Kenyan social media is always full of selfies taken at blockbuster movie premieres: people dressed up in costume, eager to catch Black Panther, or wearing pink to Barbie. It’s taken time for us to become part of the instant global movie theatre experience. In the 70s and 80s movie lovers had to wait for months – sometimes years – before high profile international films made it to Kenyan theatres. Sometimes they didn’t make it here at all, leading to a popular and highly illegal trade in pirated videos.
Very few of us ever wondered how films made it to our local theatre in the first place, and movie distribution remains a lesser-known aspect of the industry. Diehard fans can often name film writers, directors, producers and even composers, but not many can name distributors. The film and tv industry have changed in the past decades – from recording on expensive film to more affordable digital recordings – but the biggest disruption was the introduction of streaming. Suddenly, viewers have more options than physically going into movie theatres; we can watch movies and shows at home and on demand.
Distribution, however, has maintained its importance. If anything, distribution is more important than ever, especially for filmmakers from Africa and other places that have traditionally found it hard to break into international markets.
We spoke to Philipp Hoffmann of Rushlake Media and Wangeci Murage of MediaPros to find out exactly what distributors do and how they’re helping Kenyan movies reach wider audiences. The amount of research and expertise that goes into distribution may come as a surprise to many movie lovers, as may the cost of subtitling and dubbing films into foreign languages.
(Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity)
INTERVIEW WITH PHILIPP HOFFMANN, FOUNDER AND MD OF RUSHLAKE MEDIA
Awaaz: First of all, before we begin, what exactly does Rushlake Media do?
Philipp Hoffman: Generally speaking, before we focus more on the African aspect, we define ourselves as a so-called multi-platform network. We are focused on creating offerings in the streaming market, which are dedicated to very particular target audiences, which we think are underserved in the overall landscape.
Awaaz: Who is the underserved market?
Philipp Hoffmann: I think there are a lot of underserved markets on a global scale, so, to give you a few examples, probably the other biggest thing we run beside our African business – TidPix – is a streaming offering we run in the German-speaking markets, which is called Kino on Demand, a streaming service very closely positioned to cinemas. So we have avid cinema goers, typically the art house audience, which is, at least in Germany, a mostly female audience older than 55. There’s no other service for them right out there.
Awaaz: That’s a very specific demographic.
Philipp Hoffmann: It may be because they go to the cinemas a lot, right? Maybe two thirds [go to cinemas] at least once a month, which is very high, a quite heavy user rate for Germany. And they have a hard time finding their desired film, particularly in the way that is curated as we do [it]. And that’s what we do. We don’t have any TV series; [our selections are] only from films that have been screened in cinemas. The other thing which we run from our own account, which is something we do on behalf of a client, is that we run the streaming service of the Goethe Institute, which is called ‘Goethe on Demand’.
So we enable 150, 160 institutes and libraries around the world to offer their local audiences, film series, online festivals, etc, all managed centrally out of the headquarters in Munich. It’s rather technically complex. Last but not least our offering called TidPix (https://www.youtube.com/tidpix) for authentically African content.
It’s hard to call it a niche audience, to be fair, but we avidly believe that there is on the continent – but also globally speaking – a need for authentically African content to be seen by audiences. Of course you can always find bits and pieces here and there, but the very dedicated [space] is not there. I know that there are a whole range of other African /Black cinema, Black content offerings, but I believe that what we do – as we say: ‘authentically African, managed entirely out of Nairobi’ – is quite unique in the market.
Awaaz: Okay, we’ll get to the authentic things in a moment because I have a lot of questions about that, but the demographic of ‘women older than 55 in the German context’ that you talked about, and the art house style etc. – that’s very highly segmented. What kind of movies do they watch, just out of curiosity?
Philipp Hoffmann: It is what you would typically describe as Art House. We have about 1,300 films on a service. No studio content but widely going into the mainstream. Let’s describe it as Art House, but not too tough. Not too super arty, kind of hard to digest, hard to watch films, right? It’s still necessary to have that kind of entertainment flavour, you know? I mean you can debate if that’s ‘Art House’or not. But I’ll say the typical fare is French comedy or Nordic Noir. Typically The Triangle of Sadness kind of thing. So, that’s pretty much what is a hit on our service.
