Veteran Nigerian helmer Kunle Afolayan wants the world to know his ambitions are sky-high. So for his fifth feature, “The C.E.O.,” he’s taking his premiere 30,000 feet into the air.
It’s a marketing twist that comes thanks to Air France, a corporate sponsor for the film, with select guests getting a first glimpse of the movie on June 1 aboard a flight from Lagos to Paris, where “The C.E.O.” will then get its theatrical premiere on the opening night of the NollywoodWeek film fest.
For Afolayan, who in recent years has emerged as one of the leading figures of the local film biz, the move from the red carpets of Lagos to the bright lights of Paris reflects a growing sense that the Nigerian industry – popularly known as Nollywood – is beginning to earn the world’s oft-grudging respect.
“More doors are opening,” he says.
While the wildly prolific industry has been widely lampooned for its low-budget, slapstick fare, Afolayan is among a cohort of helmers lensing pics with broader appeal. After Netflix acquired the rights to his last movie, “October 1,” as well as the romantic thriller “Fifty,” by Nigerian playwright-turned-director Biyi Bandele (“Half of a Yellow Sun”), Afolayan says he’s witnessed growing interest from international buyers in the stories that Nigerians are telling.
“The C.E.O.” represents a shift for the helmer, who has been making headlines in Nigeria since his breakthrough sophomore effort, “The Figurine,” was released to wide acclaim in 2009.
The son of the late, celebrated filmmaker Ade Love, Afolayan pulled together an international ensemble for “The C.E.O.,” including Haitian thesp Jimmy Jean-Louis, Moroccan pop star Ahmed Soultan, and Grammy Award-winning singer Angélique Kidjo, of Benin.
Shot on location in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Morocco and France, the film reflects the helmer’s most ambitious effort to date, with a $2 million budget that dwarfs those of most Nigerian movies. The ties between Air France and Afolayan, who was also named a brand ambassador for Peugeot last year, reflect the helmer’s growing stature as an internationally recognized personality — a stature that he hopes will influence his filmmaking as well.
“I look forward to doing films in other countries that are not just Nigerian stories,” he says.
For “The C.E.O.,” Afolayan sends five African execs on a leadership retreat hosted by an international telecom firm, which will choose its next C.E.O. from the group at the end of the week. In a “Hunger Games”-style twist, the candidates are killed off one by one — with the last pair standing emerging as the likely culprits in their deaths.
It’s a script that might seem familiar for a filmmaker who’s had to navigate the choppy waters of distribution in Nigeria, where piracy has all but crippled the DVD market, and there are roughly two dozen cinemas servicing a population of more than 170 million. “I’m surviving,” Afolayan says bluntly, while acknowledging that even for one of the leading names of his generation, it’s a struggle to nudge a movie into the black.
Yet those challenges haven’t stopped his ambitions from growing, and for remaining dedicated to his maturing craft. “For me, it’s about the film,” he says. “It’s about making films for my kind of audience — from Africa, from anywhere.”
Despite the economic struggles in Nigeria, which in recent months has faced crippling fuel shortages as its currency nosedives, Afolayan is confident that movies like “The C.E.O.” will offer a bit of escapism for auds looking to forget their problems for a few hours.
“You still see people in malls, in cinemas, watching films,” he says.