Interview by Ameyaw Debrah of Jamati. Visit Jamati online here
Nigerian television is growing fast and one of the biggest forces to reckon with is Producer /Director, Greg Odutayo. Together with his wife, Debbie Odutatyo, their Royal Roots Production Company has made an impressionable mark on the Nigerian television landscape and continues to set the bar in quality TV productions in Nigeria and across West Africa.
Royal Roots has emerged from the early days of radio production and event management into a formidable force in television across Africa. Their first Television content was a cooking programme, ‘Global Cuisine’ and after that came the phenomenal comedy series, ‘House A-Part’ which won Royal Roots a lot of accolades. With their imprint of quality clearly becoming evident, they received some funding from the French Film Fund to produce a 26 episode series ‘Tides of Fate’. Soon came a much bigger break when M-Net commissioned them to produce the hit family drama series, ‘Edge of Paradise’. M-Net wanted to commission one programme but found Greg’s proposals too irresistible so they commissioned two programmes – ‘Doctors Quarters’ and ‘Edge of Paradise’. Fully aware of the huge potential of reaching thousands of homes across Africa via M-Net, Greg and his team gave Edge of Paradise all that they had.
“We bought the best available equipment and assembled a close knit and professional team. By the time we finished 26 episodes, we barely made any money but we were equipped to produce wonderful programmes and to top it all, we were asked to do a Season 2. That was the icing on the cake”, comments Greg. Edge of Paradise got nominated at the 47th Monte Carlo Television Festival alongside series like ‘Desperate Housewives’, ‘Lost’, and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. It lost the award ‘Lost’ but went on to clear almost all available Television Awards in Nigeria.
Royal Roots has developed several TV content which have been syndicated across Africa, as well as established an outreach in Ghana. Jamati online got in touch with outspoken Greg Odutayo, who is also the President of National Association of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) to talk about his journey, the future of television in Nigeria, challenges working with a Ghanaian cast, funding among other very engaging topics.
You seem to have found your niche in producing sitcoms. What draws you to comedy?
Let’s be realistic, people face challenges everyday in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. The challenges of everyday living are quite daunting so television for many people is to relax and acts as an elixir. Entertainment is key before information and education. Sitcoms achieve this for me, because we are thinking of the needs of the audience first and foremost. We make them laugh at other people’s situation and circumstances and then relate it to themselves later. We choose sitcoms particularly because of the exigencies of recording. Sincerely because of the way we like to work – having 100% control of our environment – sitcoms is the way for us. We work conveniently in one situation.
How did it all start?
Royal Roots is 13 years old now, so we have been at it for a while. The dream was long before that. It was systematically plotted but at the precise time that God wanted this to happen, we got commissioned for a 26 episode radio programme for a distillery in Nigeria. That was the big beginning for us. Before then, we were doing commercials and promos – little things here and there. We also did a lot of Events Management for big projects and carved a niche for ourselves in this sector. So the beginning was radio. I have a deep passion for radio because you can really have fun with the medium. From there we made some money and bought our first set of television production equipment. My deep belief is that for you to enjoy Television production and do it with all the attentions and details that we desire, you need to own your own equipment. This way you are not in a crazy hurry due to budgeting constraint. You are able to be creative.
What are some of the other productions that you have done?
I also had the privilege of producing and directing ‘Deal or No Deal Nigeria’. We were commissioned by MNET and ENDEMOL South Africa. ‘DOND Nigeria’ was produced by an entirely Nigerian crew headed by me and my wonderful wife and we did well. DOND was another great experience for us. We could feel the fear from the South African guys as ENDEMOL does not usually allow other people to do their formats but we put in everything and in the end it was a huge success. After that we started our Ghanaian outreach of Royal Roots named Hot Shot Production. Hot Shot produced ‘Soul Sistas’ and ‘About to Wed’; and we have since produced ‘My Mum & I’. I think it’s the first TV content to be produced on High Definition in sub Saharan Africa. I stand to be corrected.
Which is your favourite production so far?
