Isioma Osaje: 7 Ways To Producing Nollywood Blockbusters

While it’s no easy task producing movies anywhere in the world, making them in Nigeria remains an especially different prospect. The myriad structural and systemic problems producers and other players in the craft have to grapple with, somehow, continues to coexist with the reality that Nollywood remains one of the largest film industries in the world. It’s indeed a testament to the durability and tenacity of Nigerian producers who, despite the odds, continue to churn out quality. One of the many fighters against the tide is Isioma Osaje, a producer who has managed the rare feat of being involved in different capacities in nearly all the highest grossing Nollywood films in the past decade.  Familiar titles include, The Set Up, Your Excellency, Up North, New Money, Castle & Castle and much more.

Consistency has been said to be the ability to be dependable, durable and reliable with already acquired skills. To have remained the go-to producer for so many high profile productions speaks to the immense value Isioma brings to projects. This, in turn, positions her perfectly to provide tips, ideas and knowledge garnered over the years to young producers out there looking for answers in these uncertain times.

Over a lengthy discussion with Filmkaku that spanned film production to a myriad of other art related subjects, Isioma shared Seven pertinent considerations the Nollywood Producer with eyes on blockbuster production must take note of:

  1. Getting Started

Isioma’s fascination with film production grew as she got into talent management in Nollywood, managing talents like Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Blossom Chukwu and Linda Ejiofor-Suleiman. This was preceded by stints in Radio at Rhythm FM Benin and then as Deputy editor at Hip Hop World shortly after. These cumulative administerial experiences appear to have prepared her for the oft-chaotic world of film production. 

She eventually stumbled into production in 2016  with “Something Wicked”, together with Okey Uzoeshi and Yemi Morafa: A psychological thriller shot in just 9 days, on a very lean budget, but remained a fun introduction into the world of filmmaking despite the grueling demands. “We learnt producing as we made the film, taking cues from what we had seen on film sets and on the internet,” said Isioma, “This was with the awareness that there’s a need to make something whilst cutting your coat according to your size. You have to do the work for your CV and slowly earn your way up.”

King of Boys, BTS shot

The overarching message to aspiring producers is to do away with the webs of fear, the discouraging uncertainty and just do it. “You won’t die. We didn’t break even or make profit until after two years, from ancillary sales. And yes, we were really broke for those two years but we didn’t die, and you won’t too.” Isioma said. After two years, the thick black clouds blocking out what the future held were sloughed off, and splinters of sunlight slowly found their way in.  Something Wicked eventually found some market success and truly became the platform that kickstarted Isioma’s career in production. “After wrapping up something wicked, I woke up the next morning and said, this is it, this is what I want to do, where is the next one?” Isioma said, her voice retaining the hunger and desire for more that must have driven her at the more nascent stages of her career.

  1. Finding High Flying Mentors

The grueling experience working on Something Wicked continued after making the film as they wandered into distribution. “We didn’t have any idea of what to do about this film we had made. One of the people I knew I could call to help out was Inkblot’s Naz Onuzo,  a vastly experienced producer, whom I had met on set managing some of my clients on his films.” said Isioma. It was while working towards the release of Something Wicked that she began to look out for Naz’s valuable insights. “He was immensely helpful, even though he had no obligations to be.” recalls Isioma.  This first contact turned out to be the start of a valuable exchange between mentor and mentee that has persisted even to this very moment. “Once I was sure I wanted to produce, I knew I had to get mentorship,” said Isioma, “A Mentor is someone who’s gone ahead, someone you want to model your career after, and Naz’s career was all that for me.”

After wrapping Something Wicked, Isioma asked to work with Naz as a production coordinator to learn the ropes. Her gamble paid off in the most unimaginable ways in a few months. “Naz called me to come onboard as a co- producer on My Wife And I. Bear in mind that I was looking to just be a production coordinator not a producer. I was ecstatic and was ready to jump in immediately.” Shortly after producing My Wife and I, she was recommended to Filmone by Naz Onuzo to co-produce Don Omope’s “Makate Must Sell”, which was followed almost immediately by another production for Inkblot – New Money.

Her good work got her another recommendation to produce the ground breaking legal show, Castle and Castle, with Temidayo Abudu, for Ebonylife. This winning streak that extends into the biggest Nollywood films such as King of Boys, Up North, The Setup and Your Excellency was made possible by her foresight to connect to the right mentor, leaning on shared advice and doing well enough to warrant recommendation.

  1. Learn in other production roles. 

Not limited to being a producer, Isioma has also functioned as an Assistant Director and second Assistant Director on Love Is War, Oloture and many other films.  “This is how I see it: whatever is the length and breadth of experience you can get or have access to, take it,” said Isioma, “Don’t pigeonhole yourself to just one thing, you learn more by working different roles.”

