ibibio movie you released?

Udeme mi (My Portion).  It did very well.  Uya was also well received.  My sister who is also a producer does the Okon series: Okon Goes to School, Okon Lagos.  She is more into comedy.  Those are some of our biggest and highest selling movies at the Royal Arts Academy.

Which has been your most challenging movie production in the last 20 years?

I would say Apaye because it took a lot from the cast and crew, from the research process where we had to travel forth and back, Bayelsa, Abuja several times to interview people and originate the script.  We kept writing and writing.  Doing something about real people and shooting in the creeks was a huge task.  It wasn’t fun at all.  I really thank the director, Desmond Elliot, he is simply the best!

What about your most commercially viable film?

Reloaded and Guilty Pleasures and the Okon series.

What about your modest production that still turned out to be commercially viable?

Mrs. Somebody is a movie I spent very little but it did very well, beyond my expectations.  You know people make the mistake of calling it Uche Jombo’s movie. That’s my job.  Lagos Cougars was also modest in budget but it surpassed our expectations in terms of sales.

What about your most ambitious movie project?

I will take my chances.  We spent a lot of money.  That was our first in terms of big budget.  We experimented a lot with so many things, but we didn’t lose.

Let’s talk about your last movie premiere, Knocking on Heaven’s Door?

It was cool.  The movie was inspired by domestic violence.  I know a couple of women who are tied in abusive and horrible relationships and they can’t escape. For me, I believe they should speak out.  And there should be a kind of support system for victims of domestic violence.  I was really touched by the story of the banker that was killed by her husband, Arowolo.  Nobody knows what really happened but only God knows what a lot of women are going through.  I’m not advocating for people to leave their homes, I’m saying abuse should stop.  I was very passionate about the movie.  We auditioned for days, I couldn’t still find my lead character. It was just about when I was about to give up that I saw a Facebook message from Adesua Etomi who eventually played the lead and got it perfectly.  Incidentally, that was her first movie.

Ini Edo was your co-producer?

Yes, we produced the movie for Achievas Entertainment.

How was it working with her once again?

She is one of the best hands to work with.  We can fight but we always make up.  She trusts my judgement.  She listens.  She is very intelligent.  Ini brings a lot of youthful suggestions.  Above all, she is equally hard working.  She did her job well as usual.  The movie will run in the cinemas for six weeks.  After that, we put it on DVD.

What next for Emem Isong?

Shooting, shooting, shooting (laughs).  I’m working on a project I’m thinking about shooting a part of it in South Africa.  The title of the movie is Champagne.  It’s another ambitious movie project to watch out for.

Where are you headed?

I will keep producing movies until I’m not able to work again.  I also want to expand Royal Arts Academy. I hope it would become a bigger film school and a reference point in productions.  We still have a long way to go but we would get there.





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