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Kenya Bizzers Hope Nyong’o’s Oscar Win Can Boost Local Production

Still abuzz over Lupita Nyong’o’s supporting actress win at the Oscars, Kenya’s emerging film biz is looking to build on the attention that the homegrown star’s success has generated abroad. Best known for a locations industry that’s created iconic backdrops for Hollywood movies like “Out of Africa” and “The Constant Gardener,” the country is hoping to nurture local talent to bring more Kenyan stories to the bigscreen.

Chris Foot, chairman of the Kenya Film Commission, says that a proposal for an incentive scheme is just weeks away, along with the first draft of a long-overdue film policy. But Kenyan bizzers have heard such promises before.

Momentum around the industry has been growing over the past few years — but slowly. “Nairobi Half Life,” produced in 2012 by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer’s shingle One Fine Day Films, created local buzz as the first Kenyan movie submitted for consideration in the foreign-language Oscar race; it became a modest hit on the festival circuit. But the film’s success also has highlighted the challenges facing Kenyan helmers.

The country’s biggest local B.O. success, “Half Life” made around $20,000 in Kenyan theaters — barely enough to cover the cost of prints, according to Ginger Wilson, of TV and film services company Ginger Ink, which worked with One Fine Day on the production. The film’s six-figure budget — astronomical for a local pic — was made possible only due to the backing of Tykwer’s Berlin-based shingle.

But “Half Life” helped dispel the long-held myth that Kenyan auds wouldn’t turn out to see a Kenyan film, even in modest numbers.

“I think what we’re out to demonstrate is that if you do make a film with high production values, people want to see it,” Wilson says. But turning a profit, she admits, is a “nut we haven’t cracked yet.”

A working example of the current economics of Kenyan moviemaking is the prolific Riverwood — named after River Road, a creative and business hub in Nairobi — that churns out hundreds of low-budget films a year. DVDs sell for about a dollar, and many producers are able to turn a small profit. Director-producer Alexandros Konstantaras has experimented with ways of utilizing Riverwood’s low-budget production and distribution methods on higher-quality films with broader commercial appeal. His latest comedy, “House of Lungula,” generated strong online buzz by casting well-known East African actors, and was able to recoup production costs — around $3,000 — at the B.O., even before exploring TV and DVD sales.

Mixed signals from government, too, have held back an established film production industry, with a pic policy that for years has failed to gain traction.

The introduction of a rebate and incentive scheme could be a game-changer for foreign shoots, helping to level the playing field with South Africa’s larger and more competitive industry. But the question remains whether the new administration — voted into office last year — will do a better job than its predecessors of making good on its promises.

“Like the film policy, there are several great initiatives that have ended up bogging down,” says Jim Shamoon of Blue Sky Films, East Africa’s biggest production services company.

For local filmmakers, there are other challenges. In a country of more than 40 million, there are just five operating multiplexes. Last fall’s terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi scared audiences away. Moreover, government has failed to clamp down on piracy.

Shamoon, who gave Nyong’o her start in film as a production assistant on “Constant Gardener,” hopes a ripple effect from the actress’s Oscar win can change the local dynamics — and redouble the will of the government to establish a support system for the biz

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