From surviving on a banana to making Sh30,000 a day

Alexelle Grace
NAIROBI, KENYA: One of the longest running jokes in Hollywood is that despite the importance of a producer on a film or television set, no one really knows what they do. They are everywhere all the time, have their fingers on the dial and ears to the ground, yet, it’s rather difficult to give a definition to their job.

To get this answer from a Kenyan perspective, Hustle, spoke to Alexelle Grace, who runs Galaxies Productions Incorporated (GPI), a production company dealing in all things television shows and film.

Alexelle has been in the industry since 2007, first as an employee and now, as her own boss.

Today, the 37-year-old takes us through her steady climb from production assistant to producer.

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So, what (who) is a producer?

There are actually different types of producers in the film industry. We have content producers, line producers, supervising producers, executive producers, etc. It all depends on what their role encompasses.

I am a creative producer. My role is to ensure that the vision of the show at conception is what we accomplish at the end of the shoot. I work from idea to final cut.

Take us through the process.

Let’s say my company is approached by a client who wants a documentary, the very first thing I would do is understand their concept and the purpose of the documentary.

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Is it to education people? Is it to enlighten their staff members? Is it as a source of information for their sponsors or clients? Once we ascertain the purpose of their project, we go about doing research on the same.

What’s the most effective way to pass this message across to the people they are trying to reach? Once we iron out this preliminary stage, which is very similar to writing a script, because even documentaries are scripted, we can now continue to what we call pre-production.

This is the stage where we do location visits, budgeting, hiring of equipment and crew members, locking down catering, transport, scheduling etc. After pre-production we shoot the film and then do post-production; which includes editing, colour correction, mastering sound and so on.

How complicated does the process get?

It all depends on the production. The most complicated one I did was an advert for Airtel Kenya, which included crews from South Africa, Russia and India. I was dealing with over 50 crew members and the shoot lasted approximately two weeks. 

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People think the hardest part of a producer’s job is handling the budget or the schedule but for me, if you plan well, those things fall into place. Numbers and time follow rules. You don’t wake up in the morning and discover that suddenly Tuesday has three less hours than you thought.

What isn’t constant is humanity; handling different personalities that come from different backgrounds, cultures and sometimes languages.

Finding that balance between professionalism and handling your crew is an art form. That’s what separates a great producer from an average producer.

What are some specific challenges you’ve faced on the job?

Once I had to fire someone on set. It was difficult because even before telling that person they had been fired, I had to find a replacement and transport them to set within a few hours. A film set is like a clock, every single role is crucial. There can be no gaps or the ensuing delays would be costly.

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What kind of hours do you work, typically?

Wow, that’s so unpredictable. The shortest days would likely be eight hours; the longest can even extend to 18 hours. But I’ve had days I worked for 22 hours, got two hours sleep and came back to work.

Is it worth it?

I won’t lie, the pay is good. For instance, if you’re working on a TV commercial as a producer you can get anywhere between Sh25,000 to over Sh50,000 a day. If you get a shoot that lasts just under two weeks, that’s between Sh300,000 to over Sh600,000. The figures may seem high but it caters for other benefits that full term employees have.

Are jobs consistently available in the industry?

Sadly no. Film can be like farming, there are extremely good seasons and extremely bad seasons. My worst year would have to be 2013, this was just as I was transitioning from working for a production company to creating my own brand, GPI.

I went from earning a monthly salary of approximately Sh250,000 to nothing. I lived off my savings but there were times when rent became an issue. The lowest point was when I survived for two days on just one banana. By God’s grace, I started getting contracts and things picked up.

During these times, how do you sustain your staff members?

We work on contract basis so that isn’t a problem. My overheads are extremely low.

The industry seems relatively volatile, what keeps you going?

I like how unpredictable it is. Every single shoot day is different. Every project asks something else of you and you’re constantly pushing yourself to be better.

Film is like life, it’s always changing. Yes, it’s difficult and it’s not for the faint-hearted but when you find that flow, it’s one of the most exhilarating and financially rewarding professions you can be in.

What steps does someone need to become a producer?

In Kenya, most people learn on the job. For me, I climbed up the ranks from a production assistant, which is largely administration like making photocopies, ensuring crew members are picked on time, scripts are sent out on time, lunch is served as per schedule, etc.

I did this with Bob Nyanja’s company, Cinematic Solutions, between 2007 and 2010 as a Production Manager.

I was then promoted to become the Production Manager of Churchill Live, which was extremely thrilling and a great learning curve.

It was the lessons I learned here, that inspired me to keep growing in my craft until I become a producer for a Game Show and ultimately launched GPI in 2013.

The best thing to remember though, grow slowly, even if you have the qualifications.

It helps to have a producer who has done everything on set, that way you know all the challenges your crew face.

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