Ramsey Nouah is one of the few that saw Nollywood through the testing periods. He has seen the ups and downs. ORUKPE NELSON caught up with him recently at the filmmakers’ forum organised by Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos. He spoke about his sojourn in Nollywood, why 30 Days In Atlanta recorded huge success and other issues.
How long have you been into acting?
I am more than two decades in the industry; I am actually 25 years and still counting. Acting started from me in 1990 when a friend said that I had the gesture and mannerism of an actor. He urged me to go into acting, but I said to him that if I were going to act it cannot be in Nigeria. I said I would rather go to Hollywood and make myself good money. But, as people say, charity begins at home. If you want to do anything in life it is only advisable to start from where you are and project yourself to the world, rather than looking outside. That was the turning point for me.
At this time I am talking about, there wasn’t any vibrant film in Nigeria as such. Films had ended since the time of Ogunde, Baba Sala and the rest of them. We had only Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and there were only soap operas at a time such as Behind The Clouds, Ripples and the rest.
So, when did you have your first shot in acting?
In 1990, I got involved in a soap opera called Fortunes. We shot the pilot in 1991, got the sponsorship in 1992 and it went on air in 1993. It lasted for just two years. At a time Fortunes was going on, there were home videos, which they basically did in Yoruba language. It was restricted to the language barrier. Along the line, the Igbo movies came on board and gave birth to Rattle Snake and Living in Bondage in 1993, 1994. Then, the guy (Kenneth Nnebue), who did Living In Bondage felt we should start doing English movies in 1995. By then, Fortune had gone off air. He sent me an official letter like a professional for audition. How he got my home address I didn’t know. I got there, performed and he said I was the character he was looking for. But, unfortunately, we didn’t agree to terms because I knew he was a businessman. But, I didn’t come out in his movie at a time due to that. We then had Glamour Girls in 1995 or thereabout. So, I did a movie with Chico Ejiro, which was how we started Nollywood. They got me and we shot the movie Silent Night in 1996.
How was the experience then?
Before Silent Night I had done some movies which never saw the light of the day. Silent Night became a success, but it didn’t have the publicity like Glamour Girls. Nnebue knew how to publicize. As a matter of fact, when he wanted to release a movie, all marketers ran in because he pumped money into publicity and it worked for him. That was an era of filmmaking in Nigeria that marked the beginning of making bread out of stone. There was no support from the government or anyone at all. It was just people who probably thought they can make something little out of it, instead of dropping money in the banks.
That was the age where practitioners shot movies and they shot it well. Then, every arm of cinematography was well done. During the ‘90s and early 2000, movies were still doing well. By mid-2000, there was a meltdown. The industry was crashing and story lines were saturated, acting skills were almost the same and people were beginning to see things themselves. Though, Nigerian films started to move to other African countries, there were already losing flavour among us. By 2006, there was what we called the “blacklist” where the marketers believed they controlled the market. They blacklisted 10 top actors from Nollywood for a whole year. So, all of us created at that time suffered that one year loss. It was a good time for the emergence of new actors.
At what point did things change for the better?
Later, realisation set in and people were asking questions on who controlled what. I started seeing things not as an actor but as a producer, marketer and other arms of production. I started talking to people and people still saw potential in what the industry had to offer. DSTV started to create more Nollywood channels and they got more followership from it. From that, came the biggest award in the whole of Africa; Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA). But Nollywood didn’t give birth to the cinemas; Hollywood did. Investors started thinking that they were no Hollywood films in Nigeria. They thought of cinemas and people started going to watch.
Once the cinema became an enabling environment for people to go watch movies, Nollywood started thinking of how to buy into it. At a time we don’t know what it takes to actually put a movie in the cinema or the technical involvement. People were complaining that why would they pay the same amount to watch a Nollywood movie that the picture or sound was bad. But for some reasons the movies were still in the market and the cinemas were running at loss. So, there was need for change and the digital age came. We have small cameras now that shoot good videos; you don’t need so much capital to shoot a good video.
How do producers recoup the money they invest in making films?
