Mwaniki Mageria, CEO for RiverWood Ensemble Filmmakers Association speaks about the film industry in Kenya, its challenges and where he sees it in the next few years:
What role do you play in the film industry?
My job revolves around creating new ways to help members grow their film production businesses. This includes engaging the Government in policy and practice matters, looking for new markets for content, securing new technological avenues for content distribution, running focus training for members and celebrating excellence through the annual RiverWood Academy Awards and exploring partnerships.
In 2006, I was asked to help launch the movie Backlash by some friends. I visited the Kenya Film Commission and met Wachira Waruru. He blew my mind with ideas of harnessing the film activity in the informal market in River Road. On his urging, I went into River Road to understand what was happening.
I met great people like Ken Wakuraya now of Inooro TV, Kimani Mburu a great producer and actor now in the US. Others include distributors like John Mwangi and Kamjoro. With time Balozi produced the sunflower animation of Reuben Kigame’s song Fadhili Zake Za Milele and soon after the singing lions of Kayamba Afrika’s Kikuyu hit song Ngukinyukia - this made me very popular in River Road. The rest is history.
Is this what you always wanted to do growing up?
On the contrary I wanted to be Michael Jackson. I had a crush on Janet... But I quickly noted I wasn’t as good a dancer or singer. Nonetheless, I sang in various music groups in my youth including the church youth worship group. I wrote songs for various music groups. During the time, I was the manager for the hit groups Five Alive, Balozi Afrika, Safari, Eric Wainaina, Raha among others.
I was also the Chairman of Mavuno Drama Festival in the mid 90s, an umbrella youth association that encouraged church youth groups to interact in the discipline of drama. As a founder of Mavuno, alongside Bob Nyanja and Zorro Lukwhili, we did ground breaking work including the blockbuster Pambazuka and Subira besides working with now world renowned Director Hulda Mkawasi Mcharo. With time, I realised I was more gifted in being a producer, marketer and manager than a performer.
What happened next?
I had a stint in selling cars for 10 years during which I worked as a presenter at Capital FM, first as an intern then later I did ‘The Late Night Capital’ and ‘The Sunday Breakfast show’ which was very exciting. I learned a lot. Apart from producing content with D&R TV a subsidiary of YoungRich TV, I am an accomplished TV personality and emcee.
Many Kenyans seem unfamiliar with Riverwood, what could be the reason?
Which Kenyans are we talking about here? I strongly believe we have done all we could and are still in the process.
Do you think mainstream media is to blame for this or could it be as a result of poor quality productions by local film producers?
For a long time, many Kenyan broadcasters were not keen in supporting local productions. It’s amazing to hear the common mwananchi more familiar with Nigerian accents and mannerisms compared to their own Kenyan culture. A good example is sometime back when Kiss TV was making a choice for Kenyan content -- the influx of Naija movies was at its apex. Besides, most leading stations had and still have a two to three-hour segment dedicated to foreign soaps and films.
If they did the same for RiverWood, the industry would grow and more jobs would be created. On my part, I tried hard to urge River Road producers to improve quality but over the years that we were on Kiss TV, the movies got nicknamed, “Rainy Day Movies!” because of the hazy picture -- due to the low pixel count from the cheap quality cameras they were shot with. What a reputation!
Do you think Riverwood has improved?
Yes, a lot of quality Kenyan content you see now is from Kenyan producers, many of whom have been celebrated in the local Awards including RiverWood Academy Awards. In short, the film industry in Kenya cannot thrive without the TV component. You will see that the biggest producers are big on TV. Because of this increased quality, the industry is being recognised across borders.
This year alone, we have had films receive awards in Berlinale, Cannes, Lagos AMVCA, Durban DIFF, Zanzibar ZIFF and I won’t be surprised if next week we do so in Ouagadogo Film Festival in Burkina Faso. This aside, we are partnering with the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), Kenya Film Commission (KFC) and others to help maintain high standards and get the best out of our producers for bigger markets.
As one of the founding creators of Kalasha Film and TV Awards, a board member at the Kenya Film Commission and treasurer of the Guild of Film Distributors in Kenya do you think you have accomplished your goal?
Not yet. there is still a lot to be done... It may take two lifetimes to get to where we want to be.
What are some of the challenges you are facing?
Adapting to the changing face of film distribution. DVD sales are dead. We are competing with international quality pirated content that one can get on a flashdrive for Sh50. How do you compete with that? Online platforms are revenue share based and my members are averse to that model since they have already risked and produced the content. It’s a quagmire right now. But as my name ‘Mageria’ implies, I will keep at it.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
During the initial stages when I tried getting these films on TV, I was disappointed getting answers like “that poor quality stuff?”, “It isn’t the type of content we are looking for!” and really negative stuff from gatekeepers of Broadcasters. However, I didn’t give up. Our big break came just at time Radio Africa Group were taking over Metro TV and wanted to have a new array of Kenyan content. Patrick Quarcoo agreed to see me and commissioned a survey to ascertain that what I was telling him about loads of Kenyan content across Kenya was right. Upon satisfying the management that we had enough content, he took a bold decision and agreed to my offer of one hour a day of Kenyan films -- from all dialects and corners of the country.
Despite this we needed order and upon the advice of a great mentor of mine in the Broadcast industry, Mburugu Gikunda, I met with key producers and formed RiverWood Ensemble Filmmakers Association, at Timboroa Restaurant on Sheikh Karume Road in December 2012. I took on the role of Secretary General or Secretariat and started putting Kenyan Films on Kenyan TV for the first time on a large scale.
When do you feel you have failed as a CEO for Riverwood?
When my members don’t have new markets for their content, that gives me sleepless nights. It’s sustainable growth that will build the industry and scalable concepts that will create more opportunity and jobs. That is what I feel I haven’t nailed yet!
What’s your biggest dream in life?
To be called one of the fathers of film in Kenya!
I have three children, eldest 22, youngest 18.