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From Marine Biology to Filmmaking: Josh Olaoluwa’s Unlikely Journey into Nollywood

From Marine Biology to Filmmaking: Josh Olaoluwa’s Unlikely Journey into Nollywood

Josh Olaoluwa - Afrocritik

“Filmmaking is a disease, and I let the disease catch me. Even when I’m sleeping, I’m thinking of the next film…”_ Josh Olaoluwa

By Helena Olori

The creative journey, much like life, is unpredictable, and success and recognition can come at any point. Occasionally, some creative artists find their footing straight off the bat, leading to a hit with their first few projects. Like Asake, who came ready to the music industry, releasing hit after hit, Josh Olaoluwa came hitting the ground running in the film production game. His work rate in the year 2022 was unprecedented, raking in accolades to match.

Reflecting on his enviable achievements for the year, Olaoluwa put out a tweet detailing his wins for the year. The tweet read: “Number 1 film on Netflix, Number 1 show on Prime Video, Screening at the Smithsonian Museum D.C, Feature Documentary on Netflix, 2 Nationwide TV Shows, 9 Nominations in Toronto, 6 International Awards including in New York and Canada. All in a calendar Year! All as a producer!”

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Josh Olaoluwa

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I chanced upon his tweet while scrolling through my timeline on the bird app. I was immediately intrigued. A quick research and a series of Twitter messages later, Olaoluwa shares the journey to his now scorching career with me in an interview for Afrocritik.

“As at the time I put out that tweet, Grind was number one on Prime Video; while A Sunday Affair was equally topping the charts on Netflix. And I don’t think there was any other producer with these bragging rights at that time. It was totally unplanned but it was equally a flex,” he would tell me.

Honing His Skills in Trainings

Some entertainers, like Kunle Afoloyan, who started acting in his father’s theatre at a young age, and American-Nigerian filmmaker, Zuriel Oduwole, who started documentary filming at age nine, often allude their breakthroughs to their passion for the craft from childhood. But Josh Olaoluwa’s story is poles apart.

Born in Lagos to parents of Ekiti origin, Josh Olaoluwa is the last child of four siblings and has lived most of his life in the bustling city of Lagos. His earliest exposure to the film industry was being around creative performers, as a teenager, at the SO&U advertising agency, assisting his mum serve food on set during their commercial shoots. “I remember seeing them always happy and alive, and that stirred my curiosity about filmmakers,” he tells me with admiration in his voice.

You would think this curiosity would inspire him to study an art-related course such as Theater Art, Mass Communication, or Public Relations & Advertising. Contrarily, he went on to study Marine Biology at the University of Lagos – and excelled in it – with part of his final year project being published in a national newspaper.

The tune began to change in 2017 when his longtime friend, Orire Nwani would beckon on him to join his project, No Means Maybe? as a producer “I had told Orire I wasn’t really interested in filmmaking at that time, but I was willing to help him,” he recalls. Olaoluwa, like many of his peers fresh out of “fancy” courses like Marine Biology, had planned to “japa” for his masters.

(Read also: A Japa Tale is Dika Ofama’s Intriguing Exploration of Migration, Relationships and Ambition)

Stumbling into filmmaking as a producer didn’t turn out rosy for Olaoluwa. His debut project, No Means Maybe? didn’t turn out great.“Seeing the initial output of the work, I thought to myself, I don’t think filmmaking is for me.”

Thereafter, the up-and-coming producer would then get a fully-funded scholarship from Access Bank to study Business of Film at Pan Atlantic University. Prior to that, he had a one-month training in Cinematography and Lighting at the Del-York Creative Academy, Lagos, in 2019, where he shot Barefoot as his final project, winning the best short film.”I studied Cinematography and Lighting because I felt I needed to learn a skill for survival, and that was the major turning point in my career. It was after Del-York I knew I could make money from this thing (filmmaking).”

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But his major breakthrough would come after attending Ebonylife Creative Academy in 2021. “I studied producing at Ebony Life Academy in 2021, and after my training, I got an offer to be a producer with Ebonylife Studios in early 2022.”

The expert-led practical training at the academy thrust his career into the limelight, resulting in the creation of his first picture under a studio, A Sunday Affair.