As you can tell, the saving grace for us right now is the VCD, DVD sector. We have other markets that are not favourable, including the internet and the cable television. They don’t pay that much. Nigerians want quality but for less and I believe every one of us is guilty of it. We would want to get a Versace shirt, but we would prefer where to buy it less. Now, people and manufacturers are beginning to see that and they are trying to make things work. 30 Days In Atlanta made every producer to know that there is potential in making a good movie in Nigeria. If you make a good movie and put it in the cinemas, you will make good money.
What are the qualities needed as an actor or actress?
Initially, it was all about performance, depth and ability of an actor or actress to bring out the best of the character in a movie. In the beginning it wasn’t about look or being handsome. But today’s world has changed. Glamour comes with terrain because people are expectant of you of that nature. You are a role model; people expect to see you looking gorgeous.
You are addressed by the way you dress too. If you come to me and look shabby as an actor I would start pricing you low. Being responsible also attracts endorsement. Don’t forget that if you are responsible you become a role model, you have a voice and what you say becomes relevant. It makes you have strong fan base too and control over social media. Not only that, it gets you political appointments like my colleagues Desmond Elliot, Kate and others. Also, the act of filmmaking is all about passion. Today, we have some of my colleagues, who had turned Nollywood to a red carpet zone.
They turned it to a runway for them to showcase their beauty and carry their flashy bags and high heels when the character doesn’t call for it. It is not all about showcasing your beauty; you have to be passion-driven for you to become successful or have longevity. Don’t go there for the cash; go there for the arts. That gives longevity.
What is the average worry of a Nigerian actor or actress?
We are known as the second largest filmmakers in the world, so people expect to see us with glamour. When I go to some parts of Africa they expect me to come all funky and with bodyguards. It is understandable because when you see the Hollywood people, you will see bodyguards here and there. That’s how they expect us to come too being the second largest filmmakers in the world.
It is expected of us to have a show of wealth and glamour. But the reason things cannot be like that is because there is no structure to help facilitate the glamour or what people expect to see of us. By the time you live a flamboyant life and do the same for your family, you will be back to zero. Do you want to struggle to do another movie? There is no structure that helps to work that out in Nigeria as we speak. However, we shouldn’t let that discourage us. I know that some actors are being paid N30,000 to N100,000 per movie. New faces get paid that much and that is a good start and a stepping stone. Back in the days, when I went to Fortunes, I was paid N80 per episode. I even got paid for just three months; the remaining nine months, NTA didn’t pay me. So, you could say it is like a kind of encouragement for them.
Why did you expect NTA to pay you since Fortunes was an independent production?
NTA gets money from the sponsor, which was PZ. So, they told PZ that the content will cost a particular amount. PZ paid NTA and NTA was expected to pay the independent production. That was how it was then; I don’t know if things have changed now.
Advice for emerging actors and actresses
It’s simple. Do not forget that as you proceed, as you allow yourself to know that the passion is what will sail you through, you will sustain yourself and have longevity. You then can now start thinking about endorsement deals, anchoring events, TV claims, gracing occasions and the likes. All these will add extra values to your pocket as an actor or actress.
What sustained you when money wasn’t coming?
It was the passion; I wasn’t concerned about the money. I survived from hand-to-mouth actually. I depended more on my family because at a time the industry wasn’t self-sufficient enough. Around 1990 to 1995, there were no constant jobs or pay. Constant pay was from television soap opera and they paid quarterly. Sometimes they will owe you for like a year or two years. It was that bad, but people were going back there because of the passion. It wasn’t about the money to eat or provide shelter; it was just about the arts and that sustained so many of us.
What efforts have the older actors put in place for people coming after you?
What we can actually do to the up and coming acts right now is to render word of encouragement by telling them that they should be passion driven. They should forget what they would benefit and hopefully they will get there. The key factor for sustenance is to create an enabling environment and thank God, President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is doing that. He has seen the potential in the industry and has given all the support needed for it to thrive. I am so happy about that. The administration saw what Nollywood is capable of doing, even though, I didn’t see it because I am not an economist. As an actor all I know is to make films; I don’t understand the marketing or the impact of my films and my world on the society or environment. But the government mentioned it and I asked myself, do Nollywood contribute that much to the GDP of Nigeria? I didn’t see that.