For Oloture, Ebonylife executives approached Isioma to join the production team as the 2nd assistant director, to run interference between the female cast and the rest of what was a male dominated film set. “They needed a woman on set, being a very challenging film about women. I had to be that woman in the room, for the female cast who had to bare their souls in very emotionally challenging roles.” 

Isioma has since stepped into similar voids on other film sets, executing projects and sponging up experience and in the process building important relationships across the industry. “The more work you do, the more the recommendations you get, but make sure you do good work.”

  1. Manage Your Budget and Attach the Right Talent

The work of a producer begins before the cameras start rolling. First, there’s working with the screenwriter to develop the project with the budget of production as context. “Your budget is one of the first things you do. This provides a range that guides scripting and other preparations. Starting out blindly is setting up for disaster.” said Isioma. On Something wicked, the project had a very lean budget and this saw the production team cut costs creatively. “What we did was to cut the project to our size. The script was designed to take place essentially in two locations and the writing had to find a way to make it work creatively.”

Making Up North, on the other hand, came with intense demands on the capacity of the production team, with the scale requiring hours of travel and logistics. Isioma managed to keep the production on track even as challenges rose. “We had some problems that blew our budget through the roof, but we had to make the film,” said Isioma, “A good producer has to balance it out. It’s not about saying no to a lot of things, you need to prioritize what adds value to the film by giving the different obstacles and challenges serious thought.”

Up North, BTS shot

An approach to managing costs without necessarily increasing the budget is by observing the accounts of the various departments to see if there are rooms for movement. “You keep an eye on departments that come in with friendlier budgets that have allowed for leftovers and then you take what they have left and put in the other departments that need it. You don’t always have to raise your budget; move the money around.”

Most pre-production processes start with a finished script that undergoes changes as the director, cinematographer and other department heads weigh in. “Producing is essentially people management and that’s the strongest skill a producer can have,” said Isioma, “It also means I’m helping my team members get into positions and situations to do their work properly, especially the director.” In this process, the producer identifies locations and talents and everything else required to help the director. 

A producer must ensure, as much as possible, that problems are identified and tackled at the pre-production stage, not during the production when ripple effects of errors are almost always dastardly. “This is why people prefer working with people that make their life easier. I make it a point of duty to employ and work with HODs that know what they are about,” said Isioma, “Film sets are very stressful environments, with crew members often juggling the limitations of time and money. You need professionals who won’t crack under pressure. Yes, you always should give opportunities to the green and young, attach promising interns or underlings to departments, but don’t compromise with getting competent department heads.”

Producers also play a part in casting talent, which also ties into marketing decisions on the film project. “You start making marketing decisions in pre production. Right from the kind of talent you attach. Some kinds of talents give your film that extra virality. That is, these favourites create the kind of excitement in the prospective audience that will aid marketing and sales.” 

  1. Nailing the Stories that work

Although there are different types of producers in every film industry, they all should have an understanding of stories at a very functional level. “Film is about connection and you want the audience to believe what you are communicating as soon as the first ten to fifteen minutes. You want them emotionally engaged,” said Isioma, before going to make the distinction between her own projects and when she’s working as a producer for hire. “It’s rarely ever my vision. So your work as an on-set producer is to help the executive producer achieve his or her vision. If you’re making a picture for the market,  you should be looking for themes that resonate with most people; pain, love, disappointment etc. But at the end, there’s really no rule to it, tell whatever stories you’re inspired to tell.” 

  1. Guide to location scouting

Isioma is always on the lookout for locations, even when she has no film project slated, from restaurants, offices to just about anything. Beyond a constant mindfulness, she calls it a collaborative effort that begins in preproduction. “There are people in the industry, like the production managers and location managers who have extensive connections. Production Managers provide a lot of support in location scouting.” 

Up North, BTS shot

However, even sorted locations also come up with unexpected troubles during production. “I’ve had sorted locations that fell through without explanations. Of course, we didn’t have time to go look for a new location, we just checked the schedule and went to the next one. Then the hunt for replacement locations begin at that moment,” Isioma said, “People are not as close minded as we think, a lot of people believe in Nollywood and don’t mind you shooting in their place, with some instructions that must be adhered to.”

  1. Be Resilient

It’s not easy to make any movie and very hard to produce a great one. On films failing with audiences, Isioma said, “First thing to understand, nobody’s wants to make a bad film. Sometimes you make a good film and it comes out on the wrong day, and people don’t get on it, or it could be a story that just doesn’t resonate and it could also be in the execution. Mistakes will be made, take it on the chin and move on, but always do your best and grow from said mistakes.” 

About claims that certain stories or approaches are guarantees for success, Isioma rebuffed them with a perspective brimming with experience, “There are no formulas or surefire stories or methods. The claims that there are is simply uninformed idealism. Filmmaking is about venturing into the unknown, and will always continue to be. What you need, really, is to be relentless and face adversity bravely, be temperate in behavior, be great with managing money and know how to track expenses. You also need to enjoy supporting people. Be fine with doing a thankless job.” 



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