Imoh Umoren: Setting The Pace In Indie Film
Imoh Umoren is one of the few Nigerians who knows how to spin magic on television. Boasting of award-winning Indie films, the 36-year-old is also behind the success of TV productions such as Project Fame and Maltina Dance Hall.
He talks to Guardian Life about his love for Indie films and his fame on Twitter.
Tell us about your journey into the film industry.
I started out as a junior producer for Common Ground Production and we worked on a series called The Station which was an international production. Strangely, I always wanted to be a sitcom writer because I grew up watching a show called Cheers which was about an after works bar and that really inspired me.
So my first pilot was modelled after Cheers. I tried to shop that around but was unsuccessful in fact I remember taking it to one of the biggest production companies then and they jacked my idea and claimed they had been working on something similar (haha). But after that, I had some relative success working on reality shows and huge TV formats. I made my first film titled Lemon Green. It was one of the earliest Indie films with the salary I earned working on Project Fame and opened to critical acclaim as we were nominated for every available award and went to tons of film festivals.
You’ve worked on big productions for corporations and now, there seems to be a paradigm shift. Any reason for this change?
When I started out big TV formats were the thing from MTV Advance Warning, Project Fame, Don’t Forget The Lyrics, Malta Guinness Street Dance, I was fortunate to be hired for most of the big shows then but something happened that made me decide to stop making franchise shows. Lots of foreigners were hired to the detriment of local producers. The way Nigerians were undermined and badly treated was appalling to me. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against people working in different countries but the way Nigerians were undermined and badly treated was appalling to me and I felt I was enabling that sort of situation because I was treated nicely but some of my brothers and sisters weren’t so I decided to walk away.
I remember when I made the decision I was having a beer in Bogobiri and I was due to be the series director for a massive franchise but my producers had told me that the client would be more comfortable if I was white and asked me to be an understudy even though I was more than qualified for the job, they also wanted me to take a huge pay cut.
Meanwhile, I had gone for three interviews and each time did well so I decided that was the moment to go and make films fully and I’m glad I did. I still have my TV production side but I’ve successfully separated it from my film side.
Are there peculiarities between both climate (commercial production and filmmaking)?
TV has limited risk while films are basically a shot in the dark over here. The timing of the release of hour film can make or mar it. If you release your film at the same time as infinity wars or a big Hollywood film it’s more likely going to tank or struggle as distributors will probably move your showings to irregular times where people are more likely to miss then also you need a huge advertising budget whereas in TV and Big franchises the client (usually a big brand) has paid for a lot of that and the show is most likely going to be on prime time so people are going to watch anyway. If a series shows 8 pm around the whole country millions and millions of people are going to watch it and you as the producer bear minimal risk.
Your film Children of Mud got four nods at this year’s AMVCA. Did you foresee the type of attention it generated?
Children of Mud is loosely based on a real story. I come from Akwa Ibom where we have real issues with kids being accused of witchcraft and thrown out of their homes. It’s one of my favourite films because it was very honest. I was surprised when we got all the nominations at the AMVCA and Mariam Kayode, the 11-year-old actress was nominated for best actress. I’m proud of it and more especially the shelf life of the film. But some of the best reactions was when we showed it opened in the US at the American Black Film Festival everyone couldn’t stop talking about it so yeah we made a good film.
What are the challenges the film industry faces and how can we proactively fix them?
Distribution is still a big issue but it is gradually changing. I think stories also are a big big problem I once saw a tweet where someone said they weren’t going to watch a Nollywood film again because the story (of the particular one he saw) was so bad. Technically our films look better but story wise we have retrogressed.
What would you say are the major improvements the Nigerian film industry has witnessed since inception?
Our Cinematography and Direction has been top notch even performances have been excellent. See Nollywood wasn’t a thing that middle-class kids did but now lots of them are coming in and investing in it. I mean I remember when I started out it was seen as a thing where uneducated people did but now we have well-trained professionals in all fields and kids are daily returning from film schools to contribute so yeah technical expertise has really increased so advance skills are now available for hire.
Indie films are still in its developing stages in Nigeria and this is your area of specialisation. What do you think is the reason for this?
Yes, Indie films are still developing but we are also getting a lot of international and mainstream acclaim I mean if you look at the works of Abba Makama, for instance, he has been around the world and made arguably the best films of 2016/17 Ema Edosio’s Kasala is also doing quite well and has recently secured distribution and CJ Obasi is also making a lot of waves with his films. The revolution is coming. Like in the words of Thanos “Dread it, Run from it, destiny arrives” the reason why it’s been a bit slow is that humans have always been known to be afraid of change.
I remember when I did Hard Times which is the first Black and White silent film in Nollywood and people say Nigerians don’t watch indie films but they did and that won me my first AMVCA now Akin Omotoso did A Hotel Called Memory which is a silent film and I remember going for the premiere it was packed full and everyone enjoyed it. So we need more filmmakers to be brave and make what’s really in their heart and not be frigging chickens pandering to the Nigerians-only-watch-comedy mafia.
What are your major sources of inspiration?
Nigerians inspire me a lot. We are brutally honest when dealing with problems. Our reactions are always impeccable and women inspire me a lot. The complexity of their emotions is a labyrinth is why I love women.
Should we expect anything mind-blowing anytime soon?
Just finished co-writing my next film with Gbemisola Afolabi it’s called Lagos: Sex,Lies & Traffic. We will begin principal photography later this month and all I can say about the script is (bruh!!!)
You are quite popular on Twitter as an influencer. How has this fared for you? Are there implications that keeps you on check?
I don’t even know how I got popular on Twitter. I used to be popular on Facebook (lol). I guess because I’m accessible. I have had cases where I was walking on the street and people come to hug me or scream my name so it feels good to have that community of people. I don’t think I worry too much of the consequences of being popular but there are times I have to reign myself in a bit so I have to try not to hurt people.
If there was one thing you will change about yourself, what will that be?
Get a girl that loves me (haha). I’d like to change that