“In 2013, I was approached by a group, Stay Alive Foundation, which initiated MTV Shuga. I was asked to produce a radio show for the group.”
Emmanuel K. Uduma is a talented movie and TV content producer, who hit gold when he was chosen by MTV to produce the successful TV programme, Shuga. Uduma, who has a background in theatre, graduated from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, where he majored in directing and dance. Going to Lagos State University, LASU, he focused on directing and writing. He also had a stint in radio broadcasting. At some point he was a sportswriter. In this interview, Uduma talks about his career and challenges facing the movie industry.
How did you start this journey?
Combining theatre and film has really been the journey. Back in school with people like Yaw, we were together in LASU and we started by doing stage plays in the university and at the MUSON Centre. Then we moved to do street shows with Julius Agwu, D’Genius and other comedians. While I was doing theatre, I was also on radio and TV. My first radio independent project was called Alero Call Centre which I started producing in my bedroom and recording with actors. It was aired on Naija FM. Then in 2013, I was approached by a group, Stay Alive Foundation, which initiated MTV Shuga. I was asked to produce a radio show for the group. Prior to that time, Shuga was on TV only and the season was running. After I delivered the 12 episodes of the radio show as a drama series, the group asked me to run the campaign. So I worked on managing the campaign in Nigeria for two and a half years as a marketing and partnership person. It was a full-time job, but I still liked to do some production work. It wasn’t convenient for me. At the end of that journey, I went back to running Smart Media, which has always existed as a production company. From that point we moved into our own facility in April 2017 and became a full-fledged production company.
What was the experience like producing MTV Shuga?
Within the same period I was the Marketing and Partnerships Manager, I produced MTV Shuga 4, which was the second Nigerian season that was also directed by Dee Bamidele. So I was the showrunner and co-producer with Chris Ihidero. At the end of Season 4, we continued with other projects and then we were asked to pitch for season 6 which is the most recent season and the one said to be the best season so far. We were very proud of how we told the story. Because we brought it home, we decided that it has to be authentic and Nigerian in every way, shape and form. Shuga is distributed globally and it’s being viewed by over a billion people on the planet across multiple distribution platforms.
How was your growing up and how did you discover your talent?
I had an amazing dad. My late father worked with Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN). He was always in support of me. As a young kid, I used to sketch old portrait pictures and then during Christmas, I was always the family clown, always dancing like Michael Jackson. He discovered this early and asked me to do art. In secondary school then, we didn’t have the guidance and counselling staff. So my friends were all going to the sciences, and I just followed them. I was even made laboratory prefect. In other words, I did not listen to my father. I really wanted to make money, and thought that becoming a banker meant that I will have money. So when I left secondary school, I started applying to study Banking and Finance and it just didn’t work. Then one day I heard about a programme at OAU in the Department of Dramatic Arts. So I just carried my bag and landed in Ile-Ife and did the interview for the programme and it was successful. I got admitted into the university. It was amazing. My first semester, I was privileged to meet very notable people. There was a show that was sponsored by Shell and I got a contract to do a play in Warri. I was in the production field, I travelled to Delta State, and I was put in a big hotel room, on a beautiful stage with amazing audience. I finished the job and got paid. That experience changed me completely because I got back to campus and I wasn’t anybody’s mate. Ife was very intensive; it was a very strong foundation for me because it was hands-on training 24/7. This was how I discovered my path.
What made you deviate from your father’s advice?
I discovered very early that I didn’t want to work for anybody. I saw my parents – my mum was a civil servant, who worked with the prison service. I said I didn’t want to experience salary bondage (that’s what I called it). I’ve always wanted to work for myself and control my own time and money. Way back in LASU, where I continued my education, I started writing, producing and directing even as a student.
Tell us about the first movie you produced?
