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Anthill Studios' Bold 120 Million Naira Bet on Animation
Over a decade ago, he made Nigeria’s first sci-fi movie to show in cinemas, now Niyi Akinmolayan is making Nollywood’s first live-action animation to premiere in cinemas.
When Niyi Akinmolayan, a prominent Nollywood filmmaker and CEO of Anthill Studios, released the teaser for his company’s new animation feature, Mikolo, he cautiously switched off his phone as he was worried about the audience's reactions. Whilst confident in the animation’s quality and storyline, past experiences had taught him to be wary.
In the 75-second teaser, a child, played by the gifted youngster, Pamilerin Ayodeji, befriends an Irunmole, which is explained as a magical creature or spirit. The creature, the titular Mikolo, is a CGI-rendered multi-coloured bird-like being that quickly captures the imagination and has caused excitement among kids.
The teaser received overwhelmingly positive and encouraging responses, with social media abuzz with stories of children and younger relatives enthusiastically embracing the Mikolo character. “I showed this to my kids (13 and 10) [and] they handed me the phone echoing, “Mikolo,” media executive Bola Yinka-Obebe tweeted under the teaser’s post. “That’s a first win for memorability, and yes, they are looking forward to watching it!”
Akinmolayan’s post has been viewed over a hundred thousand times on Twitter, now known as X; an influencer who reposted the video with the caption “Nollywood is changing” has received close to three million views. The reception has overwhelmed the filmmaker.
“The [response] made me feel like I know what I am doing,” Akinmolayan tells Inside Nollywood. “The Nigerian audience is quite a dicey one, you can be 100 per cent sure of something, and you still have surprises… I was as surprised as everyone else; what it says is that people just want to see new stuff.”
The love on social media is great, but selling a Nigerian live-action animation to the theatrical audience — a feat that has never been done — is tricky. It is even more challenging with current economic realities and cinema ticket prices soaring as high as 5000 Naira, a significant fraction of Nigeria’s monthly minimum wage.
In response, Akinmolayan and his distribution partner, Filmone Entertainment, have devised a strategic plan, which includes partnering with other cinemas nationwide in a campaign targeting parents and kids. The timing is also crucial, with the film’s release smartly planned to coincide with the summer holidays when children will be at home and free to enjoy the cinematic experience.
“As FilmOne, there will be a lot that we will do aside from the regular digital marketing,” Lanre Aileru, the head of marketing at FilmOne Entertainment, tells Inside Nollywood. “We are looking at doing creative retail [refreshment] packs that will be branded with Mikolo, so that people coming to the cinemas will have something to eat [that’s not] your regular popcorn and drink.”
According to Aileru, FilmOne is optimistic about the film’s chances despite animations historically having mixed success at Nigerian cinemas — they are full of hope that Nigerians will come out for one of theirs. It is a sentiment shared by industry analysts. Damilare Akintunde, a publisher of the local publication Shock NG, thinks it is an exciting experiment that might sell because of its novelty.
“I find that it is going to be a high-risk, high reward,” Akintunde says. “I think if they can pull a double-digit [earning] during their opening weekend, that [would] be super fantastic. They [might] not make their money in cinemas, but they are opening new markets and bringing new audiences to the cinemas, [which has] long-term value for both the industry and Anthill Studios.”
Nurturing a presence for animation in Nollywood has been one of Akinmolayan’s missions at Anthill Studios. It is a lifelong passion traced to his debut film, Kajola, Nollywood’s first sci-fi film in cinemas. Although that project failed — he calls it “a disaster” — he isn’t deterred. He has continuously pushed and pitched for “more animation and children's content, but nobody wants to drop money.”
To fill the gap, Anthill Studios consistently produces one or two short animations yearly and has been doing so for nearly a decade. However, Akinmolayan believes more is needed to entice investors or the American streaming giants currently operating in the industry.
“You have to have something [more tangible],” he admits. “So, we said, we are going to put resources in and we are going to make this thing. I think the fact that we did [League of Orishas] helped. We kinda felt that fantastical creatures that played with myth and legends and gods might be a bit more appealing.”
League of Orishas is a 5-minute animation series that delves into Yoruba mythology. Anthill Studios released two episodes on YouTube to a warm reception, but budget constraints have halted further release, with each episode costing around four million Naira. However, the released episodes showed the filmmaker there is enough interest to take a bigger bet.
Mikolo is that bet. It is Anthill Studios’ most ambitious project yet, with a budget exceeding 120 Million Naira. But it is a gamble Akinmolayan is optimistic would be successful and could revolutionise the budding animation movement in the country (and Africa), and he’s encouraged by the positive reception of League of Orishas. It is partly why Mikolo is going the theatrical route instead of streaming as Akinmolayan has recently done through his deal with Amazon’s Prime Video. He knows success in theatrical distribution “will reveal something is here.”
The Nigerian film industry is going through a seminal period. The American streamers and influx of foreign investment have expanded the scope of genres filmmakers can dabble in, and animation has been seeing more attention lately. Local streamer Showmax recently released Jay Jay: The Chosen One, an animation series which reinvents the upbringing of Nigerian football legend Jay Jay Okocha, reimagining him as a superhero.
In July, Disney Plus released the pan-African animated series Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, starring Nollywood actor Kehinde Bankole. Like Anthill Studios’ League of Orisha, the Disney series blends science fiction with African mythology. Also in July, Netflix released its first Original African animation series, Supa Team 4.
Mikolo is the latest in this encouraging trend, and according to FilmOne, its success should guarantee more animation in the future.
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