The Story He Tells

From his debut project, No Means Maybe?, to his most recent work “Love Language,” Olaoluwa has been consistent in telling authentic human stories that reflect the African narrative from an African perspective. “My choice of theme is influenced by the stories I saw growing up but are underrepresented in the industry; relatable African stories that allow you to connect with the characters. This is why I have decided to produce my own content, so I can have control over the stories.”

For instance, Grind, created by the fast-rising filmmaker, Roberta Orioma, and Orire Nwani, encapsulates the everyday narrative of ordinary people within the society and their struggle for a better life. Naked Woman explored abortion, single motherhood, and the marginalisation of women in these categories.

(Read also: Nollywood’s Sexist Tropes and the Stereotypical Portrayal of Women in Contemporary Nigerian Movies)

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“For Ije, the story was very personal to me,” he tells me. Directed by Nwani, and Ejiro Esigbone, the 2021 thriller captured the #EndSARS protests and the unending police brutality in Nigeria. “I love to make good works, and I want to keep making good films of global standards that will travel around the world,” he concluded.

The Journey as an Independent Producer, and the Future of Nollywood

“Producing feels very natural for me,” Olaoluwa had told me when I enquired about his motivation for taking this path in filmmaking. As a former producer of a live TV show, I can attest to the monumental effort that goes into this process. Producers are the breadwinners and unsung heroes of the team, but it is not a responsibility he shies away from. “I like to get things done when and how they should be done, and that’s the essence of the role in film production. While I was at Ebonylife studios, I had a team of super talented and experienced people to work with, but it’s not always the case.”

While working within a studio expands your reach and efficiency within a team, going independent affords you the freedom to produce your own stories. But it comes with nerve-wracking challenges, such as inadequate funding. “Personally, one of my biggest challenges is ‘gate keepers.’ People just assume that some kind of stories will not sell because of their genre. We assume a lot for the Nigerian audience, what is acceptable and what’s not.” The Grind producer thinks the Nigerian audience is very diverse and that there’s a need to bring unconventional Nigerian stories to the audience. “But it is often very difficult getting people to invest in these stories.”

There’s also the distribution challenge. Figuring out how to get your film to the right audience can be daunting. “There are a lot of very good films by independent producers that are not on Netflix, Prime Video or any of the top streamers, but it does help to have these options.” Diji Aderogba in a recent conversation with Afrocritik also shared this sentiment.

As with the Nigerian music industry, going independent has encouraged a diverse and unconventional approach to film production, as evident in the recent milestones recorded by indie producers C.J. Obasi  (Mami Wata), and Tunde Apalowo (All Colours of the World Are between Black And White) at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Berlinale, respectively. “I‘m convinced we will get to the point where people will come up with brilliant stories, and execute them in a way that presents different versions of Nigerian films for the world to see. It’s exciting times ahead, and I’m glad to be in the midst of it.”

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“The industry is opening up more to foreign collaborators and investors,” he said in response to my question on foreign collaborations in Nollywood. “The demand is that we tell very good stories that will scale up our production value. People will come to where there’s value and the more value Nigeria, and Africa as a whole put into the entertainment industry, the more attention it will get. That, in turn, will bring in more investors.”

The pro-African filmmaker thinks the industry needs to be self-sustaining, and once it is, getting foreign collaborations becomes an icing on the cake.

The Accolades Are Fluttering in

Producing a film is half the challenge; the other half is getting your audience to like it. With a perfectly-timed premiere date on Valentine’s Day, A Sunday Affair was well-received. The Ebonylife’s romantic drama debuted as number one on Netflix Nigeria. “The reception has been overwhelming, honestly. A Sunday Affair was top ten in over 10 countries and number one in four countries. It got into the UK most streamed.” Shortly after the premiere, Olaoluwa received a personalised card and a gift box from Netflix as a gesture of appreciation.

Coincidentally, Grind, a series he had worked on earlier in 2021, launched on Prime Video in January 2023, topping the charts in 48 hours on the streaming service. The series garnered lots of positive feedback and remained as the second most streamed series for over a month. “At first, when I got the screenplay by Roberta, I was skeptical we could make it.”  But his skepticism stemmed from his limited experience at that time.