Awaaz: When we had our initial meeting, you said that you all do dubbing and subtitling. This is of interest to me because of the challenges Kenyan filmmakers face when making movies in local languages. Can we talk about that? Who does the dubbing and the subtitling? Do you do it in-house?
Philipp Hoffmann: No, no, we did talk about the dubbing, but we really only did it in one particular case. It was for the German and German-speaking markets where we had a local distributor. They also run one of the biggest children’s film festivals in Germany and they select a handful of films each year to release theatrically. All very small releases and more targeted at schools, like school cinema screenings. That distributor is a not-for-profit. It’s highly subsidised, actually, by the state of Saxony in eastern Germany. They selected Supa Modo, and they have been able to – I wouldn’t say invest, I’d say they funded the dubbing. We would have never been able to pay that ourselves. It opened the film up to wider the audiences, which is necessary for children’s films because children can’t read subtitles. They need to have either voice overs or a dubbing. They made the dubbing and it was very well done. But dubbing is very expensive. It can run into the thousands of Euros.
Awaaz: I had no idea dubbing cost that much.
Philipp Hoffmann: It only worked because it was subsidised. Very few local films can make that back at the box office. If we’d had to made this decision as a business we would have never done it. The risk is way too high and also children’s films are a very particular thing. If you cover an independent children’s film which is not, let’s say either a big brand, a big franchise or comes in a particular branded way like the Nordic Scandinavian children’s show which are very popular over there, it’s very hard to stand out in the market. But they did it though. Supa Modo was in comparison wildly successful as a film but still, overall in the market, it was a very tiny film.
So that’s the thing when it comes to subtitling: it’s a whole different thing. We get subtitles from producers, which is usually a requirement to have. I mean that’s the very basic threshold for every filmmaker in the world if they don’t have a fully English language film. In order to get somewhere beyond your own garden, you need to have English subtitles.
Sometimes we do them ourselves, but not in-house. We work with labs. To be [candid], in some cases, or many cases, they are not either editorially or technically ideal. So they need to be redone, particularly if they go to a bigger client like a major streamer, and they have to fit certain standards, which is not always the case. I think a very positive development is that the costs of subtitling, or versioning, localisation, no matter how we call it, have come significantly down over the past few years, using model technology like AI and whatnot. Ten years back, I think to get a proper subtitling it wasn’t possible for less than 2,000 euros. Something like that.
Right now, to give really top standard subtitles, according to Netflix, [which is] the highest standard in the market, it’s currently at I think 300- 400 euros usually.
Awaaz: Is that for a movie or an episode of a series?
Philipp Hoffmann: For a movie. For 300 – 400 Euros for a 90-minute movie you got proper subtitling with the so-called spotting, meaning the timing [is synced] and a file you can use to actually subtitle it.
Awaaz: I don’t know if you saw when Netflix briefly introduced Kiswahili subtitling and then quickly removed it, because it was done so badly, I think it may have been AI. But I think a lot of people don’t realise what an incredible skill it is to do. Anyway, back to your African channel. How do you curate the movies that you collect for your African channels?
Philipp Hoffmann: Generally speaking, we’re very open, because it is, economically speaking, a bit of a volume game. So we need certain volumes. If we only apply very high standards, we just wouldn’t get anything. I’ll have to elaborate a bit more on that. But we don’t have a checkbox like, okay, do this and this and then we’ll take it. Simply speaking, we need to believe that this is something our audience is potentially interested in, which means that it’s a constant learning process. You just never know. Sometimes we’re surprised that, some content we get, which is an old series 10 years old or whatever, in questionable technical quality, all of a sudden gets a spike in viewers. That’s what we’re mainly focused on right now, which is, “How can we track views?” Besides our channel we have a whole programming grid. So on one hand, we need volume. We might take that 10-year-old series with a lot of episodes of questionable technical quality, but on the other hand we’re also looking for pretty much premium content, which we put on festivals first or try to put on a festival. You never know what will work in the end to really raise the profile for those films.
