Nairobi Half Life has become the biggest theatrical success for a local film, grossing over $82,000 (Sh7 million) in local ticket sales alone, according to distribution company Crimson Multimedia.
The success of the film directed by David “Tosh” Gitonga has breathed fresh air into the Kenyan film industry.
Nairobi Half Life tells the story of an aspiring actor who travels from his rural home to Nairobi with the hope of achieving his dreams but instead ends up tangled with a mob of criminals. (Obbo: Nairobi Half Life: When I grow up, I really don’t want to live in this city)
Touches on homosexuality
It’s a tale of struggle, ambition, crime, prostitution, corruption and even touches on homosexuality.
The movie has received international attention equal to no other local production. (Read: 'Nairobi Half Life': Kenya's first entry in Oscar race)
It became the first Kenyan film to be considered for an Oscar while locally it grabbed four trophies at the Kalasha awards. (Read: Kenya’s best on screen feted at Kalasha Awards)
One of its cast, Joseph Wairimu, also won the Best Actor Award at the Durban International Film Festival last year.
The director partly attributes the film’s success to the massive social media campaign that the production company, One Fine Day Films, took but adds that it could have been much greater if proper distribution mechanisms were in place in Africa.
“A few cinemas are screening the production in Kenya. You can only imagine if we were able to distribute in the entire continent,” he says.
In the West, for instance, films are showcased at festivals then studios buy the rights, market and distribute them all over the world.
“We’re learning along the way though,” says Tosh, adding that Kenyan filmmakers have to take their time in producing, other than rushing and expecting to come out with a good movie. (Read: Nairobi Half Life: Undoubtedly the year’s best)
Jayesh Patel, the general manager of Century Cinemax, Junction, on Ngong Road, says the company did not foresee the film’s success.
“The first time they (the producers) approached us, I remember watching the movie on DVD and I thought it was quite good. We agreed to take it on. We knew it would sell but we did not know it would be this big,” he says.
The film has been showing at the Century Cinemax since September last year and has attracted a crowd of 10,000 to date.
On what sets it apart from other movies, Patel says people want to watch good movies with good stories.
When you attend film screenings, it’s a product you’re paying for and Nairobi Half Life, in his view, is brilliant. The creators did their research well so the film is believable and the story is entertaining. This is something you don’t see very often in Kenya films.
“When you have such a film, even the distributors go the extra mile to promote it,” says Patel who keeps a rolled-up Nairobi Half Life poster with autographs from the main stars. He intends to hang it next to an antique Star Wars poster, the only one on his office wall.
Century Cinemax advertised the movie on all its online and social media platforms since its release.
Not all films that hit the screens fair well though.
Perform very well
Last year, Cinemax Plaza screened only one other Kenyan production: Keeping it Together, which did not perform very well.
“We sold less than 100 tickets for the three weeks that it ran. As much as we might want to promote local movies, if people are not buying tickets, then we cannot do so,” Patel says.
Nairobi Half Life has set the bar quite high and filmmakers need to invest more thought and money into their films in order to make them a success. In the recent past, Starflix Cinemas has screened two Kenyan films: Leo and The Captain of Nakara. Nich Mwole, who is in charge of customer care at the movie theatre at Prestige Plaza, says most local movies don’t do well.
“We are now showing Captain of Nakara and each show attracts about 10 to 15 people. Each of our theatres sits about 229 people so this is a letdown,” he says. (Mutiga: Movie casts a harsh light on yawning inequalities that threaten stability)
Unlike Patel, Nich believes that what Kenyan films lack is not so much quality as marketing.
“When people leave the theatre after watching the local movies, they’ll say they were good. I have also watched the movies and they are quite entertaining but they are not well marketed on other platforms like television and radio. Most people out there simply do not know they exist and maybe if they did, they would come and watch them,” he says.
He says they have rejected some local movies because they feel screening them would simply bring losses.
Colombian-born filmmaker Joan Poggio, 35, who came to Kenya about years ago while working for the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet programme, says the biggest challenge for film lovers today is differentiating between good and bad films.
“These are very exciting times for the film industry. Now you can do so much more with just a camera and laptop than was imaginable 10 years ago. Unfortunately, everyone wants their five minutes of fame. Having the equipment to do it does not matter. What matters is the story,” he says.
Joseph Wairimu, who plays Mwas in Nairobi Half Life, says his newly-found fame has got him into a bit of unexpected trouble.
“I had never been robbed before in my life but this happened right after the film’s premiere. I was attacked one evening on my way home by some youths who were convinced I had a lot of money. People don’t understand that we made Nairobi Half Life back in 2010 and the pay was not very good,” he says.
Despite the film’s commercial success, Joseph still lives in Mathare. But it has raised his hopes of getting to Hollywood.
Nairobi Half Life is intended to be released on DVD. But Tosh is disappointed that it has already been pirated.