‘I’m sure Nigerian movies will win Oscars soon’ – Charles of Play

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Friday, 16 September 2022 08:45, updated on Saturday, 17 September 2022 09:49

Charles Okpaleke
Charles Okpaleke [Instagram/charlesofplay]

Charles Okpaleke is popularly known as Charles of Play. A filmmaker and nightclub owner who once wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest, he is bringing Nigeria's stories to the world. And he is convinced the tidal wave of youth talent in Nigerian film-making will bring international recognition, with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon bringing the cash to realise bigger and better productions.

On 25 October 1993, at the height of the 12 June protests in Nigeria, four youths hijacked a passenger plane in order to force the government to recognise MKO Abiola as the president-elect of the country. The four boys – Benneth Oluwadaisi, Kenny Razak Lawal, Kabir Adenuga and Richard Ogunderu – diverted the Abuja-bound plane to Niger Republic, holding all passengers hostage with a toy gun for three days until they were arrested by Nigerien authorities.

Like many other historic events in Nigeria, the incident was quickly forgotten while the story was never told to the much younger generation of Nigerians or presented before a TV audience. Eager to revive such memories into public consciousness, Charles Okpaleke, popularly known as Charles of Play, has begun hiring actors and scriptwriters to bring the movie to the big screen.

“A lot of people didn’t know about this plane hijack story. I wasn’t aware of it until a couple of years ago,” he says.

On this rainy day in August, we are in his Abuja office in upscale Maitama, a neighbourhood that has become the exclusive preserve of Nigeria’s wealthy political class. The office is resplendent with high-end furniture and excellent lighting. The atmosphere is pleasantly intense, a sweet tobacco scent with spicy notes of citrus and wood. The tall and dark-skinned 39-year-old known for his fastidious dress sense, signature full beards and Cuban cigars reveals how he made his entry into the movie industry.

Living in Bondage

Okpaleke, owner of Play Lounge, one of Abuja’s most patronised nightclubs, tells The Africa Report that he joined the film industry some seven years ago after acquiring the rights to the 1992 Nollywood classic Living in Bondage, which is believed to be the country’s first feature film.

Rather than a complete remake, he decided to produce a sequel, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, which cast some of Nollywood’s biggest acts like Ramsey Nouah, Kenneth Okonkwo and Kanayo O. Kanayo, clinched 11 nominations at the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA), taking home seven accolades, including Best Overall Movie, a record for a new kid on the block.

Through his company, Play Network Africa Company, Okpaleke also acquired the rights to three other Nollywood classics, including RattleSnake, Nneka the Pretty Serpent and Glamour Girls, all of which have received box office success.

King of remakes

His penchant for revising old movies has earned him the unofficial title, ‘Nigeria’s King of Remakes’, but he says he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed and only decided to start with remakes in order to easily make an entry into the industry. This predilection for remaking old movies has also drawn criticisms from some older actors who believe such classics should just be left alone.

“#leaveourclassicsalone or at least do the work to make them worth watching,” veteran Nollywood actor, Ego Boyo, said in a tweet shortly after the release of the remake of the 1994 Glamour Girls. The reboot, which starred Nse Ikpe Etim, Sharon Ooja, Toke Makinwa and Joselyn Dumas, tells the story of an organised network of high end call girls. It was met however with negative reviews as critics described the plot as convoluted and fatuous even as it received a rating of 3.6/10 on IMDB.

Growing up I used to watch a lot of Nigerian movies and I always thought to myself that there were certain scenes I would have loved to have changed if I had my way.

However, Okpaleke, who slammed critics, tells The Africa Report that the movie has done very well and even hit number four on Netflix global ranking, a record for a Nigerian movie. He says the new Glamour Girls movie was not a remake as such as it had its own independent plot, but only shared the same name with the first one.

