Kene Okwuosa and Moses Babatope set out to deliver world-class movie-going experiences to the Nigerian public and 10 years later, that vision is still going strong.
“We were so passionate about cinema and so passionate about film that not figuring it out was not an option.”
When Kene Okwuosa and Moses Babatope met for the first time at Odeon Surrey Quays Cinema in London, they had no idea that in just a couple of years they would be redefining the movie-going experience in Nigeria. In October 2002, Babatope was looking for a part-time job while studying at Middlesex University and Okwuosa was the manager in charge of recruiting the new batch of young hopefuls to join the Odeon Cinema universe.
“We had two or three stages in the recruitment process where you speak to a full auditorium and play out an emergency situation. If you do well, then you go to the interview and after your interview, you were told whether you were successful or not. I didn’t have a good session when it came to the scenario part of the interview so I was going to walk myself out when a gentleman called me and said I should do better next time and I am okay to proceed to the next phase. That gentleman was Kene,” recalls Babatope.
A bond was immediately formed between the two gentlemen. Today, they are co-founders of one of the biggest cinema chains, Filmhouse Cinemas, in Nigeria. They are also best friends married to two sisters.
Okwuosa, the group CEO and Babatope, who doubles as the group deputy CEO, offer advanced cinema experiences to the average Nigerian with the official rights to IMAX for the West African region.
In hindsight, the duo never saw their entrepreneurial journey unfolding this way. In fact, there was a time not too long ago that their dream almost didn’t take off.
The duo initially experimented by offering Nigerian movie producers an opportunity to premiere Nollywood movies in the United Kingdom for the first time.
“That was a game-changer. We got real insights about people’s experiences and how they felt during the cinema experience. In all of that, we never thought to ourselves that we can find capital and start our own. Our scenario was ‘let’s go, show our experience and see what happens’,” says Babatope.
Then, they became more audacious.
“The vision started in Nigeria. When we came, we joined a new cinema at the time called Genesis which didn’t go as planned. Our vision was not aligned and we ended up parting ways. But we knew we had to build this thing one way or the other. We were so passionate about cinema and so passionate about film that not figuring it out was not an option. It was an opportunity to step back and say we can do this on our own,” says Okwuosa.
But to have a dream is one thing and finding money to back that dream is another thing entirely.
“We understood that we did not have the last names that would open doors in Nigeria for us to get investment but we were convinced that if we could just get started and figure it out, we would learn and figure it out on the way,” says Okwuosa.
Okwuosa and Babatope spent two years knocking on every conceivable door they could find in Nigeria trying to raise capital and convince investors to bet on them. As luck would have it, the Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2011 had established a creative industry fund, which was being managed by the Bank of Industry, a development finance institution in Nigeria.
“At this time, we just came from London and we assumed we would fill out a form and wait for the call. We did that and no one called us back. We got as far as being invited to pitch properly for a loan for one million dollars. They were impressed. We had no security or collateral but they were taken by the passion and management expertise we had to set up cinemas,” says Okwuosa.
They became the first company to access the fund and with that injection, they opened their first Filmhouse Cinemas, which was a three-seat cinema in Surulere in December 2012. Okwuosa and Babatope set out to deliver world-class cinema experiences to the Nigerian public and 10 years later, that vision is still going strong.
But Covid-19 was by far the biggest singular challenge they faced as a business and the biggest one they faced professionally.
“Within a period of three months, it looked like everything we had worked hard for during the seven years prior was going to evaporate and this was the reality. I was really depressed,” recalls Babatope.
The company had to close its doors to the public for seven months effectively cutting off all revenue.
“On the one hand, we were not generating anything and on the other hand we had stock that was wasting away. We also had equipment and machinery that needed some access to be maintained so they would be in good working condition when we opened. Also, the government didn’t understand the importance of our sector or prioritized it at all,” says Babatope.
But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. For the budding entrepreneurs at Filmhouse, this came in the form of multimillion blockbuster Nollywood releases as well as the highest-grossing film of all time, Spider-man: No Way Home, when the lockdown ended.
“These were all released in the [peak] of the Omicron [wave] in 2021 and we just hosted the official premiere of Black Panther Wakanda Forever during the Covid era and it’s looking to be the number one film of all time and we are hopeful it will be the first billion-naira film out of our country,” says Babatope.
Another way the company survived was with the help of global streaming platforms that were hungry for quality Nollywood movies. Filmhouse had expanded their offering to also include FilmOne, a content production and distribution business, with a host of blockbuster hits under its belt.
“Back then everything was going to streaming so the catalogue we had built over the years, we were able to monetize that and that was able to help sustain things while the cinema revenue took a hit. As the largest supplier of content to our streaming partners, Netflix and Amazon, everyone wanted content so we were able to boost supply and through that we also strengthened our studio relationships as well,” says Okwuosa.
The company currently stands at 400 employees strong. The key to their continued success they say is their ability to build a sense of community.
“It was a huge part of my growing up so I always understood the power of community. In our time in Odeon, that was the core of everything that drove us passionately. When you think about cinema it is a communal experience as well and that has been at the center of a lot of decisions going forward,” says Okwuosa.