Nigerian Ben Amadasun is responsible for the rapidly increasing African content on the world’s biggest streaming platform, Netflix. In conversation with Anver Versi, he explains how the system works and why this is the much-longed-for turning point for African filmmaking.
“I believe this is the beginning of a golden age for African films,” says Ben Amadasun on a Zoom call, the enthusiasm in his voice easily overcoming the long-distancing imposed on us due to the pandemic.
Ben is the Netflix Director of Content for Africa. He tells me his role is to track down “brilliant” local content from various African markets and acquire licences to run them on Netflix, which is today easily the biggest and most varied streaming service.
He and his team of creatives are also on the lookout for original material – scripts, story ideas, themes, book adaptations – to turn into films and series.
Last year, Ben, as part of a strong delegation from Netflix which included its Chief Content Officer and co-CEO, Ted Sarandos, and Dorothy Ghettuba, who leads the African original series, visited Nigeria and South Africa to meet filmmakers and potential partners.
It was a clear signal that the streaming giant was set to invest heavily in its African operations. It already has a sizeable catalogue of African titles and Ben tells me it has a healthy pipeline of new programming, including some originals, ready to roll out this year and going forward.
This is revolutionary. It means that at long, long last, Africa is poised to establish its own major film industry and tells its own varied stories in its own unique style.
“Netflix is interested in telling stories from the inside out,” says Dorothy Ghettuba. “For a while, our stories have been told from the outside in but now we have the agency and the power to tell stories from our perspective. That in itself is very exciting as the rest of the world gets to watch and learn what it means to be African.”
Ben Amadasun tells me that one of the most important reasons he took on the job at Netflix “was really to make sure these African stories can find a place with a new audience; and I knew Netflix was one of the key companies in the world that could give us this opportunity for our stories and our voices to be heard all over the world.”
I asked him how Netflix went about acquiring rights to the very impressive catalogue of African films it has on its slate. A good part of the content, he says, is licensing already completed programming. It kick-started the programming on the streaming service and part of it involves working with African creative talent to produce original features such as Queen Sono.
Does Netflix approach potential partners or do filmmakers approach them?
“It’s a mix of both, especially when we are new into the market. It is a concerted effort. When I joined the Africa team, I really reached out to a lot of the creative community in South Africa and in Nigeria to make sure that they knew we were starting to focus on acquiring and commissioning African stories,” he says.
“I went out to meet many of the potential partners in those markets, some of them are the best talent we have in Africa, and then we started to give them a brief of what we were looking for in terms of the kind of stories we were trying to bring to the platform.”
In addition, he and his team of content creative executives travel to their important markets, attend film festivals and keep an ear close to the ground for African content they can license or commission.
With this unprecedented opportunity for African film and TV creatives to display their talent on a global platform or engage in a creative partnership with the streaming company, I asked Ben if he was being inundated with pitches.
“There is a lot of interest,” he says. “We now receive various types of pitches from finished content, to co-production ideas, and original idea pitches to commission. We are still actively looking to work with more great African talent, both established and new, as well as also get really great ideas pitched to us.”
Must be able to travel
What criteria does he look at when assessing whether a completed programme or creative idea will work or not?
“When we look at titles, we want to see what the vision of the creators is; we want to see if those stories have the potential to resonate with Africans and our members and then hopefully have the potential to travel beyond the continent.”
As an example of films that can ‘travel’ and appeal to a much broader spectrum of audiences than the core geographical or regional ones, he says: “We bought a title from Zimbabwe called The Cook Off last year. It was a small budget film that showed that great stories can come from anywhere, be loved anywhere. That title really travelled beyond its local market and into Africa as a region and beyond.”
He reels off the titles of other films that have done very well outside their normal spheres of ambit. “We had another great title, Seriously Single, a romantic comedy film that travelled very well all over the world. We are very happy with it and from the Nigerian side, we have Oloture and Citation which also did well, not only in Nigeria but overseas as well.”
Do they make changes to the content of finished programmes to make them more attractive to a larger audience?
“We fully review a title and then we make a decision whether we want to license it or not. It is very rare that we ask for slight directional edits or changes.”
He tells me that usually they initially focus on locally produced content for a particular market and once a significant audience has been built up, they consider commissioning original material.
The current list of original content launched on the service includes Blood & Water and How To Ruin Christmas: The Wedding, and most recently, a stand-up comedy show called Loyiso Goya’s Unlearning. Interestingly, Ben was recently on a Netflix video in discussion with the highly successful Nigerian filmmaker, Kunle Afolayan on his next three projects. While the creative retains the IP, Netflix will provide the branding and platform.
Exploring other markets
Although Nigeria and South Africa are currently the key markets in terms of audience as well as content, Ben says Netflix has decided to buy more content from Kenya and has previously acquired titles from countries like Angola, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Mozambique, Ghana, Ethiopia and other African countries.
What about the massive African diaspora in Europe and the US? Is he tapping into the creative talent available there?
“We signed a deal with John Boyega, the popular British-Nigerian actor, to develop Africa-focused films. We are also speaking to a couple of other people in the diaspora.
“For us, the goal is to ensure that stories are focused on Africa and are reflective of the diverse cultures of the continent.”
Given the explosion of quality African literature now available, is he working on book adaptations?
“Very much so,” he says. “We are already working with Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife studios in Nigeria to bring to life the popular novel by Lola Shoneyin, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives; and we hope to be able to bring one of Wole Soyinka’s plays, Death & The King’s Horseman, to the screen.”
Ben tells me to expect a stream of highly entertaining African films and series as Netflix continues to roll out its catalogue. “Look out for Jiva!” he says. “It’s coming soon and it’s lots of fun.”
I make a note but in the meantime, I can look forward to gorging myself on the dozens of African films on Netflix that I haven’t watched yet, where like someone with a rapidly diminishing box of delicious chocolates, I have been limiting myself to savouring each slowly, one by one.