The Country Music Awards are billed as Nashville’s biggest night, but this year’s event buried the genre’s most significant breakthrough of the past 12 months, offering up just one nomination for 20-year-old musician Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” spent a record 19 weeks atop the singles charts.
That run helped Lil Nas X notch a different honor, debuting on the Forbes list of top-earning country acts this year with an estimated pretax income of $14 million. The Atlanta native claims the No. 18 spot thanks to the fiendishly catchy country-rap track he released through indie music service Amuse in December 2018. The song clocked 1.8 billion spins by summer despite being booted from the Billboard country charts. The snub—and a bevy of remixes—helped “Old Town Road” broaden the genre’s audience more than any track in recent memory.
“It was on viral charts in countries where no country song has ever positioned itself,” says Amuse cofounder Diego Farias. “Everything from Southeast Asian markets to eastern European markets. I mean, I’m talking about places that you don’t necessarily associate with cowboy hats and boots.”
Lil Nas X isn’t the only high earner to come up short at the awards ceremony: Luke Bryan claims the top spot on our list for the second consecutive year with $42.5 million but didn’t receive a single nomination. That’s mostly because the Georgia native, who favors baseball caps over cowboy hats, hasn’t put out a new studio album since 2017. Instead, he spent his time grossing more than $1 million per tour stop and serving as a judge on American Idol.
The genre-bending Zac Brown Band ranks second, pulling in $38.5 million on the strength of 50 live performances and a new album, The Owl, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album charts. Other crossover acts on the list include Canadian songstress Shania Twain (No. 7 with $29 million) and hip-hop-tinged duo Florida Georgia Line (No. 8 with $26 million).
“Country’s more of a lifestyle,” the group’s cofounder Brian Kelley told Forbes in 2015. “The music’s always going to evolve.”
“It was on viral charts in countries where no country song has ever positioned itself. Everything from Southeast Asian markets to eastern European markets. I mean, I’m talking about places that you don’t necessarily associate with cowboy hats and boots.”
Plenty of the CMAs’ stars did make our list, including performers Eric Church (No. 6, $30 million) and Miranda Lambert (No. 20, $13 million), as well as two of the hosts—Dolly Parton (No. 15, $17 million) and Carrie Underwood (No. 14, $16 million). A third host, Reba McEntire, narrowly missed the cut.
Overall, the top ten acts in country earned $311.5 million, up 2% from last year’s $304.5 million. Our list of the genre’s top earners measures estimated pretax earnings from June 1, 2018, through June 1, 2019. Fees for agents, managers and lawyers are not deducted. Figures are generated with the help of numbers from Nielsen Music, PollstarPro and interviews with industry insiders.
Although our rankings typically reflect country’s woeful lack of diversity at the top, this year’s list offers at least a glimmer of hope that things are changing. There are 6 women in the top 20—the least lopsided ratio in the seven years Forbes has published the list—and Lil Nas X is both the first openly gay act and the first person of color to make it.
Though he declined to comment for this story through a representative, Lil Nas X is clearly taking his role as a trailblazer seriously, regardless of how much CMA hardware he takes home. As he told the BBC earlier this year: “I feel like [I’m] opening doors for more people.”
20. Miranda Lambert, $13 million (tie)
20. Lady Antebellum, $13 million (tie)
19. Rascal Flatts, $13.5 million
18. Lil Nas X, $14 million
17. Faith Hill, $15 million
16. Carrie Underwood, $16 million
15. Dolly Parton, $17 million
14. George Strait, $17.5 million
13. Tim McGraw, $18 million
12. Dierks Bentley, $20 million
11. Toby Keith, $21 million
10. Jason Aldean, $23.5 million
9. Garth Brooks, $24 million
8. Florida Georgia Line, $26 million
7. Shania Twain, $29 million
6. Eric Church, $30 million
5. Kenny Chesney, $31 million
4. Blake Shelton, $32 million
3. Keith Urban, $35 million
2. Zac Brown Band, $38.5 million
1. Luke Bryan, $42.5 million
– Zack O’Malley Greenburg
Is Celluloid Dead?
