THE DEAD BANKABILITY OF THE KENYAN ACTOR
A spoiler cum disclaimer; This article will contain scenes and faces that you already have seen on Kenyan TV. However, any relation, real or imagined, does and does not bear resemblance to them. More importantly, they havent paid for name placement. I have desisted from names of people I have directly worked with to avoid accusations of kuwatetea. And oh, its going to be quite a long read. .
Nollywood stars in Kenya for 2011 AMAA nominations gala night. .
This has been a year that has made me think deeper about our industry, especially on the commercial viability of it. Several things have converged to make me ruminate on actors. Yes, we love them, but because we so love our Kenyan actors, lets spank them a bit. Do we have bankable actors in Kenya? You say yes? Ok, I mean do we have star Kenyan actors, whom Kenyans would block Mama Ngina street as they rush to 20th Century Fox to watch them? Who’s faces if they appear on DVD covers would create a human traffic jam in Nakumatt, as Kenyans seek to buy these optical discs and watch them? Kenyan actors whose names in the trailers can ring a bell in Dar-es-Salaam to Kinshasa and Lagos? You sure? A Kenyan actor who can make an independent producer take a loan knowing he’ll make his money back, due to the starpower of the actor? .
A couple of things have led me to the following conclusions. Early this year, during the AMAA nominations night in Nairobi, dubbed Nairobi Rocks with Stars, I sat on a table watching the forlorn faces of our acting stars being totally rocked as the whole ballroom turned to bow down to the Nigerian actors entourage. Some Kenyan actors fell over themselves to take mobile phone photos of these stars, and in the newspapers lets just politely say, the stories were full of foo foo served with a sprinkling of nyama choma. .
A few weeks earlier Ramsey Nouah had caused a stampede in Mombasa as the Lagos man toured Mombasa back alleys, decrying the drug problem in Mombasa (which is not as worse as is in his Koroma beach backyard). Then Siri, a Kenyan programme, brought in Vusi Kunene and everyone in mashinani was like ah, si that is the south African actor? In Tema, Ghana, Nadia Buari and Jackie Appiah were the names on everyone’s lips as they rushed to Accra to buy the latest movie they were starring in. In Lagos and Yenagoa, Nigeria I saw traffic at the AMAA awards come to a stop as hundreds went to genuflect at Rita Dominic as if she was a goddess and her smile would anoint them into eternal life. Now the Lagos Lady Rita Dominic is in Nairobi, filming. Then on Friday I was at a very insightful forum looking at multi-platform content production and distribution. It dawned on me that technology plus social use of it leads to bankability of everything, especially for creative industry stars, which others above have honed. Sad to say, if we are to look at star power and their bankability, we do not have stars in acting in Kenya who can pull off major shopping sprees if one was to bank on their brand recognition. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume Kenyan actors have talent, lets assume too that the script is right, and the shots right. And yes, I agree, it is about collaboration of various deparments, but that is where it all ends. Everything being great, if we shine the spotlight on the Kenyan actors, the brand won’t sell much. Yes, I hear your boos, hold on a minute, lets do a simple test. Walk Kenyan actors alongside Nigerian or South African actors down Moi Avenue, Nairobi and see where the buzz will be at, and hence where the honey is. .
Why? I ask (yes, yes, you can stone me later, but please grant me my last request: which is some five minutes to try and hypothesise on why our stars are not exactly stars.) .
LACK OF SOCIAL INVOLVEMENT
An actor expects love from the audience, the more the love, the more you are a star. In return, the public expects some occasional ‘coming down your high horse and mingle with us as we struggle’. I have rarely heard Kenyan actors getting involved with social activism and activities which forms a huge part of building your brand hence star power. Apart from Pierre Makenna ( she who holds the distinction of being one of the few Tahidi High students to finish Tahidi school, from where she moved on to be in Changes (MNet) with her project to stop road carnage, I can hardly name another actor with a cause. Bono wants to save Africa, and Hollywood actors come to Kibera to paint a classroom, yet you seldom hear actors in Kenya get involved in sweeping Mathare hospital. The post election violence was here, musicians got together to urge our country to peace. Nil by actors, not even a video skit out in time to ask for peace. (Pieces for Peace came over six months down the line, at least Bresson tried.) There has been hunger in Turkana, musicians have been in conferences urging Kenyans to give. Nil actors. Oh, yes I realize it takes a while to make a film its not like music where you cook up a song in 5 minutes on fruity loops. But even a one minute Piece to Camera from five actors coming together to give a video bite, surely, actors? A quickly cobbled ‘lets be Kenyans for Kenya’ to put at the end of each TV drama these two weeks? Its time our actors got out of their exclusivity shells and gave some love back to their fans.
Yes, by Umoja estate standards you are a star celeb, but for the rest of Kenyans you have not yet gotten to that level where we can forgive your arrogant attitude towards us mere mortals. I have walked with a few actors who since they have been on a TV series, if they are stopped by fans on the streets, they click their mouths and say “waKenya husumbua”, totally ignoring the fans. Some wear huge dark glasses “sitaki watu wanijue” like they have ever been stalked. I remember a concours de Elegance where some actors in a series that was on season two came flanked by bodyguards to “push groupies away” and yet I swear the bodyguards almost pushed the actors out of the red carpet thinking they were the groupies! (yaani they had been hired but couldn’t recognize these ‘stars!’.) Such attitude has led to the blanket condemnation by the public that local actors feel so hot and yet ‘hawajafika’. End result: apathy by the public towards us. Oh, I hear you, you read in the latest gossip magazine about this Hollywood actress who slapped someone who came for their autograph, but please, those tantrums are thrown by stars with such a messianic appeal that the fans forgive them, plus of course a bank account huge enough to pay compensation. Kudos to the actors whom I have witnessed acknowledging ma-fans and taking a minute to answer their questions. But believe me, they are so few, and in most cases, they are the older generation of actors who’ve been here for quite a while to know what it means to respect fans.
