Charles Okpaleke’s journey, from being a struggling student to a top film producer, and the operator of Nigeria’s first drive-in cinema, reads like the script of a Nollywood epic. Profile by Gail Collins.
Charles Okpaleke, 37, has come a long, long way since his days as a penniless student. Initially following a career path in the health industry, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Nigeria in 2005, and went on to obtain an MSc in Health Economics from Birmingham University, England in 2007.
In 2001, during his first year as a university student, he was approached to work as an extra on a Nollywood film. What young student would not be captivated by the opportunity to be in the movies and earn some money?
It was this moment that sowed his ongoing fascination with the Nigerian film industry and its portrayal of African stories that those across the continent could identify with. In 2007, he returned home from England and was offered a health professional role with FHI (Family Health International) but by 2008, he was already showing signs of his business acumen.
With his brothers Elvis (a lawyer) and Jeffrey (an economist), he launched the Play Sports Bar and Grill in Abuja. It rapidly grew in popularity and initiated Play Entertainment Network, which became the overarching umbrella for the company’s evolution.
Today, the business has become a lifestyle brand catering to the hospitality and networking needs of its clients, including through a chain of nightclubs. The venture also has a charitable arm, the Play Network Foundation, which aims to educate and empower young Africans with the tools to build their careers and bring their ideas to life regardless of their educational background.
In between, Okpaleke has found the time to be a postgraduate lecturer at his old university in Nigeria, get married and be the proud father of beautiful twin daughters.
In 2015 Charles and his partners, who by no coincidence included actor Ramsey Nouah, secured the IP rights for a remake of the movie considered the ‘Grandfather’ of Nollywood films – Living in Bondage.
Ramsay, the man who once famously said, “I am not Jesus and I am not here to save the world. I am an actor”, had also starred in the 2001 film that was Charles’ debut into the world of movies.
In an industry that had been scarred in the 90s and for a decade beyond by poor quality production and piracy, and overlooked by a Nigerian government blinkered by the belief that oil was the sole key to their economy, Charles was confident that Nollywood could proffer more than the round of comedies and rom-coms it seemed to be caught in.
Blockbuster on debut
Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, a sequel to the 1992 classic with a directorial debut by Ramsey Nouah and Charles as executive producer, was released in 2019 and quickly became the 11th highest grossing film in Nigerian film-making history. It was followed up by streaming on Netflix in May 2020.
When questioned on the future of Nigerian film-making, post pandemic, he remained positive.
“I am a very optimistic person, so I would say the future of film-making would be brighter post-Covid, from seeing the advantage of having content during the lockdown. Content is key, and good content is appreciated universally. With the likes of Netflix and other SVOD and TVOD platforms, viewership is guaranteed, which in turn encourages film-makers to produce more amazing content, even in the midst of uncertainty about the cinema culture.”
June 1933, New Jersey, USA, saw the first drive-in movie, but Nigeria waited over eight decades and took until May 2020 during the pandemic to join the popcorn party, pioneered by the ever-visionary Charles. I asked him if he thought the phenomenon would disappear again when cinemas reopened. He responded: “Drive-in movie theatres are getting popular – and gradually becoming part of our culture. So, I see this as a development that has come to stay.”
Play Network Africa never stands still and has already widened its horizons, with events in South Africa and Namibia. Enquiring if further expansion was on the cards, the answer came as no surprise: “Yes of course. Play Network has a pan-African mission – thus we plan to put footprints around Africa. That is the dream.”
With Charles Okpaleke as a driving force, the dream may well come true.