Philip Karanja doesn’t know this.
A close acquaintance of his I recently met, let out a small secret about Phil-it Productions.
Word from the acquaintance (that I trust with my life) is that the popular American video-on-demand streaming platform Netflix is planning to pick one of their productions Click Click Bang if it hasn’t already, for a rerun and will pay an equivalent of 60,000 USD (Sh8 million) to own exclusive rights for the first two years.
When Philip and his loquacious partner Abel Mutua premiered the movie last July, they made a gross income of Sh9 million distributing the title on their own platform.
Within three days of premiering, over 2,500 Kenyans paid Sh1,000 each to watch the movie.
These are exciting times to be Philip and Abel. The 36-year-olds known too well in the country didn’t always have it all. Literally, they started from the bottom.
Remember their cheeky, sapped faces on the Tahidi High TV programme many moons ago? They were broke but with a dream and a vision.
“We used to get paid Sh500 per episode on Tahidi High,” Philip tells me with a Duchene smile on.
Philip has invited me over to their Phil-it Production studio, somewhere in Kahawa Sukari, Nairobi.
Situated in one of the quietest neighbourhoods in the area, the studio is a bungalow big enough to comfortably host an extended family.
“We like it here, as film producers, our business thrives in quiet environments such as this. We don’t live here, this is just our office where most of the productions take place,” Philip attempts to explain, catching my facial shock.
The conversation is getting candid and Phil (as he likes to be called) offers a glass of cold water. He is in a blue matching denim outfit.
Just like a rock star, the long-sleeved denim shirt is all unbuttoned revealing the white t-shirt that hides his belly that appears getting overweight by the day.
The white T-shirt matches the white sneakers. If perception is everything, Phil cuts an image of one who has just pocketed a healthy cheque from a maturing LPO (local purchase order).
“Growing up like any other child, I wanted to be a pilot but ‘Weeh’ as the streets say, here I am,” he says.
For Phil, being a film director is all he ever wanted to be. While in High school, he watched an action film, Naked Weapon, and it froze his mind.
“There was this particular shot where when people were fighting they froze the shot and did a whole 360 degrees view of that actor. That blew my mind,” he reminisces.
But the story before the glory is one deserving a movie script.
Means to an end
“Acting for me was a means to an end. Before joining Tahidi High as an actor, I was a film production student at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication. From the word go, I wanted to be a director, acting was the bridge.”
A week into landing a cast on Tahidi High, Karanja began bugging the producers. He begged for an opportunity to be behind the cameras as a production runner or crew member.
A year into acting, an opportunity to be Tahidi’s production assistant presented itself and Phil was on board.
“When we joined Tahidi High in 2007, we were extras, the show had begun a year earlier. Citizen TV at the time was relatively new, hence wasn’t making money, so earning Sh500 was a big deal for us. Progressively, when we became part of the main acts, the pay rose to Sh3,000 per episode. By the time I was leaving the show in 2011, we were earning Sh20,000 per episode.”
By the time he was leaving, Phil says his ambitions were all set. Become a film director and own a production company. When he left the show it was as a cast but remained on board as a director.
“I left the show completely in 2014, with the last three years as a director,” he says.
When he was about to leave Tahidi, the producer, Catherine Wamuyu had begun another production, Mother in Law, and having mentored Phil, she poached him to assist in the latest production.
That’s where Karanja met his wife Catherine Kamau, alias Cate Actress.
“I became a production manager and director for both Mother-in-Law and Tahidi High before the latter fizzled out.”
Teaming up with Abel in 2014 having formed Phil-It Production two years earlier, the duo shot a pilot of the comical series The Real Househelps of Kawangware that propelled the likes of Timothy ‘Njugush’ Kimani and Steven ‘DJ Shiti’ Oduor into the limelight.
“It was a collaboration with a production company called Protel Studios. They owned the Intellectual Property rights, we came in as creatives. Abel did the scriptwriting, and I directed,” explains Phil.