LACK OF STAR APPEAL.
Think Shah Rukhan, Ramsey Nouah, Vusi Kunene, Sello Maake (Archie Moroka in Generations.). Think Nadia, Genevive, Rita Dominic. These guys make people’s dreams very slippery, coz they work to maintain what they know the public loves them for besides the acting: eye candy. Can we say the same for our actors? I know of guys who appeared in episode one and the advertisers went searching for them only to get them when they appear on episode three, three sizes bigger or skin tone three shades darker and drier due to too much beer drinking or lips three times scalier due to smoking unsmokables. Lost adverts pap! Lost film potential pappest! Not to say that you cant indulge in nyamachoma or the beers ‘fans throw’ at you or your smokes, but maintain your original contract with viewers: your physique. The only time this nation has been held hostage is the era where Nini Wacera fertelised many a dreams, since then no one stands out like her. I see Ken Ambani as among the very few males who’s maintained himself eye-candy wise. And oh, dont confuse this sex appeal with walking semi-naked to the Kalasha Awards, its got more to do with the way you carry yourself.
ACTORS WHO LIVE CLOSE TO THE ROLES THEY PLAY.
A constant exclamation I hear from viewers is that whenever a Kenyan actor is given a role three social classes higher than them, they end up looking fake. Coz they havent had a taste of the lives the characters they are playing live. (The reason Meryl Streep can act sophisticated is coz she knows what sophistication is.) It might be true, I beg to differ, most of the times the actors are let by the producers and directors and scriptwriters. (that is after the actor has let themselves down by not researching into their character well.) So we see an MP who fidgets when seating on a leather chair, an actor who is acting as a president in his house but we can clearly see the location manager wrangled a servant quarter and is trying to pass it off as the presidents living room. But if actors nicely refused to play such roles if the sets are not right, or discuss changes to dialogue during read throughs coz its not congruent with the character, they wouldnt be the ones who carry the shame of such productions and hence reducing their marketability as a brand. The Nigerians beat us on this, if its a posh house you really see its a posh house and the actor-owner looks posh. .
ENGAGEMENT WITH MEDIA.
Zero engagement with media. Here I mean not just appearing in a newspaper article, but finding creative ways of being in the media without having been sought by the media to be in the media. Tweets, Facebook, online podcasts, directly related to you as a brand not you as an ego. And even for the mashinani where these arent as powerful as outlets, alternative ways of being in the faces of people without being a drunk stand up comedian in a pub on Xmas eve. This takes a few lessons from PR people, but few actors have PR people to advice them. I said advice, not employees (coz the monies arent that huge for actors here.). But hey, a coffee discussion with a PR person can reveal to an actor so much on how to tie in YOU+PRESS+SOCIAL .INVOLVMENT/CAUSE that will lead to people buying not just your acting talent, but You as a brand. Ask Nonini, he even has a downloadable web application for the tech savy, and an interactive facebook for his target group of the young at heart. .
Our actors like small ponds. Once they are big in a local programme, they have hit the sky. Very few try to get known in Tanzania, Uganda, heck, South Africa or Nigeria. Nigerians (closely followed by South Africans) have bulldozed their way into being known africawide, hence will easily get a film/TV series as the producers know people across the continent will watch. I know Nigerian actors who cross borders to Ghana on their own cost, to ask for roles knowing well after a year Ghana will know them. Some fly to South Africa (and come as delegations to Kenya) bluntly asking for roles so as to expand their fan base. South African Terry Pheto ( Tsotsi) is doing Bold and Beautiful in California. End result: bankability. The Vitimbi crew and vioja Mahakamani can rock East Africa. Ojwang is the only Kenyan actor to grace a Nigerian magazine portrait pullout: Farafina. Ashina Kibibi and her ‘Tausi’ aggressively ventured into Tanzania and to date they remember the security that had to be thrown around their entourage as they snaked to the city with thousands of fans lining to wave at them. What happened to this cross-border artistic imperialism? .
Not until the face of Kenyan actors become fast moving consumer goods, will they become bankable. Not until Kenyan actors realize that their job extends beyond being front of camera, and that when the director yells cut! Its for you as an actor to develop and grow your publicity in innovative ways so as to create a demand for you, not until then shall we have a star culture that draws Kenyans to watch Kenyans. Producers, lets face it, put money into projects and wish to make it back in the worst case scenario. They rely on people buying products. This case, the product is the actors talent. Which means the actor is a brand, and as a brand they need to find transmedia, multiplatform strategies to make themselves relevant enough for consumers. The actor is no longer just an actor, but also a trends analyst, and a trendsetter, using social media outlets to interact with their fans, creating the cyclic effect of relevance, numbers, and bankability. Our musicians have realized that. Its our turn now to see the light. .
Let me stop here, many more to come (hii is just to chokoza) so lets debate on how to create super brands of our actors so that people can invest in films knowing these actors will bring the monies back. .
*Throw those stones now!* .
Written by Simiyu Barasa.