My obvious favourite will definitely be “Edge of Paradise”. We kicked some ass with that production.
Which has been your most challenging?
The most challenging was ‘My Mum & I’, because we had become tired of the entire accolade from Edge of Paradise and we wanted to do something that will surpass that. It was tough but I think we were able to achieve that. We are still waiting for the audience to judge.
What inspires or influences your work in television?
I draw on inspirations like the erstwhile ‘Village Headmaster’, ‘Cock crow at Dawn’ which ran in Nigeria in the nineties. I also draw a lot from sitcoms like ‘Cosby’,’ Two and a Half Men’, ‘Desperate Housewives’ etc. We have sought to raise the bar of TV production where ever we find ourselves. Quality is our watchword in our productions as we strive to do things differently from the way everybody else works. It’s been challenging but fulfilling.
What is your production team like and how do you ensure that you remain relevant in television?
We have been working with about the same production team we started with. People come in and go but we hope that they imbibe our values. It is a little difficult to work with us in Royal Roots because of our attention to details. Therefore, to work with us, you have to probably be trained in the way we will work. It is easy to reach the top than to stay there. With all sense of humility, we are on top of our game but to remain there, we have to constantly re-invent ourselves. We work very hard as a team but our values are the same.
How does the husband and wife team work for you and Debbie?
We work extremely well. It’s not just a wife working with her husband; it is rather that I have a bloody good producer working with me. I am allowed to create because producing is taken care of. We have boundaries and we both work within the boundaries. In addition, we are best of friends. We do not carry our home to work and vice versa. So it’s all cool.
Do you get sponsorship for your productions?
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to get sponsorship for productions. We place a lot of emphasis on our value system in Royal Roots as such; we cannot bribe our way through. We will not do this. Sponsorship in Nigeria largely is dependent on the number of asses you can lick and we cannot do that. We would rather have our work speak for us. Until sponsors learn to call pitches when they want to commission programmes and ensure best practices in such commissioning, we will continue to churn out low quality productions. So basically, we run it as a business, we invest our own money and resources in producing, buy airtime from our stations (I like to call them airtime vendors – because that is all they do – vend airtime) and put it on air. We then source spot support for the programmes. It is tough but what can we do? We have had the grace of God on our side. However, I will definitely welcome another commissioning as we had with M-Net. We will like that very much but until then, we soldier on.
How would you describe the state of television in Nigeria currently?
The Television industry in Nigeria is on a roll on the creative side. There are a lot of quality programmes being churned out, although the crappy ones are also there side by side. There is still a lot of room for improvement. This is occasioned by the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) rule that stipulates that all stations in Nigeria must only run local content programmes from 7pm – 10PM everyday. This is prime time in Nigeria and it has somewhat driven away the foreign soaps etc to other times. We are however still far from the ideal, producer still have to pay through their noses for airtime and this is not good for creativity. This has to change for the industry to achieve true growth. Stations must go back to commissioning programmes. That is the way the industry must be structured. The risks borne by producer right now are monumental and unhealthy.
How many others countries show your programs?
All of our sitcoms have run in Ghana, because Hot Shot and Royal Roots have worked together seamlessly. We run in Kenya, we are on Africa Magic (which runs all over Africa), and in the UK. We have opened discussions with many other countries but many broadcasters are not willing to pay. They come up with a whole lot of crap about payment ceilings. They actually want to pay the same rate as they pay for other low quality programmes and that is not good for us. We have invested a lot into our programmes and as such always only sell to those who appreciate our quality and are ready to pay for it.
Are you working on new productions currently?
We just rounded up shoot on 78 new episodes of ‘About to Wed’. We are also starting in February at least 52 new episodes of ‘My Mum & I’. We also have a couple of franchise for Nigeria and Ghana – ‘Identity’ – a game show. It’s going to be very exciting. We also have Nigeria & Ghana’s Next Producer, a franchise from NBC’s ‘America’s Next Producer’, and a lot more. We are on the road to being West Africa’s No 1 when it comes to Content Creation, Production and Studios. We are working hard at achieving that.