…Screenwriters deserve to be stars, pay them well like actors, Onuzulike charges Nollywood producers
…Blaming Nollywood for ritual killings is the most preposterous, stupid thing to say, Arinze fumes
By Ozoro Opute
WHEN film company Aforevo set out to reward three screenwriters with over N2 million in its Nollywood Screenwriting Contest 2022, not many in Nigeria’s film industry believed it was for real. It’s not the sort of money five screenwriters combined can earn in three years given the poor remuneration screenwriters get in an industry that has millionaire actors, producers and directors. Strangely, the screenwriters are kept down the bottom of the ladder, with no prospect of ever rising to the top. But Aforevo, led by Mr. Lawrence Onuzulike, set out to cause a change in the industry he has worked as an actor, producer, screenwriter, and director, and where screenwriters are demeaned by the others in 30 years of Nollywood’s existence.
Cosmas Abasi won the maiden edition of Nollywood Screenwriters Contest 2022 with his script ‘The Ability’ that talks about the multiple talents an individual can have and how he can switch from one to the other if things go wrong with one. Abasi won N1 million as first prize while Mr. Abundance Effiong and Dolly Nwaduba got N500,000 and N300,000 for second and third positions respectively.
“The prize means so much for me, in the sense that everybody that participated in this contest, those guys that made it to the top three are great,” Abasi gushed. “It means a lot to me but also for the entire Nollywood. I’m not saying that we don’t have fantastic writers; we do. I respect the likes of Kabat Esosa, Yinka Ogun; we will contribute our own quota to the betterment of whatever we watch on our screen.”
Abasi said he’s been writing for over seven years, but that “it’s been tough, sincerely speaking; tough in the sense that you don’t have money (on you) but you still turn down some (script) offers. They want to shoot a big budget movie, but when they say what they have for the script, and it’s so small, so you turn down the offer. So it’s challenging.”
He commended Aforevo and its founder for the inspiration, noting, “So this is innovation, and I want to say a big kudos to Aforevo for initiating this project. It’s a big deal. They are trailblazers. I wish the rest (of Nollywood) will follow suit; it will be for the betterment of the industry.
“From script to screen: whatever you watch comes from people who put it down in black and white. You’ve got to write it down first – the script. So we need to take script writers seriously; pay them well. I jumped a public transport down here; I don’t think it happens in some other parts of the world. Because of poor pay, many screenwriters backed out of the industry; they couldn’t stay. So this prize is going to inspire us, spur on several other beautiful people, who want to support script writers, so we can do great things.”
Abasi said screenwriting in Nollywood is gradually changing for the better, but urged producers to do more for screenwriters, as the bedrock of any successful film.
“The script writing narrative has changed,” he said, “often times now, you cannot predict the end of a movie from the beginning. That has changed. Besides, Aforevo has assembled script writers who are doing things differently.”
Does Abasi think Nollywood should be held responsible for ritual killings currently plaguing the Nigerian society?
“Does it (ritual killing) exist in real life?” he asked. “I think it does. If you check out such movies, they resolve it at the end with the evil-doer ending badly. So Nollywood does not promote ritual killings. The question to ask again is, does Nollywood promote corruption in Nigeria? Do we promote illicit affairs in Nigeria, money laundering and other vices? You’ve got to think about all these.”
Abasi said his script writing process usually involves a lot of knowledgeable people to avoid scripts that reflect society badly, adding, “I call for script workshop where we put heads together to bring out something good.”
For an excited founder of Aforevo, Onuzulike, the first Nollywood Screenwriting Contest 2022 has turned out a success, and he has made an urgent call on his colleagues to take screenwriters seriously and give them their deserved monetary due in terms of fees paid them. He spoke about his motivation for initiating Nollywood Screenwriting Contest 2022.
According to him, “I have been in this industry for about 24 to 25 years as a producer, director, actor and screenwriter, and I noticed that screen writers are not being given the same attention as actors. I can mention numerous actors that are massive stars. I can also mention directors and producers as well in that bracket. But you cannot mention screen writers that are massive stars in the country or doing well, but they are the bedrock of the film industry. Some of them write one script from six months to one year, but they are the ones who beg you to buy it. Some approach me and say, ‘Please, Lawrence, can you produce my script for free?’ That’s how bad it is. Screen writers can barely feed whereas their colleagues are buying houses and cars and living in upscale neighbourhoods.”
Onuzulike said the screenwriting contest should be the beginning of the debate about changing the orphan-status of screenwriters and consequent elevation in the industry.
“So, I felt it’s time to start the debate and held Nollywood Screenwriting Contest,” he said. “We created this screenwriting contest just to start the debate; it’s just a step towards the direction we’re headed. We want to remind people that there are people called screenwriters in Nigeria, and that they are very important. How do we raise them to same level as other people in the same industry? They have to be noticed; they have to be known. Their works have to be recognised. So we decided to start by rewarding and awarding them, by making them the focus.”
Onuzulike blamed the poor perception screenwriters have on the larger Nigerian society that does not accord writers of all category their due.