On why he loves oldies so much, the movie producer tells The Africa Report that growing up, he was usually dissatisfied with the plot of notable movies. “Growing up I used to watch a lot of Nigerian movies and I always thought to myself that there were certain scenes I would have loved to have changed if I had my way. I would think to myself, why didn’t this movie end like this or like that?”

Industry challenges

Although he has experienced quick success, Charles of Play says it hasn’t been all rosy. Nigeria has the second largest film industry in the world and entertainment contributed 2.3% to the country’s GDP in 2016. Even so, it has been plagued with challenges of piracy, financing, infrastructure among others.

Okpaleke says good movies require large budgets, which most producers cannot afford, even as he reveals that he had to fund his first movie from his personal savings.

He, however, says streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have helped to transform the industry in the area of revenue.

“The streamers like Netflix and Amazon have come to make it easier for filmmakers because if you rely solely on filmmakers, you can’t make your money unless you’re lucky. This is because revenue from cinema is split between the producers, distributors and others, so what comes to you is a fraction. Only about 5% of Nigerian movies make above N100m [$240,000] from cinemas,” Okpaleke says.

He says the inability to locate quality scriptwriters has also been a problem in the industry. He is now building an app that will be able to connect actors, scriptwriters, directors and producers easily.

No one really watches TV for news anymore. Everything is on Twitter

“We are about to launch an app because we cannot really find professional scriptwriters except the popular ones. The person who wrote Living in Bondage was my friend, Nicole, and that was her first movie, so there are people who are really good but lack the opportunity to do things.

“[…] the app known as the Film Academy App, will be a one stop shop for writers, producers, actors and others so you just sign up and then pitch,” he said.

Okpaleke says he is inspired by the success of the music industry in Nigeria, which has produced global acts like Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy who won a Grammy Award last year. He believes the film industry will be able to replicate this in the near future once there is better funding.

“On the plane hijack movie we are partnering with the UK government. Glamour Girls was number four globally on Netflix. […] I am sure very soon Nigerian movies will get Oscar nominations,” he says.

From ‘priest’ to entertainer

Born in Anambra, southeast Nigeria, to the family of Julian Okpeleke – who was once one of the most senior police officers in the country – Charles of Play, in his much younger days, dreamt of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. This soon changed when he moved to Lagos where he attended King’s College, a secular all-male school that is also the country’s oldest federal owned secondary school and has produced some of the most illustrious Nigerians.

I wanted to be a priest earlier when I was a teenager. That was when I attended seminary school, Marist Brothers, in Imo State. I liked the idea of living a holy life, but then I moved to Kings College in Lagos,” he says.

After he completed secondary school, he went to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he studied Medical Sciences and then worked at Aso Rock Clinic, the medical facility meant for the presidential villa.

“I later obtained a Masters in health economics at the University of Birmingham and became a lecturer at the University of Nigeria for about three years. I did some consulting for UNDP too before entertainment sucked me in,” Okpaleke says.

2023 elections

Charles of Play believes the #EndSARS protests revealed the true strength of Nigerian youth and the power of social media. He argues that the consciousness of the youths has been re-awakened and the entertainment industry has not been left out.

This has led to a record number of entertainers running for office, including Banky W, Carol Ekanem, Funke Akindele, Tonto Dikeh and a host of others.

Okpaleke says: “The thing about entertainment is that it is closely connected to social media. No one really watches TV for news anymore. Everything is on Twitter, so I am seeing a lot of actors running for office. Like Banky W, Funke Akindele. I think it will affect the way youths see politics.”

On whether he may run for office, he says his focus, for now, is telling real Nigerian stories that have been forgotten.

What I want to do is tell Nigerian stories. I can’t speak for others, but my main purpose is to tell Nigerian stories. We have acquired the rights to tell the story of the legendary Jaja of Opobo story, a biopic.

“The plane hijack is also a Nigerian story. I am trying to get through to the family of Ajala the Traveller, so Nigeria has a lot of untold stories. We have the content and that is why I am telling Nigerian stories,” he adds.

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