In addition to topping the foremost streaming charts in Nigeria, Josh Olaoluwa’s works have been selected to screen at over 30 International Film Festivals across four continents including Africa, Asia, North America and Europe. “I made 3 short films that were in over 30 festivals in a space of one year,” he chatted excitedly, as he gleefully walked me through his impressive résumé.

See Also

In 2022, Olaoluwa’s short film Naked Woman screened at the Smithsonian Museum – the largest museum in the world – in Washington D.C in celebration of “Nigerian Creativity.” “They had seen my short film Naked woman which I also produced in 2022 and reached out to us via DM. Initially, I thought it was a scam, but later confirmed they were genuine and that’s how our film was selected.” The film also won the prize for best Director at the New York TriState Film Festival, and the “Most Outstanding Style” in a short film at the Indie-view Festival, Lagos.

With Kill the Impostor, “we won the award for best short film at the Redwolf Film Festival, USA, while Love Language has also been selected for the Nollywood Week Paris.” Others include his debut documentary, The Making of the King – the story behind the acclaimed King of Boys – on which he worked as a cinematographer and producer. He was also the producer and showrunner for DaddyYo, and Peppersoup, weekly TV shows on several national TV stations like NTA, TVC and Wazobia.

Of the many awards under his belt, Olaoluwa speaks more fondly of Ije. “It was a big deal for me that the film got 9 nominations at the Toronto Nollywood International Film Festival, although it only won the award for Best North American Film. But a win is a win,” he quipped. Ije also won the prize for Best Short Film at the Coal City Film Festival, Nigeria.

The Producer Is a Teacher

Besides making a mark in Nollywood and beyond, Olaoluwa is also a teacher, a badge he proudly displays on his profile. “Personally, I am very big on learning, and that’s why I go to film schools every now and then. For me, a big part of learning is in teaching. The more you teach people, the more you have to research and learn.”

Prompted by Florence Atunwa of Facebook-DigifyNg program, he tutored participants of the digital skills program content creation using smart phones. Later in 2019, he would join Stan Nze’s “Kids Can Act Program,” where kids are taught creative skills during summer holidays. The three-week training would see the producer-cum teacher introduce the kids to the art of cinematography.“With these kids, there are no impossibilities with the camera,” he says. “Their contagious inquisitiveness has opened up my mind to continuous learning.”

60 kids have been trained so far, some have featured in major films like A Sunday Affair. Olaoluwa wants parents to seek out these opportunities for talented kids, regardless of their career paths.

Coming Up Next?

“My upcoming feature film, Fantastic Tale, alongside 11 other projects, has been selected for development by the Rea Sea Lodge in partnership with Torino Film Lab. It’s an adventure with some elements of sci-fi; it’s going to be one of the best feature films to come out of this part of the world.” The film is written and directed by a Kenyan filmmaker, Vincho Nchogu, and it’s one of the two African projects selected.

The 4th Red Sea Lab, sponsored by Film AIUla film commission, will be held in Saudi Arabia and Italy, featuring a meet and greet with industry professionals, and $200,000 in prizes available at the Festival in December, 2023.

Josh Olaoluwa - Afrocritik
Olaoluwa

But that’s not all for the emerging producer; “I’m also actively developing a couple of features with my long-time collaborators – Orire, Michael, TAJ, Roberta – and I am really excited about the stories.”

I asked the A Sunday Affair producer if he plans going back to Marine Biology even if that path looks like a closed one already. “Filmmaking is a disease, and I let the disease catch me. Even when I’m sleeping, I’m thinking of the next film. I think my career in the next few years will be centered on the creative industry.”

Like many indie producers, Josh Olaoluwa has had no time for relaxation. So, when I asked him what he does for leisure, I am not a bit surprised that he has none. “But all of that will change soon,” he speaks of his intention to “live a little.”

 

Helena Olori is a talented multimedia journalist, she enjoys staying abreast with latest happenings in the film industry and  what makes the movie business tick. Connect with her on Instagram @heleena_olori or helena.olori@afrocritik

 

 

 

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