The digital revolution was the move from physical media to digital media, the transition from HD to 4K, but what does this mean for the future of film as a medium of acquisition?
Well, at this point, I think we can safely say that although shooting on 35MM or 16MM film may have become specialist, even niche, it will certainly never die out completely, thanks in part to certain stalwart Hollywood directors like Quentin Tarantino who refuse to shoot digitally.
What digital acquisition of video content has done, is that it has reduced the costs of acquiring footage and essentially democratized the film-making process. Movies can be shot and produced for a fraction of the cost that they were on celluloid. Making a feature film is now accessible to everyone.
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The main issue, however, with digital masters and acquisition, is how we archive and are those archives tried and tested? In a word, no, and herein lies the reason that 35MM and 16MM and film in general will never die out completely.
When we take a look at archiving in general – when high definition revolutionized television content acquisition way back in 2000 and 2001 and DVD became the norm for home video viewers – we all thought that this was the pinnacle of new technology, the picture clarity, the sound, the colors; could this ever be improved upon? It was improved upon in less than five years with the advent of 4K content acquisition.
Take a trip down memory lane and look at some of those early features and TV series shot in high definition (1080p), films like Session 9 and Star Wars – Attack of the Clones – do their visuals hold up to today’s standards? No, they don’t. With 4K and even 8K content acquisition, HD seems positively antiquated and certainly looks that way when viewing these films.
This is where film still trumps these formats as a basic storage format. Movies shot on 35MM or even 16MM stock is a physical frame size. Now this individual frame can be scanned and blown up to any size you want it as, there is no limit in terms of mastering and remastering because it’s a physical medium.
This is the actual frame of film, it exists, it’s organic, you can touch it, as opposed to modern digital acquisition which is merely terabytes of digital ones and zeros – it exists only on hard-drives.
Let me give you an example of bad digital archiving. There’s a whole generation of digital photographs between 2000 and 2010 that have almost simply ceased to exist whether it be attributed to a hard-drive crash – a software upgrade or a computer crash. How are these modern movies going to be archived and stored? Will one be able to revisit one of them, like a film print in over a hundred years’ time and it’s still there, still plays and still exists.
Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz, both shot in 1938 and released in 1939 have been remastered in 4K and they look like they were shot yesterday. In another five years, they can still access these prints, digitally scan them again and size them up to 8K if necessary. These films are now 80 years old – will you be able to access a digital feature in the same way?
The truth is that only time will tell, but this does make for an interesting debate.
Another example of retrieving amazing archives is the recently-released documentary Apollo 11 through CNN Films. The national archives in the US had recently discovered 65mm and 70mm film reels of the preparation for and the actual moon landing in 1969. Now the frame size of the film, much like the name suggests, 70mm, is huge.
These archive films were then scanned into modern film scanners and painstakingly remastered into the new IMAX digital format. Having recently watched the film, I can attest to the fact that the presentation is truly breath-taking. The details, the colors, the clarity, it truly is a sight to behold. One would never say the footage was shot in 1969.
Which brings me to my final point: Until digital can prove to us all that in a decade’s time, all these ‘digital’ masters can still be accessed and stored and made easily available – it hasn’t proved itself as good an archive as good old-fashioned celluloid. Kodak may be all but dead in terms of acquisition but its legacy lives on forever in the archives and will continue to do so.
– Robert Haynes is the Executive Producer of entertainment at CNBC Africa and the owner of film and TV production company, 42nd Street Films, in Johannesburg.
The Movie Buff With A Happy Ending In Business
Kene Okwuosa continues to make profit selling the immersive cinema experience across movie halls in Nigeria.
If trailers of Simon Kinberg’s upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix have whetted your appetite for more action-packed cinema, you could take your pick from the likes of Hobbs & Shaw, John Wick 3: Parabellum or Avengers: End game. But as any film buff would tell you, watching these adrenaline rushes on DVD or TV is no match for a full-throttle cinema experience.
Kene Okwuosa is bullish about letting Nigeria’s 190 million population experience the thrilling excitement of the celluloid world. Using the theater to extract a sizeable profit from the Nigerian culture of socializing and communal engagement, his Filmhouse Cinemas has grown from just three screens to multiple locations across the country.