And it’s good that we have a mixed team because then usually somebody in Cologne, somebody in Nairobi, is taking a look at the film. And it can be perfectly in line [with what we’re looking for], but it can also lead to slightly diverging opinions. We’ve had cases where someone in Cologne says, ‘the quality is not so bad. We can do it. It’s good.’ And then somebody in Nairobi says, ‘Forget about it, don’t touch it.’ And the other way around. So you never know. That’s a very good kind of indication. If films can potentially – we always talk about potential because we never know, in the world of film we’re just assuming we know something – but if the film either works within – or has the potential to work within, let’s say, an African or East African audience – can it maybe even go wider? Of course other things like how it looks – production values etc. – come into play as well.
But the storytelling content side has always been a good indication. Does the film have the potential to resonate?
That’s something I definitely see as a major strength of our company’s team because we can bring in those different points of views.
Awaaz: Is there a particular country that dominates your African content?
Philipp Hoffmann: For us, it’s definitely Kenya. I wouldn’t be able to recall off the top of my head what the percentage or the number of Kenyan films we handle, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s leading in numbers. There’s no other country that we get as much content from.
Awaaz: That surprises me.
Philipp Hoffmann: First of all, it’s because we’re here and we’re not in any other African country at this point. Plus, I really think that the local industry in Kenya is quite well developed. Of course there is Nollywood. We have a few Nigerian films but it’s overall, I would say a relatively closed off industry, so it’s hard to get in from the outside.
There’s obviously South Africa, and we have some films from there, but I would overall also say that South Africa is mostly a service industry. If you take a look at the films actually originating from South Africa, it’s certainly more than from Kenya, yes, but on the other hand, if then you compare it again, to the size of the overall industry, including all the services, it’s not as huge as you might think.
Plus they have a very hard time within South Africa. It’s not as if South Africans go crazy about South African films; they have an incredibly small market share. So to me the overall picture in Kenya is – and we can take several days to discuss the problems and issues and things that would need to be improved – but on the other hand, I think it’s a relatively vital, well-developed landscape of filmmakers.
Awaaz: I think people will be very surprised to hear that, because there’s a perception, even amongst filmmakers here, that their biggest competitors for money are Nigeria and South Africa. And in their minds, South Africa is leagues ahead, maybe because of their production values and all that. But I think this would be an interesting thing for Kenyan filmmakers to read and see and maybe think about themselves a bit differently,
Philipp Hoffmann: Yeah, again we all know the problems and the funding could be much better and whatnot, but on the other hand I think there is no reason to be too humble about the state of the local industry.
Awaaz: I think also because people tend to conflate the film industry and the TV industry, whereas they are actually quite separate. I think South African TV has a lot of content but maybe not that much when it comes to movies, as you pointed out.
Philipp Hoffmann: Yes. But what is certainly true in South Africa is, of course, the funding landscape overall is much bigger. There’s a range of local funds like in the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu Natal, Gauteng and other places. And so, yes, that’s a whole different situation. Considering that richer landscape and then compared to Kenya, I’m inclined to say that the Kenya film industry is in a way more effective at doing more out of less. That is valuable. It doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be more and a richer landscape but I think it’s really not so bad what is coming out of the country.
Awaaz: Yeah, I like that. They’re doing more with less. You mentioned that you work with festivals. How does that work?
Philipp Hoffmann: I think there are two parts to the story: one pre-pandemic and one post-pandemic story. As a company before we decided to go for that multi -platform strategy that I mentioned initially, we had been much more focused on high quality films or solely on high quality films. So the festival aspect was, at that time, much more important for us. So we really try to play the festival game and focus on as many festivals as possible. I think at the peak, we had, I think it was 1,600 festivals around the globe in our database. Somewhere in that ballpark.
Philipp Hoffmann: And it used to be a significant income, or a significant part of the income for many filmmakers because we’re charging fees. And if you go to 10, 20, sometimes 30 or more festivals, it adds up. And then at least some distribution costs were covered and we were able to send some money [to the filmmakers]. That has changed to a very wide degree. For the films that we think can have a potential festival career we still approach key festivals and try to build them up. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. [We’re always grappling with the question] does a film get momentum on the festival circuit? In any case, it has become less of a focus of our work.
Awaaz: And that’s like a pandemic thing?
Philipp Hoffmann: Yes but also two things took place: one was our own change of strategy. And because of the pandemic, a change in the festival landscape.
Awaaz: What year did you start in Kenya?
