The name John Chuka will definitely not strike a familiar chord in the bubbling Nigerian movie industry, but the well schooled filmmaker, who doesn’t wear his achievements like medals, has come, seen and broken the record with the first-ever free movie academy in Africa, Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with THE NATION, the highly gifted entrepreneur opens up on his life, Asaba Film Academy and more.
HOW can you describe yourself to someone who has never met you before?
I’m an entrepreneur with a burning desire to replicate Hollywood in Nollywood.
How can you explain the marriage between your childhood ambition and present achievements?
I guess I wanted to be many things simply because my father told me I could be anything I wanted to be. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around to guide me and help me fine tune my childhood ambitions. I lost my father at the age of 14 and my mother, nine years after. Growing up, I was rudely awakened to the fact that I had to work very hard for anything I wanted out of life. I worked hard to acquire three degrees and I’m working very hard to keep my film production business afloat. Over the years, I have learned that dreams come with a price. I’m not afraid to dream, but I’m also willing to pay for them.
What really informs your present initiative of floating a free movie academy?
When I returned to Nigeria in 2013, my goal was just to make and distribute films that my fellow Africans could identify with. But to get started, I needed to have a feel of the industry; hence, I spent six months to conduct a feasibility study of some sort. I basically met with anyone and everyone in the industry that was able and willing to meet with me. I started Asaba Film Academy to train creative and passionate Nigerians I could work with to execute quality film projects.
My potential students could not afford to pay my tuition. Then it became imperative for me to truly understand the fact that I did not open the academy to make profit, but to train people I could work with to make quality films. I had no recourse other than to make the difficult decision to train for free now and get paid later. After all, I acquired my own filmmaking training on the same premise. The American government gave me a hundred thousand dollars in student loans, which I would have to pay back with minimal interest rate when I become gainfully employed. I have the same understanding with my students that they will share their revenue with the academy when they start earning Nollywood income. But in the meantime, let’s make good movies that Nollywood films enthusiasts could enjoy and identify with.
Why Delta State instead of Lagos or Abuja?
I get this question a lot of times. In the six-month time period of my feasibility study, I was stationed in Asaba, but I travelled quite a bit of times to Lagos and Abuja. The general cost of living, the family and friends support network, and most importantly, the filmmaking-friendly characteristics of Asaba did it for me. I concluded that a good film could be made anywhere around the world. Although below standard, a lot of films projects are executed on daily bases in the Delta State capital, Asaba, and its environs. And I made two quality feature films in 2018, ‘The Love Covenant’ and ‘Ghetto Blues’.
Is free admission a permanent or temporary structure?
I grew up to understand that the best favour is free; especially in a developing country like ours, Nigeria, where many lack so much in the midst of plenty. The free training concept defines us at Asaba Film Academy and it sets us apart in the crowded industry, Nollywood. Free training is our signature initiative at Asaba Film Academy and it has gradually become our corporate culture; we can’t give it up.
Let’s talk briefly about the movie academy
Asaba Film Academy is just one out of three sister companies that are designed and established to operate independently, but must work together to form a whole – Asaba Film Academy Nig Ltd, Flix Pix Works Nig Ltd and Reels on Wheels Concepts Nig Ltd. So far, these legal entities have been funded with equity funds from John Chuka Productions LLC, a legal entity registered in the state of California, USA. The interwoven cooperation between the companies allows them to work together on film projects and share the proceeds among themselves. Asaba Film Academy initiated the first two film projects, Asia: The Love Covenant and Ghetto Blues and commissioned Flix Pix Works to execute them. Reels on Wheels Concepts are now gearing up to distribute the films. Each of these companies will be duly compensated for their efforts.
Considering the cost implications and return on investment. How are you intending to run the academy successfully?
Asaba Film Academy is a creative platform for all and sundry creative and passionate Nigerians to explore their talents. Our pool of trainees include people from different parts of the country and all available opportunities at Asaba Film Academy are open to any and all Nigerians, irrespective of state of origin.
What are the challenges so far?
Since my return in 2013 until now, I have had to deal with all kinds of challenges ranging from integration to infrastructure, but I have managed to find my way around them. The most persistent of the challenges is the fact that my fellow Nigerians can’t see the amazing business opportunities that are embedded in the fact that Nigeria is a developing country. The young feel too important to work. The rich are too much in a hurry to invest in the future.
And the government is too busy to create and enforce laws that will establish and sustain business-friendly environments. Everything is basically a struggle. Some young Nigerians believe they are doing John Chuka a favour to sign up for our training programmes. Some potential investors will not invest in a business they cannot control and manage by themselves. Government loan facilities are almost impossible to access. Doing business in Nigeria in the last five years has been as hard as getting water out of a rock. Nonetheless, I’m in it for the long haul. I love what I’m doing and I intend doing it for the rest of my life.
