Ashley: Welcome to episode 56 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment I’m interviewing Jeta Amata who is a Nigerian writer and director. His film, Black November starring Kim Baisinger and Mickey Rork was just released this past week. We talk about how he got this movie made and he gives some great nice advice to writers who are not from the US so stay tuned for that.
If you find this episode Valuable, please help me out by giving a review in ITunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast.
I’d like to thank over on YouTube Stanford Crane and Lela Cummings who left me a nice comment on episode 54. Lela asked about writers from outside of the USA breaking into television. I haven’t done a lot of television writing myself. Episode 54 was all about breaking into TV within the US so this was kind of an interesting question, but I don’t really necessarily think I have a good answer for it. My understanding that the fellowships and contests that Tawnya talked about in episode 54, my understanding is that all of those are also available to anyone in the world. So anyone can apply for them. If I’m wrong about this, please someone just send me an email and I’ll make a correction in the next episode. The bottom line is I think you can listen to episode 54 no matter where you live in the world. You can probably apply to those same fellowships. My guess is you still stand the same chance of winning as someone who lives in the USA. My guess is they really don’t care where you live as long as you’re willing to move and take advantage of things. You’re going to have to move to Hollywood to be a television writer on a Hollywood TV show obviously because you need to be physically be in that writers’ room. But I think as long as you’re willing to do that, I think those fellowships do offer some opportunity to everybody including writers outside of the US.
My guess is you might also look locally. My guess is most countries have similar programs so you might look at whatever country you live in, I’m sure they have some local television that gets produced and they might have similar programs. So just try and track that down. I can’t imagine that the BBC doesn’t have something like this.
Also, in today’s episode, I’m actually talking to a writer and director from Nigeria, and we actually discuss a little bit about how to break in from outside of the US as well. Keep an ear out for that because he is someone who has actually made some movies and he’s not from this country so he has some real good insight in the main segment today.
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A couple of quick notes. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts and then just look for episode 56.
Also, if you want my free guide “How to Sell Your Screenplay in Five weeks” you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m talking to Nigerian filmmaker Jeta Amata. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Jeta, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Jeta: Well, thank you for having me, Ashley.
Ashley: So to start out, I wonder if you can give us a quick overview of your career and kind of how you got started and got to where you are today writing and directing this feature film, Black November?
Jeta: I’m what you call Nollywood which is the Nigerian film industry which [not understood 0:05:04.0] the largest in the world. It is Hollywood-Ballywood so my grandfather in Africa’s first colored feature-length film and did a few films after that from 1956. He was one of the first Africans to be in Hollywood to try doing some work. My father was a director/actor in Nigeria. So I found myself aging into the film industry. So at the age of about 14 to about 16 I was doing a teenage show on TV. I was just presenting and later started directing. Then I went to University, studied theatre arts and when I finished theatre arts, I came out and directed my first movie at the age of 20 which got released at 21.
Ashley: What was the name of that movie?
Jeta: It was called Glamor Boys, my first film.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect.
Jeta: And I just kept moving on from there and kept getting bigger and better. I was young, and all I wanted to do was experiment. So I did a science teaching film at the age of 25. It didn’t sell a copy. No one could identify with it because it was like what the heck was this guy doing? I did different kinds of historical pieces. I experimented; I did crazy things. I lost a lot of money but I just kept going because I wanted to break some boundaries at that time. I was the disruption. We are reaching out to people and it just kept on going and then I found myself in the West. My first [not understood 0:04:07.2] was to be for a film festival and that’s how I started and traveling around the world talking about films and making films in different cases.
Ashley: Sure. So let’s dig into your most recent film Black November and kind of talk about that. Maybe you can give us a quick log line or a sentence or two, sort of so people who haven’t seen the movie yet will kind of understand what it’s about. You can just maybe pitch it to us right now.
Jeta: Well, Black November is a story about Nigerian Bean, an oil-rich nation, the sixth largest export of oil in the world and the people in Nigeria who produce the oil are just about a fraction of the population of Nigeria and yet are the most underdeveloped part of Nigeria because of all the corruption from the oil companies, the government, from the tribal leaders, and from the youth. The land is our land, [not understood 0:08:06.1] and if something doesn’t happen, we will lose it. So Black November is the story of where we have been and where we are right now and possibly where we can go to.
Ashley: Sure. And where did this sort of seed of an idea come from? Were there some real events that you read about or witnessed that kind of gave you the inspiration for this?
Jeta: Yes. Almost everything in Black November is inspired by true events. So what I did was to weave them into a story that can be told.