Philipp Hoffmann: The first movie we did was Nairobi Half Life, so I think that’s a bit more than ten years. I personally have been coming to Kenya since 10 years. About a couple of years later, 2016, I hired the first staff member person in Kenya, who was with us for a while. And then weactually transformed that into an office in 2019. Right. And since then we’ve been growing. Right now, we are four staff members. We are still growing and we’re still very ambitious. Soon we could easily be 10 or more. It reflects a little bit in market development, coming from virtually nothing 10 years ago, right? And back then we had one major player in the market, a TV network. Now we’re in the situation today where there’s at least some competition for content. I mean it’s already a major step to being in a space where the world in general has opened up much more to film from the continent. I think that’s overall very positive. That’s great. So we have been choosing the right path. But could we do more if the market would allow more? Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Awaaz: You raise a really good point. Why has the world become more open to African content? What do you think the reason is? Because I can’t figure it out: is it higher quality movies? Did some Hollywood influencer discover African movies or something? What’s that about?
Philipp Hoffmann: Good question. I’m not sure if I have a really smart answer to that.
It’s probably also a mix of various reasons. One is that we all need a range of good films coming in one after the other. I think – with all required humbleness because we didn’t do this film we just sold the distribution – that Nairobi Half Life, particularly when we look at Kenya, was a game changer, right? Then we saw other films like Rafiki a few years later, which we never handled, but, course, its impact as well. And we know that the festival world also likes to take a look at undiscovered parts of the world. And there are not so much left actually, and Africa was one of the last spots on the map. The other thing is that, and I think this is very banal, but obviously a very important aspect of digitalisation on many levels, starting from production to distribution.
I always like to tell the story about Nairobi Half Life.
The film became a hit out of Kenya. Not right from the beginning, but once it hit the road running, it just went very far and it went quite viral, so to speak. And all of a sudden, Kenyans and other Africans around the world were talking about that film. However, we had a very traditional approach, which always takes a while: we go to a festival, talk with distributors, they say ‘yeah, maybe, no, yes,’ or sometimes, ‘okay’. But it takes ages until the film is actually available in a country. It’s a very kind of vertical approach – territory by territory by territory.
It always takes ages beyond the festival circuit. And so indeed, we miss a lot of that buzz around the film. Because it’s a fire burning fast, right? [The buzz] is there, but it’s there for a certain amount of time, then it’s gone again. And if the film hits the market six months later, what can you do? In the meantime, everybody saw the film illegally on some private platform. And that’s not very helpful for us as a distributor, not to mention the filmmakers.
So that was an issue, so what do we do? This also comes into play when we talk about our change of strategy. [Digital online availability] is now the go-to market for films if they’re not going the traditional festival circuit; but even then, the go-to market is much quicker, so we try to hit the market to monetise as quickly as possible. Because that is pretty much tied in with the awareness anyway. There’s simply way too much content out there from all over the world. Instead of having that slow burning approach where we build a film up – it still works in certain cases and I don’t want to say it doesn’t exist anymore – but for the vast majority of films, let’s just say the fast lane is much more attractive.
Awaaz: I will tell you this has been the most hopeful interview I’ve had so far about the state of the Kenyan film industry.
Philipp Hoffmann: I’m glad to hear that, usually when I do classes or presentations within the industry, I’m always the party crasher but that applies more to the European side of things. Yes, I am optimistic. Otherwise, we would be in the wrong business.
On the other hand, I’m very aware of the challenges, I don’t want to say it’s blue sky and a field full of flowers, that’s not the case. I’m very aware of the issues, but I think we can get there. And one thing I learned and that’s why we’re also cooperating with a talent agency is, in the end you can always change who funds films or content. It can be public funding, a TV station, it can be a streamer, it can be whatever. But what will never change is the fact that no matter who funds it, they all need the talent. Without the talented – the creatives – it simply doesn’t work. And that is something the creatives, the filmmakers, writers etc. should be very aware of. In the end, they are the limited resource. It’s also an incredibly tough competition. The ultimate truth is that the industry, no matter how big or small, needs talent and that’s basically a good position to be in.
Maybe as a last remark: there’s a massive overabundance of content out there. They say that 500 hours of new content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s the biggest challenge along the chain. Because that means that awareness is the key factor. Without awareness there can be no monetisation in the end.
It’s a challenge for filmmakers but it’s also our challenge, because it’s our job.