As part of the company’s strategic expansion plans, Okwuosa signed a pioneer deal to bring IMAX, the world’s most immersive cinematic experience, to West Africa in 2016. In doing so, Filmhouse has flipped a switch not just to beat competition from other local cinema chains, but also become one of the fastest-growing IMAX businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
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Quite a feat considering Okwuosa’s first stint at the cinema business did not have a happy ending.
The year was 2008 and Okwuosa and his partner at the time, also named Kene, were desperately looking for greener pastures beyond the borders of the United Kingdom (UK), where they were both employed as assistant general manager and general manager respectively at Odeon Cinemas.
“I had a conversation with Kene on the first of December 2008 and he was saying there is an opportunity with a friend of his who was an investor in Nigeria and we could go back, set up a company and create a great product in Nigeria. I resigned from my job on the second of December, I saw my family on the third of December and I caught a flight on the fourth of December after not being back in Nigeria for 11 years,” says Okwuosa.
And their voyage back home was favored by lady luck. A South African company at the time was exiting the Nigerian market and their assets were up for grabs. With the help of their investor, the pair bought up the assets and just like that, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas was born. It was a magical moment in the lives of the newly-minted entrepreneurs.
With three chains of Genesis Cinemas under their belt, the pair were ready to reap the profits of their entrepreneurial pursuits until everything went belly up.
“A year later, that deal went so bad we had to exit. Myself and Kene exited the company to our dismay. The private investor owned most of the business and there were issues between the investor and my partner relating to a slight misalignment of the company. We were torn between either staying in Lagos or going back to the UK. We decided to stay and tug it out,” says Okwuosa.
The pair had to downsize from the guest house they were staying in to a smaller flat and survived on noodles, while they hatched their next plan. They turned their living room into an office and went back to the drawing board.
Okwuosa believed there was still a market in the cinema theater business and he was not wrong. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Nigerian film industry is globally recognized as the second-largest film producer in the world. Total cinema revenue is set to reach $22 million in 2021, rising at 8.6% CAGR over the forecast period.
READ MORE | Will Cinema Just Disappear?
The cinema industry is one of the priority sectors identified in the economic recovery growth plan of the federal government of Nigeria with a planned $1 billion in export revenue by 2020. Furthermore, the National Film and Video Censors Board estimates the Nigerian movie industry needs at least 774 cinemas across the country for it to tackle the menace of piracy.
“So, for two years, I was literally waking up and going to every single office trying to pitch and raise money. We didn’t know anybody and we are not sons of rich men, we had already failed with Genesis, we had no assets or collateral. We were literally telling people we were going to modernize Nigeria’s entertainment scene and everybody was looking at us like we were crazy.”
In 2009, the Intervention Funds, created by then president Goodluck Jonathan to boost the Nigerian creative industry, would prove to be the lifeline Okwuosa and his partner so badly needed.
“I am proud to say we were the very first to access that fund in 2012, which was about N200 million at the time which, when you look back is not that much but considering the exchange rate, it was over $1 million. It was enough to help us kickstart Filmhouse. We had nothing, so that particular facility was largely uncollateralized,” says Okwuosa.
The fund took a bet on Okuwosa and his partner and it paid off. The loan was used to open their first three-screen cinema in Surulere, Lagos.
“It had a slow start but ultimately grew to be one of the biggest locations in the country and that organic growth led us to open two more cinemas prior to our second round of investors, which was private equity money from African Capital Alliance.”
The investment helped Okwuosa to scale to 10 operational locations across six states. The original vision when Okwuosa started Filmhouse was to be the biggest and best cinema and create an amazing space where people could escape into a different world.
Two years after, the company set up the production and distribution part of the business.
Filmhouse now represents about 50% of tickets sold in Nigerian cinemas, according to Okwuosa. With just a dream to conquer the Nigerian market, today, Filmhouse has a vision to become a media entertainment company.
In addition to IMAX, the company represents other international brands like Warner Bros and Lionsgate. With the institutional investment, Okwuosa has strengthened his core team, which no longer includes his former partner, as well as providing the company the impetus to scale with the right mind and right trajectory.