Ashley: As someone watching the movie—and, you know, I apologize. I’m probably like a lot of Americans. I’m kind of ignorant on things that are outside of the United States and especially in a country in Africa—and so when I was watching this, I actually was wondering is this based on a real story. The one thing that sort of struck me was you had some scenes that took place in the United States and then once those scenes took place, I kind of felt like Well, gee, I would have heard of this if some Nigerian terrorist had taken hostage in this country. And so it seemed a little bit more fictionalized. Where was that line drawn between fiction and what actually has happened?
Jeta: The United States, just it. That is not fiction because we would have to do that just to get your attention, to get the attention of the Americans so that is why that part is created. Up until a few months ago, one out of every five Americans use Nigerian gas in their cars. Twenty percent of the oil used in the United States was coming from Nigeria and something happening for so many years but Americans didn’t know that. It was important to make them understand that people just do this stuff. The world wouldn’t understand as much. Americans feel like there’s so much for them to do on the [not understood 0:10:14.1] this concerns you too. You have Chevron, you have Mobile, all the biggest oil companies are American-based and our oil comes here. [Not understood 0:10:29.8 was what I created to bridge the gap. But now some of the lines spoken by the American executives were real lines that were taken in different situations by them, real life situations that happened in different parts of Nigeria where lines are used for the oil executives. So the fictionalized parts is America; let’s put it that way is what happened.
Ashley: So let’s talk about sort of some of the logistics and sort of technical aspects of a film like this. How do you go about getting something like this financed? I’m curious what kind of a market exists. I mean, all these things you were just saying like Americans don’t really appreciate how much of their oil comes from Nigeria. It seems like those things would be roadblocks to getting a movie. Obviously making a movie like this brings attention to it, but a lot of Americans are maybe not going to be interested in seeing a film like this simply because they aren’t aware how much Nigeria impacts us.
Jeta: Financing a film generating that is a huge hurdle, but I did it the Nigerian way. When you want to make a film in Nigeria, you look around you. First of all, you put a little of your money on the table, look around you at friends and family and contacts to see who can support it. That is what has made Nollywood what it is today so that’s exactly what I did. Everything came from Nigeria from a couple of people who saw that it was time for this story to be told to the world, but rather than do the Nollywood way, I mean, really low budget, like 20 or 3500 dollars, they were like let’s really make it slightly more robust. So financing of Nigerian films is not as difficult as it is in the US because we spend a lot less money. For the first time doing something real deep so if this works out, I will guarantee you that there will be plenty of this by next year.
Ashley: Yea. Sure.
Jeta: We don’t look to banks to finance. We don’t finance with tax breaks and all that, no. We finance by ourselves and look for a couple of [not understood 0:13:10.6] to put in the film and [not understood 0:13:12.3]
Ashley: Yeah, and I mean you had some pretty big stars, Mickey Rork and Kim Baisinger are in this film so that obviously requires some sort of a budget just to get those types of actors involved.
Ashley: And so that was kind of my next question. I think I have a good understanding of how you kind of got this financed. At what point do you start to get distribution lined up? Did you take this to film festivals? Did you approach a distributor before that or during that time?
Jeta: The way we planned to do it at first, we planned to just go to a few festivals and do our own grassroots marketing and pitch it ourselves. But along the line we realized that we needed the power of companies like E1 to support us to do it because we can’t do everything ourselves the way we do it in Nigeria; we make a film. We distribute it ourselves and all that. But we did a few festivals as we were doing it but one important thing about the film was each step we went we kept tweaking one thing and the other. Okay, let’s cater this thing more to the western audience so they can understand this more. It kept going like that, but we got approached by a lot of distributors; I’ll tell you that. A lot of distributors wrote us about this film. From the screening you did, but we did a screening for the United Nations. We did a screening attended by congressmen and senators. There was a resolution passed in the house in congress because of this film so that gave us some kind of an edge on publicity so a few people reached out to us. So we looked at the best company that could put our efforts into the right direction and we went to [not understood 0:15:16.9]
Ashley: I’m curious kind of how you balance the business end of things. Obviously as a writer and director you’ve got to be conscious of some of these business things that come up in filmmaking but balance those with being an artist. I mean you mentioned in your younger days you did a wildly out there Sci-Fi type of a film. As I said, I applaud you for being a true artist but I worry sometimes that these types of films may not find a solid market so what kind of advice can you give us? How do you balance the business end of things with the fact that you are an artist and want to bring light to certain types of stories that may not be marketable?
