INTERVIEW WITH WANGECI MURAGE, CEO OF MEDIA PROS
Awaaz: You just got back from judging the Zanzibar International Film Festival. (ZIFF) Did any movies stand out?
Wangeci Murage: There were several. ZIFF has quite a few categories and there were entries from very many different countries, from Tanzania to India, Kenya, South Africa and even the US. The winner, Eoni, was a Tanzanian sci-fi movie. It’s also Tanzania’s official entry for the Academy Awards.
Awaaz: A Tanzanian sci-fi movie? That’s incredible and is the perfect segue for my next question: One of the issues that keeps coming up in my informal conversations with local writers and directors is the question of ‘authenticity’. What is an African story? What makes a story African? Does it have to include the cliches of witchcraft and huts and spears? If I’m an African and I write something, doesn’t that make it African? What do you think, and does that factor into what you choose to distribute?
Wangeci Murage: I struggle with this concept. I have a very huge question mark about this word, which is thrown about very often. If someone writes something and creates a world from their perspective, isn’t that authentic? My life isn’t your life. Maybe we have some things in common – we all drive on the same terrible roads, we’ll suffer through power cuts, many people lack water. But people are also having fun, having relationships, hanging out in clubs. Our writers and producers then get crammed into a very small creative space. I don’t care where the story takes place – we don’t have to have that shot of Mount Kenya, or a shot showcasing our beautiful beaches. As long as we’re telling our own stories, I don’t care where the story takes place. I do appreciate that we have unique traditions but if they don’t fit into the story, then stop forcing it. Just tell your story from your heart and your perspective. That’s all I look for.
Awaaz: I have friends who watch Bollywood movies, and are actually quite fanatical about them. Do you think there will ever come a time when African movies are watched by non-Africans?
Wangeci Murage: Oh yes, I believe so. This now is an issue of distribution and marketing. If we don’t push our stuff out there, then they will not know it. When I go to the supermarket, I’ll buy the stuff I’ve seen being advertised and marketed. But we also have to start inwardly. We need to start promoting our content at home, and then the greater region, and then go outside. Because if you’re not appreciated here no Indian or Korean is going to be interested because they really don’t know anything about us. So we need to put a little more effort into marketing our content because we have really amazing content, but it’s not travelling because we’re not talking about it.
Awaaz: So now tell me what Media Pros does. Talk to me like someone who knows absolutely nothing about distribution.
Wangeci Murage: Ok. To put it simply we are what you would call ‘a middle man’. We create solutions. So let’s say a writer comes to me and says, ‘I’m looking for a producer to help develop my story.’ I go out, find the right producer, and connect them with you. If you’re a broadcast platform looking for Kenyan/Ugandan/Tanzanian/ whatever content, then I will connect you to content creators. Sometimes government agencies need help putting things together. Just this morning there was a call for film festivals from the government. So I said, ‘we’re here but we’re going to work with this group of people because of their experience and as the middle man we’ll liaise and put it together’. We work with training institutions and schools too. For instance right now we’re running two sessions at the Multichoice Talent Factory talking to kids about distribution and marketing. I did the same at ZIFF where I held a workshop.
There is one important thing to note: we are very Africa-centric. We do not distribute content – which is yet another thing we do, obviously, when we are representing content creators – that is not either from Africa, or has been produced by an African or features Africans. We don’t, unless there is some sort of ‘closeness’ or proximity to Africa.
Awaaz: That’s very niche, but it also means that there’s enough of that content out there for you to make a living.
Wangeci Murage: Oh my goodness, there is, there is! I don’t know why people keep saying… Well actually, maybe I do, and it’s also why I stopped watching terrestrial TV. Every time I’d click on the remote to check the channels I’d see like a Korean soap opera – dubbed into Kikuyu – or a Bollywood show, also dubbed. And my goodness, there is so much local content! Just check out Youtube or even TikTok and you’ll see: the content is there. My question is, ‘do [content creators] know where to put their content? What platforms are best? That’s where we step in. We tell them, “You want to be on Tiktok? We can hook you up. You want to monetise on Youtube? We know exactly what to do, because we’ve spoken to them and we know exactly what is needed because we’re doing it ourselves.”’
So the content is there. And yes, Media Pros does survive on distribution of content.
Awaaz: Let me understand this. So I’m a student who has just completed my first 20-minute short film which I’m very proud of. But now I don’t know what to do with it. So I think, ‘maybe I’ll put it on Youtube where it will be seen by my friends and family because I’ll send them the link.’ But you’re saying that I can come to you and you’ll help me figure it out?
Wangeci Murage: I have actually encouraged some of my clients to remove their content from YouTube first. I’ve advised them to build up an inventory first because YouTube requires a certain amount of hours, it requires a certain number of subscribers. If you come with your 20-minute video, put it on YouTube and sit and wait, expecting YouTube to pay you, you’ll be disappointed. Or maybe you don’t even know that you could be paid. I’m here to tell clients that no, they need volume, they need content, they need to keep creating. Then they need to market it because, like I said, if people don’t know what you’re doing, how are they going to find you? Social media is also very key. You have to market relentlessly on social media.
