Ekwa Msangi-Omari - Photo by Liz Strong
Ekwa Msangi-Omari - Photo by Liz Strong

As curator of the director’s eye project for lettera27 Foundation, I had a talk with writer, director and producer Ekwa Msangi-Omari on crowdfunding and funds. 

Ekwa is a Tanzanian-American filmmaker who grew up in Kenya and is based in New York. Ekwa has directed for television and has also directed several short films - including Taharuki in 2011, a 12-minute short thriller set against the backdrop of the start of Kenya’s post-election violence - and most recently Soko (The Market) - a 25-minute short comedy about a middle class Kenyan man. The article starts series of discussions with female African directors that focuses on funding and production strategies for contemporary cinema.

Ekwa Msangi-Omari - Photo by Christiana Jackson
Ekwa Msangi-Omari - Photo by Christiana Jackson

Vanessa Lanari: Ekwa, you have just finished shooting your last short film, and are preparing the next feature film called Sweet Justice. How did you finance it?

Ekwa Msangi-Omari: The short film that I just shot this summer was partially funded through Focus Features’ Africa First Program, and partly through a crowd-sourcing campaign that I conducted online.

VL:  You are used to finance part of your films through crowd-funding campaigns.  Why did you have the idea of ​​using this type of financing?

EMO: Well, crowd-funding is not only a very popular (maybe too popular!) form of financing, but it is also immediate and a great way to build audiences. Living in USA, there aren’t many sources of funding for short Africa-based films (other than the Africa First Program) that I could apply to as an alternative source of funding. So, in other words, as an indie filmmaker working in 2013 making non-tragic stories about Africans, I didn’t really have many options!

VL: What percentage of the total budget of your films derived from crowd-funding campaigns?

EMO: For Taharuki it was 100% crowd-funding, but for Soko I only used about 20% crowd-funding!

VL: In your experience, what have been the best strategies and methods for promoting and creating a successful campaign? How many investors did you attract and how much money did they contribute?

EMO: Well, for all artists (and really all people in general) our biggest asset is our circle of friends, family and supporters. Before you get to the point where absolute strangers are excited about your work and paying for it, you have to start with your circle of family and friends. They will be your biggest promoters through their excitement and word of mouth. Even if they’re not able to give you lots of money, their endorsement and excitement will attract other people who trust them. And from there, your work with hold up your reputation, but it starts with your circle. For Taharuki (1 month campaign) I attracted about 80 funders and raised $6000, and for my most recent campaign (2 week campaign) I attracted about 50 funders who contributed about $3,500 of the $4000 that I aimed for - and I’m still getting latecomers who saw the campaign but weren’t able to contribute at the time so that’s wonderful! Both have been very fruitful campaigns, so I’m very grateful.

VL: What do you consider as the best practices and mistakes of your crowd-funding campaign?

EMO: The most valuable tip I got about making a successful campaign was to have a fundraising buddy! A friend who agrees to check in with you, encourage you, help to strategize, and cheer you on as you raise the money! Asking for money is very difficult, and discouraging and inevitably it takes a while for people to jump aboard. It’s important to stay hopeful, light and enthusiastic during a fundraiser and that’s impossible to do when you’re feeling discouraged. So I advise always having a buddy. The second thing is to keep your campaign messages short, funny (whenever possible) and to the point. Give clear info with clear links to where people can give money and try to have a sense of humour about it because we all have lots of hang-ups around money (both in giving and asking for it.)

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

EMO: The internet and social networks can be very useful when it comes to creating and completing film projects because it is a direct way of measuring the temperature of our audiences and getting their feedback. We can see the things that people are concerned about, we can immediately see people’s reactions to things, and things that people enjoy  -or sometimes things that they hate! - can go viral in ways that would have taken ages to do before the internet age. These tools have given independent filmmakers/artists access in ways that we never had before. It used to be that you needed to be endorsed by a huge company or studio before you could share your ideas with anyone. Now we get to go straight to the source!

VL: In your experience, is it harder to raise finance for African filmmakers?

EMO: Hmm. Well I’m not sure because I’ve never tried to raise money for/as a non-African filmmaker! But I will say that people here in the US are less accustomed to the idea of African film (outside of Hollywood films or tragic save-the-African themes) than people in Europe are. Your average person here has no concept of what an “African film” might even look like. So in some instances that makes it hard because you have to explain yourself from scratch, but then again it can also be easier because people are fascinated and excited at the idea of investing in something that’s ‘brand new!’ It can work both ways.

VL: Do you think that the current funds for African filmmakers are sufficient and does the concept of a special programme for African directors really make sense?

EMO: I think the concept of special programmes for African directors is crucial and no, there’s not enough (is there ever?!) I do wish, however, that we had more locally generated money from our own African governments and investors. Our ability to tell our own stories, reflect and represent ourselves in our own words and images is crucial to our development as a people. I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where outsiders consistently tell the stories and represent the local people as it has happened in Africa and there’s something very wrong with that. If most American films were funded, directed, and acted in by Norwegians, for example, we’d have a very different story of who Americans are and what they’re about. The same is true for Africa. We need to be able to develop our own voices and we’re going to need support – monetary and otherwise – to do that. Not necessarily all foreign support - because local support is very important as well - but support nonetheless.

VL: You also teaching a Documentary filmmaking study programme at New York University that takes place in Havana, Cuba. What suggestions would you give to independent filmmakers and in particular to African independent filmmakers about attracting investment?

EMO: *smile* Well I’m far from being an expert in this so all I can offer are my thoughts and what seems to work based on the bits of success I’ve had thus far and what I’ve seen and learned from others. I think for African filmmakers, given that we don’t have many established sources of funding, we really have to get creative and think outside the box about how we get our films made. It might be about going after specific sponsors or product placement, it might mean joining forces with other indie filmmakers and coming up with a share plan that makes sense...it could look a number of ways. And I think the fact that there isn’t one specific answer is a good thing. It means we get to be pioneers in many ways, try and fail and try again at a number of things, change our strategies when they aren’t working any longer, but keep striving to tell our stories and offering our audiences new and fresh thoughts about what’s possible in our world!

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.