• Monday, December 11, 2023
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How Ololade is championing recognition, support for African writers


Ololade Okedare is the CEO and executive producer of Emerge Story Company. In this interview with Josephine Okojie, she spoke about how her media business and how her organisation is shaping the future of African storytelling.

Can you tell us about yourself and Emerge Story Company?

I consider myself a guardian of narratives and a creator of dreams. I’m a story consultant and a writer-producer, and my mission is to discover and support emerging storytellers. I do this through Emerge Story Company, a media and entertainment startup specializing in film and television story development and talent training in screenwriting. Our goal is to find unique and captivating perspectives from both emerging and established African storytellers and transform them into premium motion pictures.

At Emerge, we identify and nurture highly talented emerging storytellers through our Story Lab, aiming to acquire, develop, and produce exceptional projects from this talent pool. We are not just consultants but storytellers, partners, dream builders, and visionaries. We believe that every story has the potential to impact and change our perspectives of the world we live in.

My journey as a storyteller began as a copywriter, crafting memorable commercials for TV and radio. Since then, I’ve co-written impactful films and shorts, worked as a writing mentor for emerging storytellers at the Lagos Film Lab (Creative England, British Council, Biola Alabi Media), and represented Nigeria as a Development Executive Trainee at the Realness-Netflix Episodic Lab.

My education includes a post-graduate diploma in media communications from Pan-Atlantic University and a Master’s in marketing communications from Rome Business School. I’ve also received recognition from the Ladima Film Academy. In 2021, I was the first Nigerian Story Development Trainee in the sponsored Episodic Lab by Realness Institute. Today, I continue to shape the future of storytelling, striving for excellence while humbly playing my part in the industry’s transformation.

What inspired the business, and when was it established?

It kicked off unofficially in 2020 and was established formally in 2022.

What was your initial start-up capital, and how were you able to raise it?

When I launched Emerge, I used $1,000 from personal savings as seed funding. However, the true value of my company came from the talented and committed team of individuals who shared my vision. At the outset, they volunteered their time and skills because we couldn’t yet afford to pay salaries. To foster transparency and a sense of shared ownership, I have always kept an open book. However, our operations have continued to scale significantly, and we are currently seeking investors for the many projects in the pipeline. So if you are looking for a good, promising opportunity, Emerge Story Company is that opportunity.

What are some of your future expansion plans?

Expanding our physical presence to other African countries where we already have a growing community of writers. To achieve this, we are implementing a pan-African writers’ residency program that will facilitate the development of original and authentic stories from conception to completion. The most exceptional projects will be presented to financiers who are interested in supporting projects in these countries. For example, we are currently finalizing funding for a feature film from one of our Emerge Story Lab alumni. Our ultimate goal is to create a vast collection of well-crafted stories that we will make available to studios, streamers, and producers who are looking for captivating local narratives for a global audience.

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How many employees do you currently have?

We are running a lean organization with fewer than 10 staff members.

As a woman who operates in a male-dominated profession, how are you contributing to changing this narrative?

At our annual international story conference, which is held every international women’s month, we make a point of empowering female talents. In my writers’ rooms, I aim to have a 75percent female staff quota. I find that female writers have a unique advantage in their intuition for storytelling. They’re able to quickly get to the core of a story, which is essential for creating a compelling narrative. By allowing themselves to truly feel the story, they create an experience that resonates with audiences. So far, we have trained and mentored over 100 female writers and storytellers across six (6) African countries.

We heard that you were one of the few Nigerian representatives at the just concluded Fame Week Africa that was held in Capetown. What was the experience like?