Awaaz: This is a key issue, isn’t it? People don’t know or aren’t taught about distribution and marketing. And then of course with sites like YouTube you’re also talking about how to get picked up by the algorithm. So many filmmakers pour their hearts and souls into their project but once it’s done they don’t know what to do.
Wangeci Murage: And that’s another thing. In one of my training sessions on distribution and marketing I bring up the issue of the production budget. So many people have beautiful, well-thought-out budgets and they include key production elements: locations, writers, crew, even catering but everybody forgets about marketing and distribution! You need to think about it before you finish the movie because if you don’t know where you want to be or where you want the movie to go, then what are you creating this content for? And who are you going to sell it to? I tell them that they don’t have to have all the details at the budgeting stage, but at least factor in a percentage of the production budget – 15%-20% – to help you deliver. Don’t wait for the end with the attitude that your content will be so good that it will definitely be bought, or licensed, or that you’ll get a sponsor.
Awaaz: There’s a new aspiration now too: wanting or even expecting to ‘go viral’. And expecting that to be a spontaneous thing that just somehow happens organically.
Wangeci Murage: It doesn’t work that way. In fact I recently got a social media manager. I always knew I’d need one, but I finally got one. Let me tell you, in the space of two weeks she increased my views and followers by over 200%. Here’s the thing: we can’t know or be good at everything. Partner with people who know what they’re doing and are good at. My accountant deals with the books because that’s his specialty. Let the experts do their thing.
Awaaz: That’s the problem with the phrase ‘Show business,’ isn’t it? Because people focus on the ‘show’ part and forget all about the ‘business’ part. And then there’s general ignorance about how movies or shows even make it onto our screens, whether they are in movie theatres or our laptops. We just don’t think about it because, as the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Wangeci Murage: Well, there’s also the type of content creator who is looking for fame and notoriety and not much else, which is fine, I guess. I’ll say that as Media Pros we are very conscious about the content that we bring on board. We have standards and values as a company. We’re not going to take just any content for the sake of increasing our volume. It has to meet our professional standards. So I’d rather have 10 high quality products than 100 questionable ones. It’s not all about volume. It’s taken me a while to start talking to Netflix and the other big players, but now they’re starting to see my value. I may not have 1,000 hours but I have some good content. It’s about building a professional reputation.
Awaaz: So tell me, how can Kenyan films become internationally competitive? Content wise, production wise. The movies that you have, are they ready for the international market?
Wangeci Murage: Media: I’m going to start with the basic element, which is the story. We are trying to emulate too many things. We’re not being original enough. We are not telling OUR stories and that’s where we go wrong. The minute we start looking outside instead of starting the inside first is where we lose the plot. We have to – for the writers – we need to work on that. Authenticity is a word that needs to be explained, but for me authenticity is just you: your story, how you tell it, and whom you work with to tell it and how you work with other people to tell it. That for me is a huge factor that is not making our stories sell far and wide. And even here, locally. People make films and take them to KBC or KTN or Maisha Magic and the people there say ‘no, we don’t want it’ because even they don’t ‘feel it’.
Another thing is that we also price our products too high. A producer also feels that I spent 1K on this so I must make it back, or they even mark it up and demand the 1K plus more from one broadcaster. No! Look at different players: get your 20 shillings here, another 20 from there and before you know it you’ve even surpassed your 1K. But I get producers who come to me and say, ‘I must get a return on my investment NOW’. And I have to explain: we have to explore different platforms. We have to give ourselves time. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. Maybe 2, 3 years. Maybe even 5 for you to make your money back. That’s another thing that people don’t understand. Creating isn’t like a banana, or a fruit or a vegetable that you grow and then tomorrow you have to sell now or it will go bad. That content is for life. Personally, I love The Sound of Music, that’s my all-time favourite. And that movie was made in 1965! And I still love it. Look at how much time [it has endured]. And everyone I share it with – especially my children – is like, ‘wow, those are nice songs’. And we sing and party together to it.
So we need to understand that, in addition to marketing and distribution because I keep telling people, ‘If you don’t talk about your content, how do you expect to make a sale? How will people know it’s there and how to watch it?’ So for me those are the little nuances that we need to look out for when it comes to creativity and creating product. But do we have content? Yes! Do we really know who we’re making it for and what our intentions are? Maybe no.
Awaaz: That’s where our problems are because there’s a lot of frustration and everyone points fingers at everyone else. Writers say they can’t get people to produce their scripts, directors say they can’t get money for their original movies, etc. etc. And recently the latest fad among commissioning stations is producing rewrites of existing foreign shows.
Wangeci Murage: I’m so glad you mention this because I wanted to bring it up. It is so disheartening to see telenovelas that are Kenyan produced but are adapted from South African scripts. What we are basically being told by these platforms is that ‘you people have no stories so take this existing show and Kenyanise it’. So the shows will have Kenyan actors, we’ll see the local streets but the stories are not our own, they come from somewhere else. Why do we accept this as writers or producers, for that matter? For money?