Jeta: Now first of all when you grow up in a place like Nigeria, you get to do everything. You get to farm; you get to cook. You get to go to school. You get to sell something for your parents. In every aspect of our lives there has to be the survivor instinct so that is what we all have and that is what has brought me here. Now balancing these two, as the years have been coming, I’ve been leaning less toward the business part and concentrating more on the creative. So that’s why you always have the right people around you so that while they take care of the business, you can take care of the creative. But that’s still a part of the business in me because that’s just who we are because you can’t survive in Nigeria without trying to mix your talents in with your survivor instinct. How do I survive from this? How do I do this to put food on my table? So I would say that maybe like fifty percent of that drive in me has come down to other people to help me with this. But it’s still there somewhere. But what I will not do is I will not compromise. Like I told you I made a Sci-Fi film when I was a kid and I didn’t compromise. I wanted to tell people that the speed of light was a hundred [not understood 0:17:27.4]. It is six thousand miles per second. I didn’t compromise because I felt like oh yes, it needs to sell. I just went there and I burned my fingers a lot and I kept burning them and burning them but people started to get some notice of this guy who kept burning his fingers. Let’s look at him more, and it started working out. But then I was a lot younger so you need to take those risks.
Ashley: One of the things that I get, as I said, my blog is literally at sellingyourscreenplay.com and I get a lot of people from third-world countries emailing me and asking me how can I break in? And I’d be really curious to hear your take on that as someone who’s from Africa. The advice I always give people—and you can tell me if I’m just completely off here—one of the things that I think—and a lot of people email me, I can tell that their English is definitely a second language, and I think submitting a script to Hollywood, I think that’s going to be a huge hindrance submitting a screenplay which is not written in perfect English. So my advice to people is always to get involved in your local film community. Every country—it may not be as big as Hollywood but every country has some film community and try and get involved in that. Work your way up from that because the language issue is not going to be a problem obviously if you’re interacting with people that speak the same language as you. What advice would you give people who are in a third-world country? They don’t have a lot of resources. What can they do to make their dreams a reality?
Jeta: First of all, in Nigeria we have over 500 recognized languages. So we converse in English. In a lot of these third world countries the first language actually is English and their local dialect becomes a second language. People let’s say from Nigeria who write scripts that are not worded properly do that because they are not good writers, not because they cannot communicate well in the language. The first thing I would say to people out there in third world countries—and I would like to use a case study which African countries where English is about the first language is find an authentic story that hasn’t been told already that you have and write about it. If your script is not so good but the concept behind it is good, there will be someone out there who will be interested in it. That is a take. And in trying to tell your own story wherever you are, there has to be a mix of the western element. A lot of people disagree with this but I tell you categorically that the west is so proud, almost to a position of being pompous that the west wants to see and identify with a peak of themselves. If you want to tell your authentic story, look at the way we reach out to the west or a way in which we can trust the west and put it out there. Even if it’s the most amazing screenplay, the moment that the concept and the idea is identified, you will get help from the people who know how to tell of stories like that.
Ashley: And you’re suggesting that they bring in the west because really sort of for the practical business decisions. Is that ultimately where the audience is and so you want to have something that those westerners can relate to. Is that sort of the idea behind why you’re suggesting bringing the west into the story?
Jeta: That would be the first idea because one of these is telling a story when it can be told to a lot of people. If you have an opportunity to [not understood 0:21:41.8] people, strive hard to do that rather than telling it to ten. And then the second thing is that they see a third world country as a third world country is a third world country is because there has been a huge influence from the west. So there’s hardly any major story we want to tell that will not include the west either in a positive way or in a negative way.
Ashley: And so let’s break this down just a little bit further into some concrete chunks. So I totally get that. Write an authentic story. I think that’s great advice but once you’ve written that script, what exactly should you do? Who do you send it to? You’re saying they’ll be some people who can help them sort of clean it up a little bit. How do you find those people? If you’re in one of those countries, how can you actually get to those people who can help you take the script to the next level?
Jeta: The advice you give them is first of all, look at your local industry. You have to attain some strength and knowledge in the local industry before anyone in the west can take you seriously. You can’t just write the most amazing story or reach out to people out there. You most likely will not get to the people out there. First you have to look within yourself, within your market and try and make a mark no matter how tiny that mark is. After making that mark in your own geographical location, then you can begin to look at telling wider stories. I was in Nollywood for a good fifteen years before it was possible for me to look at getting to the United States. Even before the United States I had done film festivals in Germany, The UK, in fact, all over Europe, in the Netherlands, in Ireland, in Italy. I felt I was reaching out to people, but the United States is the last place that I had to come. You need to learn how to crawl to walk, and I think people in the third world countries have to be told exactly how it is. If you want to get to this point you have to start from here and then you have to keep moving until you get there. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Ashley: And so just to be absolutely clear, you’re suggesting to start out just find a local production company and take the lowest job that they have, the production assistant job, just get in the industry so that you start to make some contacts. That’s kind of the gist of what you’re recommending. Correct?