I had the pleasure of being a panellist and speaker at Fame Week’s 2023 edition, where I had the opportunity to engage with key stakeholders from across the continent who share a common goal of advancing the industry. It was a refreshing and enlightening experience, and I believe every creative should have a similar opportunity. As a former story editor for a South African TV show, I strongly advocate for international exchange programs that allow us to learn more about the diverse cultures and nuances of our continents. Let me cite an example, I was at the venue of the conference one of the days, and I walked up to an attendant and asked for directions to the “restroom.” She gave me a puzzled but polite look until she could decipher what I needed. “Oh, a bathroom!” she exclaimed. She kindly directed me with a smile. Back home, unconsciously armed with this new vocabulary, I was at a mall and walked up to a security lady, asking for directions to the bathroom. “Which one be bathroom, you wan bathe?” She queried in our all-too-familiar sharp-mouthed manner. “The restroom dey there,” she pointed me in the direction. These nuanced cross-cultural interactions can enrich the stories we tell and leave a lasting impression that cannot be replicated by simply reading a book.

You delivered an opening speech and moderated a panel session; what was the subject of the discussion, and what were a few excerpts from your speech?

Yes, my speech on the topic of empowering African writers to receive fair compensation and recognition. This topic is very important to me because I have worked with writers who struggle to understand their value and how to advocate for it. It’s like they have become accustomed to being undervalued. However, the recent Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) strike in Hollywood shows us that change often requires demanding and insisting upon it. Some of the key takeaways from the panel include:

Writers are the foundation upon which creative dreams in the entertainment industry are built. They are the architects who craft narratives that light up screens and spark imaginations. This underpins the central role and importance of writers in shaping the industry’s success. Hence, their contributions should be highly appreciated and fairly rewarded.

Now is the time for fair compensation, proper crediting, and professional standards for African writers. We shouldn’t wait until they go on strike like the AWG. The film industry needs to treat writers with respect and dignity, ensuring that their contributions are acknowledged and financially rewarded beyond their initial efforts. This will reflect a commitment to addressing the longstanding issue of writers being undervalued and under-compensated in the industry.

African writers not only contribute to the entertainment industry but also serve as the keepers of cultural legacies. They are the ones who preserve and transmit cultural narratives, connecting generations and binding communities. That is how important the cultural significance of writers and their role in shaping the identity of societies through storytelling are.

What were the major challenges that confronted your business, and how were you able to deal with them?

The film industry has typically followed a guerrilla approach to filmmaking, with many producers focused on churning out stories quickly and easily. However, the process of developing a story is actually a rigorous and systematic creative process that requires a lot of work. This process underpins everything we do in our Story Labs, and it’s essential to creating the blueprint for a successful movie or TV series.

One major challenge facing many producers is funding. Often, they are bootstrapping their projects and don’t have enough resources to dedicate to the storytelling process. This creates a difficult situation where it’s hard to generate revenue without a solid story in place.

As a company, we are devoted to providing support to the industry by offering free masterclasses and workshops. Our community of writers has access to job opportunities, locally and internationally. We also offer continuous professional development courses to ensure they stay at the forefront of their field. Moving forward, we plan to work with industry peers and stakeholders to develop standardised procedures and processes for the screenwriting profession, based on our experience thus far.

What is your take on Nigeria’s media landscape?

Africa, particularly Nigeria, is gaining global recognition in various fields such as music, fashion, literature, and movies. While this is commendable, there is a need to establish standard practices that can be replicated and sustained for generations to come. We must be wary of short-lived successes and sensationalism. It is crucial to identify sustainable models that underpin our achievements on the global stage and focus on building structures and legacies that will endure.

How are you dealing with inflation?

It’s the other way around, I must confess. Inflation is dealing with us and showing us shege! However, Emerge continues to explore ways to standardize its earnings against stronger currencies to cope with the weakening value of the Naira. Unfortunately, many companies are now operating outside of Nigeria to survive, which we hope to avoid. It would be helpful if the government could provide relief and tax incentives to attract international investors. Recently, I met a Canadian producer who expressed interest in filming a documentary in Nigeria. However, they were disappointed to learn that there is no system in place to ease the financial burden on filmmakers, unlike in their country.

What is your advice to other females in the media landscape?

It’s time to get to work and put any self-doubt aside. Your intelligence and talent speak for themselves, and you don’t need to justify them to anyone based on your gender. Focus on your vision and advocate for what you deserve. As you climb the ladder of success, don’t forget to pull up other women as well. Treat everyone with kindness and reject harmful stereotypes instead of perpetuating them.