How do you unwind?
My preferred way to unwind is to shoot the breeze and possibly have a good laugh, while sharing a drink with a loved one.
What are your takes on filmmaking in Nigeria and the industry itself?
With the ability to create tons of well-paying jobs every year, the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, could pass as the most vibrant industry in our country. But the industry remains highly underdeveloped and grossly underproductive.
As a graduate of movie academy, what do you intend to do differently?
Trained in Hollywood, I graduated from one of the best hands-on film schools in the world – New York Film Academy, Universal Studios. Before my film training, I had business degrees from Europe and North America – The Hague University and Texas Tech University, respectively. People like free stuff and I’m offering free training at Asaba Film Academy – free tuition and free accommodation.
As a result, I was able to crowd fund my first two feature films, Asia: The Love Covenant and Ghetto Blues. I literally raised about ten million naira from friends, family and well-wishers around the world. I did it on Facebook. I’m not awed by the amount of money raised as much as I’m awed by the fact that people would trust me with their hard-earned money, in a society that is so fraud-infested like our beloved country, Nigeria. I’m now working to distribute my films in Nigeria and possibly beyond. Typically, a new film goes to the cinemas, then, the VoD (Video on Demand) market, before coming to the home entertainment (DVD/VCD) market. In our country, where things work differently, the DVD market is where the money is. Why? We don’t have enough cinema screening rooms to screen the 2,500 films produced annually in Nigeria to the 200 million people in the country. We have less than 200 screening rooms in Nigeria.
The content providers behind the VoD market don’t come close to paying the film producers well enough for their work. The DVD market goes far and deep into the Nigerian communities to bring these films to the people at a price they can afford. Most filmmakers will not have their films on a DVD because of the pirate activities, which are rife in Nollywood. I want to do it differently by taking the chance to get my films on DVDs, but I should be able to flood the market with them, working with a nationwide network of distributors. If successful in Nigeria, I’m at liberty to repeat the process in any and all 50 African countries. The DVD market is incredibly huge, but the prevailing pirate activities in the market are daunting.
Who are your mentors or role models?
Martin Luther king Jr stepped up to the plate to pastor a controversial black church at a time in the history of the Unites States of America when it was very unpopular and life-threatening for a blackman to be a leader. Nnamdi Azikiwe led Nigeria to independence at a time in the history of Nigeria when the success of a man was measured by the size of his yam barn. Nelson Mandela spent 25 years of his most useful life span in South African prison to liberate his people. What these great men of their time and our time had in common is that they walked against the grain. They volunteered themselves to chart new courses and blaze new trails.
In practical situation, not everybody will be producing or directing when they get out of school, what other roles in filmmaking are available in the academy?
At this point in the start-up phase at Asaba Film Academy, we offer free tuition and free accommodation in our flagship training programmes, in screenwriting and acting. We will introduce other training programmes when we are financially stable enough to sustain them. Some of the training programmes we intend to introduce at Asaba Film Academy in the near future include, but are not limited to, producing, directing, cinematography, photography, sound mixing, editing, makeup, script supervising, set design, light handling, property handling and costume handling.
How do you compare with traditional film schools?
Our business model of training and hiring our trainees sets us apart from conventional film schools. Even the best film schools in the world don’t bother themselves with the employment of their graduates. At Asaba Film Academy, we offer all-around empowerment. We had Tony Umez, Livinus Nnochiri, Blessing Nwankwo and some other Nollywood veterans in our maiden film project, Asia: The Love Covenant and we had Shan George, Livinus Nnochiri and some other and a few others in our second film project, Ghetto Blues.
Is this a structured movie academy or a ‘coffee fetching internship’?
We have training programmes in screenwriting and acting for now. We get our trainees grounded in the academics and soak them in the practice. The acting programme consists of 32 classes of 2-hour class sessions, while the screenwriting programme consists of 56 classes of 2-hour class sessions. Our trainees wrote the screenplays for our first two film projects, Asia: The Love Covenant and Ghetto Blues; and they acted in them.
After this, what next?
When I ventured out in 2014, the goal was to establish three different business units and sustain them. The first of the three business units, Asaba Film Academy, has been running for about five years and still counting. We activated the second one, Flix Pix Works, just last year and made two movies. We intend to keep it activated, executing more film projects moving forward. We’re now gearing up to activate the third of the business units, Reels on Wheels Concepts, for the purpose of distributing our films.