With a GDP of $375 billion making the Nigerian economy the 30th largest economy in the world, Okwuosa believes there is still a big chunk of money to be made from the entertainment and media space.
“I think we haven’t even scratched the surface of this industry and we want to position ourselves at the forefront of Nigerian entertainment.”
Worldwide Box Office, The Best It’s Ever Been
The international worldwide box office has never been this big or this competitive. 2018 proved to be a record year as Comscore reported that the worldwide box office peaked at $41.7 billion. This is already a 2.7% upward shift from last year’s $40.6 billion and marks only the second time ever that it has cracked $40 billion.
At a time when blockbuster films are all but devouring the lion’s share of traffic at the international turnstiles, we thought it appropriate to pause and take a look at just what these figures mean for the future of film and film releasing. Is Hollywood cannibalising itself by creating these juggernauts?
Well, let’s take a look at the latest numbers sensation, Avengers: Endgame. The film broke a few records. It had the biggest international opening of all time raking in just over $1.2 billion in its first 11 days of release, an unheard-of figure.
READ MORE | Will Cinema Just Disappear?
As of May 13, Avengers: Endgame is sitting on a worldwide total of $2.5 billion and is guaranteed to go even higher in the weeks ahead. But where does this leave variety, where does this leave the smaller film, the adult-orientated film, the arthouse film?
The reality is that the mere existence of films like Avengers: Endgame means that this leaves such kinds of pictures nowhere. It’s impossible for any other picture to compete with a $356 million budget superhero movie with at least another $200 million in worldwide marketing costs behind it.
Hollywood’s technique is complete saturation and to kill the competition. So while the film may have performed exceptionally, let’s be honest, with the kind of market saturation, brand name power and the sheer size of the international release, it should have.
Another important point when reviewing this film’s incredible box office performance is again to take into account the all-important Chinese market. Avengers: Endgame has already grossed over $600 million in China accounting for over a third of its total gross already.
But how has it performed from a historical perspective? When looking at ticket prices adjusted for inflation based on grosses in the United States only, the film slips all the way down to number 24 on the all-time grossers list. Top of the pops is still Gone With The Wind from 1939, followed by the original Star Wars from 1977.
This brings me to my next point. Whatever happened to films that had legs, such as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. from 1982 or The Exorcist from 1973? The grosses of these films adjusted for inflation would be billions of dollars worldwide. The key to their ongoing longevity is that they had legs.
These were films that discovered their audience week by week and although they were smash hits, they often grew in terms of their numbers from one weekend to the next as word-of-mouth spread, increasing their turnover.
In this age of instant gratification and mass saturation, Avengers: Endgame is doing the opposite – it dived by 70% in its second week, numbers showing no signs of any real longevity.
So is Avengers: Endgame going to be the ultimate releasing strategy going forward? Does one push the film out into as many cinemas as possible, spend the equivalent of a small country’s GDP in terms of marketing power and try and pack in as many viewers into your first seven days with sell-out performances, then take the money and run?
Speculation is always circumspect so I’d like to pose another question. If film is a business, should the business strategy be hit and run?
Will any of these films have the kind of longevity from a film fan perspective or will they disappear into the chasm of disposable entertainment.
Again, only time will tell. Where to from here for Hollywood?
This kind of maximum impact output surely isn’t sustainable and is surely too risky. You can’t spend half a billion dollars on producing and marketing a film and then have any kind of risk in terms of the film not connecting with its broad-based audience.
All you need is two or three box office bombs and you’ll sink a studio.
The old cliché that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket exists for a reason. If entertainment tastes continue to split into niches, the theatrical movie-going experience will also continue to take a backseat to Video On Demand, and Hollywood may just be shooting itself in the foot with this glut of summer tent-pole pictures.
I sincerely hope this doesn’t mean the death of “word-of-mouth”. Bigger does not necessarily mean better.
– Robert Haynes is Executive Producer of entertainment at CNBC Africa and owner of film and TV production company, 42nd Street Films, in Johannesburg.
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