For many years, recalls Bernard Azria, CEO of Cote Ouest Audiovisuel, the easiest way to get from Abidjan to Lagos — a journey of 500 miles by road — was via Paris. A simple bank transfer could take up to three weeks.
Those hurdles long underscored a fact of life in Africa, where the borders drawn up by European colonials more than a century ago created long-lasting divisions in how people lived and did business.
But with increased mobility, trade liberalization, and a growing sense that the digital age is bringing down borders, a new era for pan-African co-productions and distribution that spans the continent’s geographic and linguistic divide seems to be under way.
What Azria has dubbed “cross-fertilization” was the talk of Discop Africa this week.
Ahmadou Bakayoko, of Ivory Coast pubcaster RTI, said there’s a growing demand from broadcasters “to engage at a very early stage with international partners and try to … build something together that’s going to be able to cross borders and be relevant to [different] audiences.”
Last year, RTI began forging partnerships with companies in Kenya and South Africa to post-produce Ivoirian TV series; this year, those partnerships bore fruit with a new scripted drama co-produced with South Africa that was picked up this week by a major English-language broadcaster.
“This business is about stories — stories that can touch people in several countries,” Bakayoko said. “It’s not something that’s engineered from a marketing standpoint. The idea is to find good projects that by nature have room for international co-production.”
Markus Davies of Urban Brew Studios — Africa’s largest indie production company — noted that the shift is being felt in the continent’s most developed TV industry, where earlier this year pubcaster SABC inked a historic deal to provide premium scripted dramas to Canal Plus’ recently launched A+.
“For the last 28 years it was focusing purely on content with a South African perspective,” he said. But now, Urban Brew is “busy changing our model a lot.”
“I think the time for African content is rising,” he added.
This year Urban Brew signed an MoU with France’s Lagardére Entertainment to develop scripted formats for African viewers, with two co-productions already under way. According to Davies, the goal is “to create world-class, benchmark scripted content that won’t just be made by Africans for Africans, but made by Africans for global consumption.”
Azria, whose Cote Ouest boasts the world’s largest catalog of African content, said a similar desire drove his company to open a production arm in 2013, when he realized there wasn’t enough high-quality African content to meet growing demand.
“In order to get the best [content], we had to intervene much, much earlier in the value chain,” he said. “So we are investing money in development, production, financing.”
With a new strategy focused on “co-producing original content as much as we can,” Azria said by the end of 2016, Cote Ouest will unveil seven dramatic series, one short format, one kids program, and one collection of TV movies, produced in such diverse locations as Abidjan, Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
With Discop now offering twice-yearly markets, in Johannesburg and Abidjan, the Anglophone and Francophone worlds are only bound to grow closer.
“The momentum is really tangible,” Davies said. “I don’t think co-productions are just … a trend.”