Jeta: Absolutely, and all the people in Africa who have made it out here started like that. Though I had my grandfather who started the movie industry in Africa, my father was a very famous actor/director, I started as a runner. I started as a PA before I got the opportunity. I climbed all of those ladders and it’s a third world country so you have to learn everything. You have to learn the workings of a camera; I did that. You have to learn all kinds of production from the analog to digital. I remember when I put on my first computer. I remember when I downloaded and installed the first software to use for editing. You have to learn those things. You have to do those things. You have to be local and be steadfast in being local before you can be international. That’s why I think the advice you’ve given is very apt. You have to start from around you. Look for the people around you to start before you can think of writing an email to screen that and say hey, I have got this and I want to do this. How can I make this work? It doesn’t just happen like that. There is a lot you hear about the American dream. It’s there but it’s not as easy as it is. There is one person from a lot of young people that can catch the American dream from Africa.
Ashley: So let’s just talk about briefly, what’s your next project? What are you working on now and what will we see from you in the future?
Jeta: Well, I’m working on a film for the Haitian government called Toussaint which is the story about a slave rebellion that led to the declaration of independence to form the government of Haiti in 1804. We did some strong research since last year up until now and came out with a script and then when looking at the possibility of filming that. It’s called Toussaint and that’s definitely the next project.
Ashley: Perfect. That sounds like a fascinating story. So how can people see Black November? Do you know when it’s going to be released in the United States or I guess even across the world? What’s the best way? Is it going to get some theatrical run in the US? Is it going to be available at Video on Demand? Maybe you can just talk a little bit about that so people can find it.
Jeta: So we’re doing it the same day we come out on VOD in almost all the platforms. It happens on the 9th which is a few days from now, the 9th of January 2015. You can either go on ITunes and get it there or video on Demand or in some theatres you can also see it. It depends on how it goes.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. And I’ll link to the trailer. I’ll put the Trailer so people can find that and just get a feel for the film as well. What’s the best way for people to keep up with you and kind of follow along with what you’re doing? If you have a Twitter handle you can mention that. If you’re on Facebook, a blog, whatever you feel comfortable sharing if people just kind of want to learn more about you and what you’re up to.
Jeta: On Facebook it’s jetaamata. A lot of people spell Jeta with a double T. There’s just one. On Twitter it’s the same. It’s jetaamata.com. Instigram it’s the same, jeta_amata, and the website for my production company is jetaamataconcepts.com.
Ashley: Perfect. And as I said, I will link to all that in the show notes s people can just find the show notes and then click directly over to it.
Well, Jeta, you’ve been very generous with your time. This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate your coming on the podcast and talking with me today.
Jeta: Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate this.
Ashley: Just a quick plug for my email and fax blast query service. Just in the last eighteen months, I’ve optioned eight scripts, sold one script and got one decent paid writing assignment. And all of this came through using my own email and fax blast query service. Here’s how it works. First you join sysselect. Then you post your log line inquiry letter in the sysselect form. I review your log line inquiry letter and help you make them as good as they can possibly be. Then you purchase the blast and I send it out for you. The emails are sent as if they’re from your email address so all replies go directly back to you. You can exclude companies if there are specific companies you don’t want to send to. Check out www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com to learn more.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with Jeta. As I mentioned in the interview, I get a lot of people from outside of the USA who are trying to break in and I really feel for these folks because there’s no question it’s much harder to break in from outside of the United States. I would really like to just hammer this point home. If you live in the USA, really anywhere in the US, you have a huge leg up. The closer you are to Hollywood the better off you are, but trust me, just being a native speaker puts you world’s ahead of a lot of folks who I get emails from. It sounds like Jeta basically agrees with my answer which is to find local opportunities and try to work your way up locally. I mean, this is my advice for people who live outside of Hollywood. Even if you live in the US I think there are local opportunities that can actually help you advance your career and certainly if you’re outside of the US there are also going to be local opportunities. These local opportunities may not seem all that glamorous, and they may not even be very easy to get. You may have to struggle and work hard just to get a low-level job on a low-level production. That’s fine but trust me, no matter how hard it is, they’re going to be easier to get than emailing scripts halfway around the world and hoping to sell it to a Hollywood studio. No matter how small these productions are, this really is how you begin to slowly build a screenwriting career.
Anyway, I’ll link to the blog post I referenced in the podcast so if you want to read a whole blog post on exactly what I recommend to people who work outside of the USA, look for that in the show notes.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.