“I think society is to blame for screenwriters’ woes till date,” he said. “Even authors, people that write books in Nigeria, only few are known. When it comes to writing, we don’t value it in Nigeria. I lived in Europe for 19 years; some of the richest people over there are writers. So, it’s the society first not appreciating writing and writers. Then it’s the same way it has remained in the (film) industry, because it looks down on writers and screenwriters; the industry is taking advantage of that.
“You will see a producer reading one of the best scripts around, but he will price it at N20,000! That’s taking advantage of that person, because the producer is going to make millions out of that screen script. So paying that person what is due to him or her is not a bad thing. This thing, this attention, this searchlight is for screenwriters. Let’s look at their lives. Why should they be suffering when they are one of the most important sectors in this industry?”
He said the contest is for the benefit of the industry that has profited massively from the sweat of screenwriters without commensurate returns for their creativity that’s taken for granted.
“We’re not doing this to garner attention to ourselves,” Onuzulike said. “We’re doing this to garner attention for screenwriters; so they should be the ones we should be talking about and not us, Aforevo. We want to do two contests a year; this is the first one. We will hold another one this year.”
Onuzulike expressed amazement at the sheer talent on offer from the responses for the contest, noting, “We got more than 1,000 entries. So we have massive talents. We have great writers, thinkers, amazing people in this country. That has been established. The cash prizes are not too much, but it’s about calling attention to this segment of creatives in the industry. And they appreciate it. It will give them the courage to do more, to write more. Most them thought that we were joking, but they are shocked at receiving their prizes. We’ve convinced people what we do; when people read about it or watch it they will be further convinced that they can write and win something or go higher. We are changing the mindset of our young people about scriptwriting.”
He therefore called on his colleagues in the industry to toe the same path and begin a new, different narrative for Nollywood screenwriters.
“We encourage our colleagues in the industry to start paying handsomely for screen scripts they get,” he appealled. “You cannot just take scripts for free, make millions, buy houses and the writers will be there suffering. We need to change this.”
Earlier, Onuzulike said the budget for the total package for the winning screenwriting Contest 2022 is N10 million, as Abasi’s winning work ‘The Ability’ will be shot into a blockbuster movie. The two runners-up screen scripts will also be shot into films.
Head of jury and ace actor, Mr. Segun Arinze (Yinka Ogun, Victor Okhai, and Clarion Chukwura as other members), said features of the winning stories that the jury considered included “great writing skill, engagement, story background, setting and, of course, characters, the environment in your writing.”
Arinze agrees with Onuzulike that Nigeria boasts of abundant talents, adding, “It’s been interesting for our writers. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of good writers in this country, but again it depends on how you treat your script, how you tell your story. Some writers are very engaging from the first stage to the last. I always tell people that experiences you may have had, try to add it to the story you’re telling.”
If good writers abound in Nollywood, why the rash of badly told stories? Arinze does not agree there’s such a thing as bad stories. Instead, he blamed such offerings on some directors who are in the habit of messing up good scripts that come their way in the name of exacting authority.
“I don’t agree, because that same script that is very good, at the end of the day during production, the director is going to kill it,” he stated. “Some directors will opt to disfigure stories to suit their own whims; they then start to squeeze it, squeeze it, and at the end of the day, they would have poured water on it and it doesn’t make any sense again. So I completely disagree with that view. If I don’t like some aspects of a story, I call the writer and we sit down and talk about it.
“Also, when a writer is on set, they tell you this is how I want it. There is nothing static; it must continue to evolve. But to lay the blame totally on the writer why some films are bad is not true. A story is a story; it’s how you make it acceptable that takes it to international standard. For me, a story is a story; it’s the treatment that counts. Give me content; once I’m contented with the story, that is it.”
Arinze expressed fury at the role Nollywood has supposedly played in promoting the rash of ritual killings for money in the country.
“It’s the most preposterous, stupid thing for anyone to say,” he fumed. “We just tell stories that appeal to society. I heard some funny politicians talking about it in Abuja. A lot of these people who are talking are involved in this nonsense themselves. So how come they are blaming it on Nollywood? We are the mirror of society, for crying out loud. Don’t get me upset.”
For Arinze, “Nollywood is an industry that is evolving and continues to evolve. That’s why I don’t like it when people say there is new Nollywood and old Nollywood. Let me tell you, a bank is a bank; a barrack is a barrack; army will come and go. A school is a school; students will come and graduate. Does that make the school or barrack old or new? No; it’s a process until you get to the final point. And how do you even determine what the final point is? As an actor, I’ve made a mark, I’ve tried to carve a niche for myself in the industry. But I’m a work in progress, because I learn every day. So I leave myself open to learn every day. So nobody should come and tell me I’m old Nollywood. I think that’s balderdash, complete crap.”
Another Nollywood great who was at the event was Tony Akposhie, who commended the organiser and winners of the contest.
“This is a great project by Aforevo,” Akposhie said. “We’ve just started or beginning to see quality screenwriters encouraged. Nollywood screenwriters are not just storytellers; they should think deep, think well before they bring qualitative stories that are well told. People out there are looking for good stories from Africa, stories from Nigeria. I think it’s a great thing that Aforevo held this competition. I’m happy to be here. Sometimes, the money may not be too much but you will be proud to be part of a good story being made into a film than when you have big money but bad script. I have had cause to reject a story because of a bad script.”