Awaaz: Of course! If someone is going to make a reasonable living in this industry in Kenya, you go where the money is. You need an income in order to keep the lights on so that you can work on your personal projects on the side, in the hope that one day you can get your original idea produced.
Wangeci Murage: But why do we accept it? Why can’t we take a stand and say, you either take our stories or you get no stories at all? It’s wrong because now we’re creating a trend. These streaming channels now know, ‘we don’t need your brain. Just come be a puppet and do what we say’. You’re not even writing you’re just translating things from one context to another.
Awaaz: This leads me to something I’ve been curious about for so long: what makes the South African industry [writers, directors etc.] so powerful? Is it because they have unions? Is it that they have laws that protect them? Because they seem to have more freedoms than we do. Like I said, most creatives in Kenya can’t simply refuse to work on these derivative productions even when they’re paying us peanuts.
Wangeci Murage: That is another thing, yes. They have protections. They have unions etc. and they band together, kind of like the US. When the writers’ union goes on strike, there is no script that is going to be written. South Africa has also adopted the same mechanism because they can say, ‘either it’s our story or…’. This is what we need to do. We lack that in Kenya. And I keep saying it. We have so many associations for producers, distributors etc. and I’ve always asked, ‘Why don’t we have a standard? Why aren’t we standardised?’ A producer, for example, will approach a streaming platform. They will pitch for this content, whether it’s their story or not because there’s a call for submission or whatever. If they come in with a lower bid, they’ll get the job. They’ll undercut the market for their own gain. And then the next person who approaches that platform will be presented with that new lower bid and the next offers just get lower and lower.
You and I have discussed before about how people misunderstand the term ‘Show business’. This is the business side of it and we need to focus on it and stand together. Take all those different associations we have, for example, there’s no unity of vision or purpose or anything. Sometimes it’s difficult to even know the mandates for all the associations.
Awaaz: Things are going backwards. I was offered less money for a script the other day than I was paid in 2007.
Wangeci Murage: If you look at other unions worldwide, even if they’re not paid well [like with the current WGA strike] they at least have standardised rates. This is what we need here. At least a range of fees that are transparent and that are based on something: people with more experience and writing credits for instance are paid more based on a scale. I was asked to join an industry association recently and they asked me to pay 20,000 to join. The problem is that there was no information about what the money would be used for. I had no idea what benefits it would get me; nothing.
Another thing is the government agencies that are supposed to be taking care of us and supporting and nurturing the industry seem to have no interest in local creatives. I spent eight months trying to see a person in charge of film and then a foreign woman I knew – an American – swept into the country and got an appointment to see the government representative in a matter of days!
Awaaz: Could we learn from Nigeria, do you think? You have more experience with Nigeria than I do, but for me – from the outside – it looks as though Nollywood was basically built by Nigerians despite their government. What I mean is that there was no reliance on state support; in fact, no expectation of state support. They just got on with it. What do you think?
Wangeci Murage: You are quite right, they do not rely on the government. Of course our national characteristics are quite different, but Nigerian creatives really just went ahead and did it themselves.
Awaaz: South Africans are also interesting because they too write for themselves first and foremost. If the rest of us like their products then that’s a bonus, but they are usually very clear who their primary audience is.
Wangeci Murage: Exactly. I recently reviewed a South African movie while serving on the jury at the Zanzibar International Film Festival. And it was amazing and so well done. It showed a real, very raw vision of South Africa with nothing left out: from the crime to just… everything. They weren’t trying to make their country beautiful. They were showing the harsh reality of life in the township. It was incredible. One big problem with some of our movies is that we try to write for everybody, we try to cater to and please everybody. And that doesn’t work.
Awaaz: That’s the thing. In South African and Nigerian movies, even just looking at dialogue, they write things exactly how their people speak. A sentence will begin in one language and end in a completely different one. And they’re unapologetic about it because they’re just showing a reflection of themselves. Watching it as an outsider, it’s clear that they didn’t make it with me in mind, but I can usually follow the story. It’s okay that they aren’t specifically talking to me.
Wangeci Murage: Yes, we are the secondary audience. Whereas there’s a Kenyan approach of addressing the audience that is ‘out there,’ without first talking to the people who are right in front of you. That’s one of the reasons Nairobi Half Life was a success: because it spoke to people here. Some local content creators cater to an imaginary audience.
Guess which question I’m asked a lot. ‘Can you get my content onto Netflix?’ I tell them no. If you’re looking for Netflix, find somebody else. I get that question all the time. But let me tell you, if you licence content to KBC – because I’ve done this before – they pay better than Netflix. But you want Netflix because of the brand but you also want to make money. I’m there thinking, ‘KBC can give you a million shillings; Netflix can give you 10,000. But you’d rather have it on Netflix, which has fewer than 30,000 subscribers in Kenya.’
Awaaz: Prestige. Again, it’s the ‘show’ part of ‘show business’. Plus ignorance.
Wangeci Murage: I keep telling them, ‘I’m in business to make money; why would I do that?’
Awaaz: And that’s exactly why I wanted to talk to you about distribution. Too many people are completely ignorant about this side of the business. Thank you so much.