Under Smart Media, my first movie was a short clip called ‘Burn’. It was a real life story of a friend of mine whose girlfriend betrayed him with his best friend. It was a great storyline. I wrote the script without telling him and we shot it in a friend’s apartment. Because I was inexperienced, the audio was horrible, the composition was bad. So I left in on YouTube and forgot it there. I went on to write for TV shows and do more radio. So recently, I dug up ‘Burn’ and I was fortunate that the editor who made the show still had the original files. I bought the files from him. Since I had all the equipment and experience, I called all the actors back and we revoiced the entire movie. So my first short film is going to be released again, but it would be rescripted.
What aspect of filmmaking do you cherish most?
Development of content, I like to play with ideas. I also miss directing because that was my first major job. In Ile-Ife, I was told nobody was indispensable. You could be a writer, director, producer or choreographer and still build your set; nobody will do it for you. So you should be able to do everything yourself as an artist. When you now begin to advance, you can be at the point where you have side functions. But foundationally, you should be able to do everything because it gives you an edge.
What would you say is the secret of your achievements?
It is self-belief. We live in a country where as an entrepreneur, there’s almost no incentive for doing the right thing and there’s every opportunity to be broke and be bad and break the law and be illegal. But when you set out to do something, you wake up, you have to deal with power supply, bad roads, noise and all sorts of things, then it’s very easy for you to just pack it up. But then again, you have to always motivate yourself. Once you have a picture of what you want to do inside of you, get up in the morning and see that picture in front of you. So I think my biggest push has been staying self-motivated.
How can one start up a business like yours with the kind of economy we have today in Nigeria?
I will say the fastest and the most convenient route is collaboration. A lot of young people have ideas. If you’re good at writing, directing, producing, come together, combine your forces and split the risk and set up a collective and begin to do things. This makes the task easier and it gives you a lot more depth because you come up with better product when you work together. Down the line, when you begin to deliver projects together and split the profit, you can decide to branch out later and do your own thing.
How did you come about the Shuga movie?
Shuga is a campaign and a TV series that focuses on relevant health and sexuality messaging. Its target is young people between the ages of 13 and 25. What owners of Shuga do is that they go to countries that have needs. For example, back in 2009, it started in Kenya because they had massive HIV occurrence as well as in Nigeria too. So they tell stories that call attention to those issues, helping people make certain decisions like using contraceptives, abstaining and all of that. For season 3 and 4, it was about HIV, while for season 6, it was about family planning and contraceptive. Data says that in some states in the North, there was increased rate of abortion. Can we prevent young girls from engaging in the risk of abortion? Of course we can. Has religion helped us? Not so much. Has scolding and fear of God and preaching helped us? No. People will still experiment. So if they are getting pregnant and having abortions, it tells you simply that they don’t use or care about using condoms. They are not aware of STIs and other infections which are dangerous. And we have older people who young people cannot talk to because they are going to judge you. We take all that data and turn them into storytelling. At the end of the day, when we finish telling the story and fuelling the show, it hits a 100% because of the way it is created. The story has to be authentic and contextual in a way it resonates with a mass audience. If you don’t have anything that ties me to that reality, I can’t get connected to that storyline or that character or that person telling the story.
What’s your relationship status?
I’m married with three kids.
How did you meet your wife?
She’s actually a writer. I met her during a project and I was a PM in the project.
Would you love your kids to be in the theatre industry?
What I desire more for my kids is to get them a better life and prepare them to have the best future possible.
What’s your philosophy of life?
Never leave anybody the way you met them. Every human being is a door. You should leave them better. If you can help, do so. Even if you can’t give physically, still give something. You must know somebody who knows somebody.
Do you have any regrets in life?
Well, I should have started this earlier.
Who gave you the best advice ever?
My late father; he had this plaque I grew up always seeing. I don’t know who wrote it and it says “I do the very best I can and I plan to keep doing so till the end. If the end brings me out right, nothing that is said against me will amount to anything, but if it brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right wouldn’t make a difference”. That has been my mantra ever since.
How would you characterize your relationship with your dad?
We were best friends. He had stroke and I wasn’t around when he died and it was painful that I wasn’t close when he passed.