The show ran for two years on KTN airing 104 episodes.
“After the show, we felt we were now ready to venture out on ourselves and get our own shows as Phil-It Production. This was now 2016.”
Loss of millions
Since 2012 when Phil-It came into existence, the duo had never secured a single project.
“We would get gigs as individuals but as a company for four years we were never lucky to land even a single contract.”
As Phil-It production, they began financing the shoot of pilot projects from their individual proceeds made from The Real Househelps of Kawangware.
“2016 was one of our most difficult years, we were shooting a lot of pilot shows for pitches that we weren’t guaranteed would get us a nod. Shooting a single pilot would cost us between Sh300,000 and Sh500,000. Most of our pitches were turned down by every broadcaster in this country and we lost over Sh1 million for around four different pilot concepts,” recalls Phil.
Also read: All set for Dear Awards in Minneapolis, USA
Of the four, Sue Na Johnnie, a comedy-drama series was eventually picked. It premiered on Showmax in 2017.
“With the success of Real House Helps, we were summoned to help with the development of Hullabaloo Estate, a concept by MNet. During this meeting, we brought up Sue Na Johnnie, which we had pitched to them a year earlier. It took the trust of one person in the room to get the nod. When we produced it, it became a box office for lack of a better term.”
But it was the show that would leave them in debt and losses amounting to Sh3 million.
“Once it was commissioned and a budget approved, that's when it dawned on us that we had the passion but lacked the business acumen. Our money management skills were poor, we overpaid people.
By the time we were done with the first season of both Hullabaloo and Sue Na Johnnie, we were negative three million in debts. Our cast members were driving while we boarded matatus. Abel was almost being kicked out over rent arrears.”
As the duo swam in debt from crews and their suppliers, the two shows' ratings kept soaring, convincing MNet to commission season two.
“The first thing we did was have a conversation with our cast and crew members notifying them that we would be reviewing their salaries downwards. It wasn’t the nicest conversation because the shows were doing really well.”
In 2018, the production paused and Phil seized the opportunity to seek the services of a business strategy consultant who helped transform Phil-It to profitability.
“We hired the services of Stanely Gichobi who cost us an arm and a leg, charging over Sh1 million. Stan came in with his team of Human Resource and Finance experts and built us a business model.”
If there is one lesson Phil learned is, “For you to put big margins you have to be willing to spend huge sums of money.”
With the strategies in place, a turnaround was imminent and looking back, Phil can’t help but smile.
One of their biggest wins was developing their own distribution platform philittv.com
“From Stan's expertise, we realised that our business model was B2B (Business to Business), where we sold our content to other businesses, in this case, the broadcasters. We were then introduced to a B2C model (Business to Consumer). If you look at the biggest companies in Kenya selling directly to consumers, we wanted to come up with a video-on-demand platform and make the margins.”
Their first film Grand Little Lie premiered in October 2021 and raked over Sh4 million with subscribers paying Sh200 to watch.
“With the launch we broke even and made margins, something that was unheard of in this country. Bundling up the production cost we spent Sh4.5 million and within two months of premiering the show we had made Sh5 million. The most interesting thing is that some subscribers were paying more than the Sh200.”
They would follow the act with Click Click Bang, selling at Sh250 per subscriber and bringing in Sh9 million.
Phil says their plan is not only to have their own productions on philittv.com but also other productions.
“The demand for Kenyan content is high and we as Phil-It production we cannot satisfy that demand on our own. We hope to get to a point where every month there is a new product being launched on Philitv.com and doesn’t necessarily have to come from our own production.
As we speak we are distributing one the most expensive action series in my view to have ever been produced in Kenya based on the props used, called Mpakani.”
Mpakani is a 10-part series action thriller revolving around a military mission in Northern Kenyan, produced by Foxton Media.
Each episode which is an hour-long costs Sh200 to stream or Sh999 for the entire Season 1.
This article was first published in Business Daily