Already an acclaimed TV pioneer and host of her own talk show (Moments With Mo), prolific Nigerian producer Mo Abudu moved into film in 2014 through her expanding EbonyLife banner. Half a decade on and the company has been behind the top three Nollywood films of all time at the Nigerian box office, led by 2017’s romantic comedy The Wedding Party 2.
This year, EbonyLife prepares for its next step up, in June having signed a groundbreaking deal with Netflix making it the first African production company to have a multi-title deal with the streamer.
The first title from the deal, Oloture — following a young Nigerian journalist who goes undercover to expose the world of human trafficking — is now set for launch on Netflix on Oct. 2.
Ahead of Oloture’s release, Abudu talks exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter about EbonyLife’s grand plans, how Netflix has been ahead of the curve when it comes to Africa and why stories from the continent don’t always have to be about the slave trade.
Have all your films been on Netflix already?
Yeah, literally every single film we have made has gone to Netflix, starting from our first in 2015 called Fifty, which was basically about these four women about to turn 50 and going through a sort of midlife crisis. It was our first foray into making films after we set up EbonyLifeTV in 2013. And in 2014 we were like, let’s get into the world of moviemaking. I was also turning 50 that year.
When did you start discussing an exclusive slate deal?
The conversation started months and months ago, we’ve been talking about it for ages. But it’s the first of its type on the continent, it’s never been done. We are the first African production company that Netflix has signed a multiple title deal with. I pray there are many more, because it will be great to see so many more filmmakers and storytellers empowered on the continent, but we are the first. It’s been wonderful working with them. They are such a great team of creatives and have a very collaborative approach to work.
I’m assuming their plan wasn’t simply to improve what they could offer their African audience, but to take your stories out to the world?
Oh yeah, it’s for a global audience. They’ve made other projects, like Blood and Water, a South African production that became a number one hit in America the weekend that it came out. So this is an African story that the world has bought into. I’ve often said that Africa, as a continent, we’ve remained so quiet. We’ve been so quiet, and our stories have just never been told. Now we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, and Black stories matter. And a lot of the broadcasters are saying that it’s time now for there to be more Black stories on screen and more Black creatives involved in the process. But I’m happy to say that, you know, we started our journey with Netflix before then.
Shortly before the EbonyLife announcement with Netflix, it signed a similar deal with John Boyega’s UpperRoom Productions for a slate of African films, including two from Nigeria. And then there’s Blood and Water as you mentioned and also the other South African series Queen Sonos. What do you think is behind the company’s sudden push into African content?
Netflix are trailblazers. And no doubt the others will come and sign deals too.
I’ve been going to MIPCOM for probably 10 years now. I go every year and I’m really excited about meeting all the big studios and pitching, and they always say there’s never a bad meeting in Hollywood. Everybody always sort of listens to you politely, you have a glass of wine, you exchange cards, you’re like yeah, we’ll catch up next week. And you come home, you’re sending emails and you’re not getting any replies.
And so often when you spoke to these studios, for them, going to Africa you felt like the way they said it was like they were taking a trip to the moon. Lagos is a six-hour flight from London, and it’s on the same time zone. It’s not that far. So until the company decides that they’re going to put specific executives into positions where they are responsible for Africa, nothing really changes. They often lump Africa with somewhere else, maybe Asia. And they often don’t have much time to focus on Africa, but it’s in [the executive’s] title. So he may send you a couple of emails, but nothing’s really ever going to happen.
But Netflix were the first ones to get executives out there who are responsible for Africa. There’s Ben Amadasun and Dorothy Ghettuba, based in Amsterdam, who are both responsible for originals and licensing in Africa. Their day-to-day job is Africa. So the other studios, of course, are now beginning to realize that they need to have an African representative. But Netflix has kind of beaten them to it. But I do say the Sony and AMC and one or two others are also doing the right thing. So it’s good to see that there is interest in our stories.
What else do you have coming up on Netflix?
There’s a legal series called Castle & Castle, which is basically about a husband and wife team who set up a legal practice in Lagos. What we’ve tried to do is to make sure that we have cases that are representative of African cases. And there’s a sequel to our hit film Chief Daddy. And there’s also Death and the King’s Horseman, which is a feature based on a play by Nigeria’s first Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, which I had acquired the rights to many, many years ago. And we have Lola Shoneyin’s book The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, which we’re adapting. But those are the ones that have been announced!
You’ve also got deals with Sony and AMC. What’s coming from those?
We’re developing projects with Sony, and I’m sure there’ll be some news to announce soon. And with AMC we have Nigeria 2099, an afrofuturistic crime drama. I’m so excited, because the whole world is doing sci-fi and Africa needs to get involved. When we sent our slate of projects to [AMC’s executive vice president of international programming] Kristin Jones, she selected that one, which we’re now developing. So it’s really great.
Most of your previous films are comedies, but you’ve gone to a darker place with Olature. How does this film – your first Netflix original – help symbolize what EbonyLife is about?
My ambition for EbonyLife films is that we should be able to play in four key genre areas. We have Afro-History, basically going back in time looking at all these incredible stories about African history. Then we have Afro-Futurism, which are the sci-fi projects, like the one at AMC. We have Afropolitan, which are day-to-day stories, such as The Wedding Party, and finally we have Afro-Impact, with things that are slightly more sensitive that impact our society, such as Oloture. That’s the area where we want to play. Whatever we develop in any point in time would fall within those four genres.
Speaking of Afro-History, it feels like a very interesting time for that, with so many discussions about how schools aren’t teaching Black history. There’s the sense that it’s almost becoming the job of film and TV to fill that gap.
Absolutely. But it’s important that we never forget these stories must be entertaining as well as informative. The only bit of our story that is often told by international studios tends to be about the slave trade. But there was life before the slave trade in Africa, and there was life during the slave trade in Africa and there was life after. So there’s history that’s never been told by anyone.
But just as much as our history is important, I also need stories that reflect my day-to-day reality. I’m a normal woman living in Africa. I’m in my 50s, my heart gets broken, my heart gets mended, I have aspirations, I have dreams, I have passions. I deserve my story to be told, even if it’s just something day-to-day. It doesn’t have to be about the slave trade. I want to go away for the weekend, and maybe my car breaks down … that’s my movie!
See the trailer for Oloture below