M-Net amasses library of 450 plus African films and is launching a VOD streaming service

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M-Net Electronic Media Network has quietly invested in buying all rights for 450 plus African films which it sees as bringing the rights back to Africa. It will be the distributor for this unique library on its own channels, through other TV stations, in film festivals and on a new VOD streaming service it will launch. Even more radically, it is exploring the feasibility of launching a film channel in francophone Africa. Russell Southwood spoke last week to M-Net’s Head of Sales and African Film Library Acquisition, Mike Dearham.

DStv pioneered local content with the (largely Nollywood) Africa Magic Channel and more recently added the non-Nigerian content channel Africa Magic Plus. But the African Film Library takes this ambition up yet another notch. For M-Net has spent US$30-40,000 a film to buy all rights for 25 years and is still adding to the library.

Most recently, it was at this year’s FESPACO where it bought 8 more films, including the winning entry and was the sponsor for the film market:”We’re buying rights back from Europe.” Dearham reckons that the library covers 80% of the top African films ever made:”There are two to three (key) fim-makers missing. Some don’t own their own rights and they are scattered across 8 co-production companies and others don’t believe in going for 25 years. People told us it would be impossible but it has turned out not to be.”

The African Film Library turns M-Net into a film distributor as the strategy is to sell beyond its Pay-TV channels. Following DISCOP in February this year, Mike Dearham reckons that he now has relationships with 80-90% of the continent’s Free-To-Air channels: films sell at US$1,000 each and it has not only all the global rights but has them in all languages so it will do different language sub-titling including initially French and Arabic. FTA TV channels in Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique and Seychelles now all have a late night African cinema screening slot.

For DVD, it has a strong relationship with South African distributor Nu-Metro and distributes a South African Cinema brand which in due course will be followed by an African Cinema brand to be distributed globally by Nu-Metro. Across all product (including programmes, documentaries, comedies and “bloopers”), it is selling 12,000 units a month and Dearham reckons that this will have doubled by next year:”You need a depth of product to get momentum going.”

Not content with traditional channels, it will soon also launch a VOD streaming service with its own web site. The fee has yet to be finally fixed but will be somewhere between US$10-20 a month. Initially all films will be in English or with English sub-titles but francophone and lusophone versions will follow shortly. Through the process of launching this channel it has digitalized the whole of the film library, thus protecting this unique collection of films from the kind of decay acetate will suffer over 25 years.

“The challenge is to make it affordable and accessible and we’re going to link the VOD site to anything with Africa attached to it. We’ve also got strategic players like IMDB, California Newsreel, the French film agencies, Canadian distributors and TV stations involved. If anyone’s written an academic paper about a film, we’ll have a link to it. Then we’ll have lighter articles about films and a social network so that we can establish what works for the site. It might evolve into a sort of African You Tube. There’s a point where it will allow consumers to use it in a regulated manner to make their own content. I see no problem with that. Independent content like this can’t guarded. Maybe through all this, a brilliant concept might emerge.”

“M-Net’s strategy is to bring the channel into the homes of new audiences. These used to be elite audiences but once you reach a ceiling with these audiences, you need to think about how to drive things to new audiences. And this is where the thinking is.”

“The challenge for us is to rapidly evolve content and strategy to allow the ordinary viewer to have access to a Black Diamond Channel and to create cross-cultural channels where language comes to the fore. We’re exploring the feasibility of launching a channel in francophone Africa. It would be different from the premier channels and would include educational programmes.”