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Interview: Sierra Leonean Writer/Producer Victoria Thomas Talks Internet Platforms & Crowdfunding

Interviews
by Vanessa Lanari
January 23, 2014 4:01 PM
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As curator of the director’s eye project for lettera27 Foundation, I spoke with director and producer Victoria Thomas about internet platforms and crowdfunding. Victoria is from Sierra Leone and was raised in the UK, where she now lives and works. She is currently working on a new feature script, called "Kiloshe," and is also developing and launching a new internet platform called Trigah.com

The interview is the second part of a series of discussions with female African directors that focuses on funding and production strategies for contemporary cinema.

Vanessa Lanari: Victoria, you are developing and launching a new film platform on the internet called Trigah.com. What is Trigah and what opportunities does it offer for filmmakers?

Victoria Thomas: Trigah is a simple web and mobile application which bridges the gap between culturally diverse films and audiences by functioning as a tracking and alert tool. The internet is not short of platforms with content in films, books, TV, music, blogs and so on. But there is a shortage of time on the part of the audience to discover and consume everything that they might like.

So we are launching a tool that works as a filter for audiences and provides market intelligence for distributors whether individuals or companies. When a film fan signs up, they take a short quiz in order to determine their taste, location and devices they own, which filters the trailers they are shown. They curate their own film watch list, and over time, Trigah's taste algorithm further refines its suggestions. It is a way for you to promote your films to people who like those kinds of films and aggregate a crowd that you can then actively market to.

I developed it as an engagement tool for my feature film which is a comedy set in Lagos after one too many funders asked me who would want to see a comedy set in Lagos. It sort of took a life of its own after other producers and funders showed interest and gave us some money to develop it further.

VL: What kind of content do you screen on Trigah?

VT: We accept trailers for feature length films but they can be fiction or documentary, using a live action or animation technique.

VL: How do you think new platforms and VOD distribution can help filmmakers?

VT: VOD distribution provides an alternative to the cinema screen, DVD or blu-ray as a way of screening the film to an audience.

Crowd-funding platforms provide a way of getting people to contribute to your funding across borders and they do not need to be investing thousands. Blogs are the new magazines and social networks are the new radio. But you still need an audience for any to work because no one is going to want to fund your film or download it unless they know it exists. These platforms are providing an option to the brick and mortar solutions and help you cross borders without the cost and time normally involved. So the key bonus for filmmakers is nothing more than added options.

VL: You are also working on the development of a new feature script, called Kiloshe. In your experience, as a director and producer, is it harder to raise finance for African filmmakers? Do you think existing funds for are insufficient?

VT: Bearing in mind that Hollywood films account for 90% of films that get seen and the rest of the world shares 10%, raising funds for a film is hard regardless. And amongst the films that get made, if you look at the stats, the majority are made by men. And then when you look at the statistics for women who do succeed, the majority are Caucasians, European or Americans, with most of the non-Caucasians being accounted for by Americans. So as a black female of African heritage, albeit one of European citizenship, I have a combination of attributes that on paper should make it incredibly difficult for me.

But I try not to think about the statistics and simply get on with it. I know I want to make comedy dramas set in Africa for an international audience. I also know that the precedent for this type of format is limited so before asking anyone for money, I spent two years developing a platform that helps to map audiences as an engagement strategy for my film so I could set realistic parameters.

There is a lot of support for filmmakers who are African at the moment but they tend to  go for the usual stories associated with Africa -  strife and struggles. The definition of an African is also interesting within this context.  

When I am pitching a film, funders of African filmmakers who are largely non-Africans do not see me as African because I am a British citizen and my happy version of Africa is generally not considered authentic enough. In the UK, the assumption is that it must be African because it has a predominantly African cast and is set in Africa, even though I am a British citizen. At the same time, you see white European directors, mostly men, making a film about Africa or Africans with European or Hollywood money and no one questions their right to do this. As a filmmaker, even though I am African, I have a lot of perspectives that I may want to tell stories about: the financial crisis, the war in Iraq or Syria, alongside more culture specific ones. But we get scrutinized and boxed up a lot more. That is the real problem.

Until Africa gets its own structures in place for developing, producing and distributing films made by Africans, curated by Africans who grew up seeing a multi-dimensional Africa, it will be tough. But if we have to keep asking other people for money then we have to contend with their own judgements and visions.

Nigeria is one country doing well in terms of trying to set up funds for film-making but I find some of the proposed structures for funding - like loans that have to be repaid within 2 – 3 years - slightly unrealistic. Hopefully as they continue to fund more films, they will learn from the experience and make the systems more fit for purpose and the film business model.

VL: Are you used to financing part of your films through crowd-funding campaigns?

VT: Personally I think crowd-funding has always happened because unless you live in a country where the grant system for films is generous you have always had to ask someone for money.

The only difference now is that you can do it online and ask a wider audience and people who you may not know personally and without the constraints of geographical location.

So in that sense, my film will be funded by a crowd. Whether that involves knocking on the doors of grant funders and banks or virtual doors via social networks, I am not yet sure - it will probably be a combination of all of the above.

VL: How can filmmakers best make use of the internet and social networks to complete their film projects?

VT: The best approach would be not to treat social networks and the internet like another planet. It is the same world with the same people and the same principles, but is just a different route to market that offers the ability to reach more people in a lot less time if you put in the required time and effort.

But they have to be people who want to hear from you. You wouldn’t run up to a stranger in the street and ask for money for your film so don’t do it on Twitter! Develop relationships, participate and reciprocate. Don’t be one of those people who only talks to people when you need something from them or people will notice.

VL: What tips would you give to filmmakers trying to sustain themselves in the industry?

VT: Know your audience and be realistic about your projects and the market potential. Watch films and familiarise yourself with how they fared or get a producing partner who can. Keep your options open and don’t sweat over the small stuff. You might have to make the film that you can make instead of making the film that you want to make. So personally, I am working on projects directed or written by other filmmakers and developing tools for distribution while writing and pitching the scripts that I really want to make.

So alongside launching Trigah, I am directing a documentary about a London based fashion designer who is Muslim and trying to make her clothing label - of modest fashion that is in line with Islamic values - more mainstream in a Europe that is increasingly sceptical about Islam.

I have a view on the issue and it is the sort of film I can make without having to go pitching for money. But two years ago, I wasn’t thinking this would be my first feature film and I hadn’t even considered making a documentary. But it is happening and I am enjoying it. In a nutshell, be flexible and open up your mind to new experiences and opportunities.


The interview was conducted by Vanessa Lanari for lettera27, a non-profit foundation based in Milan. Its mission is to support the right to literacy, education, and the access to knowledge and information with a focus on Africa. Vanessa is the curator of the director’s eye project that was created with the aim of supporting the authors of African cinema, throughout some of the most important phases in the development and production of a film. The pilot edition of the project took place in 2012, in collaboration with the Festival de Cinema Africano de Cordoba and the co-production forum Africa Produce.


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