How much do you charge for roles?
Do you expect me to tell you how much I have in my bank account? With the way it is in the Nollywood now, there is no particular figure because like I said there is no structure. I can tell you N10 to N20 million, but I can probably do it for one million or N500,000. It all depends and the depending factors are so many. I could as well do it for humanitarian purposes. There are so many reasons that make it hard to have a ceiling. If there was a structure, then there would be a ceiling. I know I cannot go beyond certain amount for commercial movies, but if you are talking about movies generally I know it ranges from N200,000 to N20 million.
So, you can do movies for N200,000?
Yes, I can if it is in my course; if it is what I would like to endorse. Everything depends on me and what I really want to do. If my heart tells me I should do it I won’t hesitate. It is not about somebody trying to convince me to do it. If you have something that touches my heart you have no problem. But I tried not to get my family or friends involved in my business. I see that as an actor for everyone I smile with means we have built a relationship automatically. So, they come with that mindset and I have discovered that it really affects the business. So, I had to draw a line; business is different from friendship. It makes people not to take advantage of you.
30 Days In Atlanta did well in the cinema; what would you say made it a success?
It is a very simple one. I personally did the market survey and I looked at the people who actually go to the cinemas in Nigeria. They are the middle class and they are the most antagonist of Nollywood because they feel we insult their intelligence. But then the middle class also wants a form of excitement. When you look at most people that go to events and most of the standup comedians they belong to the middle class. They are the ones that can afford 5,000 to go watch certain shows and they get entertained. Also, don’t forget that the top standup comedians of today are the Warri boys and their jokes are well followed.
A typical Nollywood movie will do what the comedy people are already used to. This middle class already know all this and the mannerism. They wanted a change and 30 Days In Atlanta made that change. I think people love the joke and Nigerians love to be identified with the foreign people they see. They feel it is almost impossible to reach or touch them. They see all of that in the movie and all that helped the movie to be a success. The money (N170-180 million) we made is just from 14 cinemas in Nigeria; so, imagine if we had like 100 cinemas.
How much of that goes to the producer?
If there are more cinemas the percentage or fraction becomes huge. If the turnover is high you can get as high as 50 per cent between you and the cinemas. You can get that very strongly. But do not forget cinemas are running an overhead cost, not like you as a content provider. The structures of the cinemas, the power being generated, stuff being paid for among others are things we should factor in. That is why they get bigger percentage. But when there is enough cinema and they know that there is a huge followership, I am sure at a point you can tell the cinema you are taking 60 per cent and they will still want you.
Finally, how would you rate our social life?
Nigerians don’t really have means of entertaining themselves than going to beer parlour, clubs or watching TV. It is not like America where you have so much to entertain yourself with. There are so many getaways or adventurous stuffs you can do. If we go to the beach we only go there to swim; no other things to play with. For some people, they go there to watch and drink. So, there is no visible form of entertainment than the cinemas for us. The next is shopping mall and the reason most people go there is to view the environment. We used to have the eatery before and people loved to go there because of the atmosphere. People still go, but it has reduced.
We need to create the atmosphere for Nigerians and cinema is a big industry for people to go out to have fun. There was a time I was talking about grassroots’ cinema with the owner of Film house, Kene, and we talked about the beauty of it. The truth is that most people are beyond middle class in Nigeria.
We have people who are living low not just in income but in quality too. What does a mechanic do after work? Forget the look, a mechanic could make more than N10,000 per day. What they do is that they call their friends and go to a beer parlour. They wake up next morning and go to work.
That is how they live their lives. Imagine an environment where they can carry their girlfriends and watch movies. The environment must not be intimidating. If you call a mechanic or bus conductor to go to a Silverbird now he might not feel comfortable despite the fact that he can afford it. If his girlfriend successfully drags him there once I am sure he would not want to go there again. Those are the things I try to look into not just as an actor, but as a way of expanding our thinking and I see the need to create that kind of environment for those kinds of people. We should have cinemas in Mushin, Ajegunle, Oshodi and other areas like that. I hope it gets to those people who are into cinema distribution, though they are trying their best.