Producing the Netflix flick ‘40 Sticks’ almost bankrupted us

Fakii Liwali, Betty Mutua

‘40 Sticks’ executive producers Fakii Liwali and Betty Mutua. 

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • It all began in 2018, when Fakii Liwali and Lucas Bideko, director and creative producer at Ogopa Deejays, were having a conversation at work.

With 13 Kalasha Film and Television Awards nominations and eight Africa Academy Movie Awards nominations, the buzz that has greeted the movie 40 Sticks’ November 20 release on Netflix is one that hasn’t been witnessed about a Kenyan film since the controversy surrounding Rafiki.

The movie, about a group of prisoners trapped in a crashed prison bus and striving to stay alive when they realise there is a mysterious killer lurking in the shadows, has been recommended and commended by reviewers for its great storyline and cinematography.

Its accolades have been written about by plenty of publications. But the film would not have come to life if three curious brains that had no experience in the movie sector hadn’t come together in a quest to solve a riddle in the industry.

It all began in 2018, when Fakii Liwali and Lucas Bideko, director and creative producer at Ogopa Deejays, were having a conversation at work.

Both men were consultants for Ogopa back in 2000 and have been friends and partners on different projects. They were in the studio when they started chatting about why there wasn’t as much glitz around Kenyan films compared with the music hype.

“We were worried about the film industry, a conversation that had started from music that was being used as soundtracks in Kenyan films. When I got home, I spoke to my wife (Betty Mwende) about it and we started a conversation about what should happen,” recalls Fakii.

50 films produced

At the time, Supa Modo, Disconnect, Subira and Rafiki were the movies on the charts. Yet their research showed that there were more than 50 films produced in 2017/2018. They realised that marketing, distribution, and scripting were areas of concern as far as reception was concerned. Also, most of the films were romantic comedies and family dramas. Knowing how to make things work in the music industry, the trio resolved to try their hand in film.

“The closest we had come to working on films was through providing scores and producing music videos,” says Fakii.

He called actor and scriptwriter Yafesi Musoke, seeking a script.  Yafesi gave him contacts of other scriptwriters, including the film’s eventual creator Frank Maina.

After spending up to Sh600,000 on scripts and not getting what they were looking for, Fakii says he sat down with Frank and briefed him that wanted a thriller and how he wanted it.  A few days later, Frank returned with a one-page synopsis. Fakii shared it with his wife and Lucas and and they knew that was it.

Two months later, Frank started developing the story and its characters. The more it grew, the more they loved it. Frank roped in Voline Ogutu and wrote the script. Faith Kaluva was brought in as the production manager.

While meeting his friend actor Sarah Hassan, Fakii received a call concerning 40 Sticks and Sarah overheard it.

Film school

“I have just come from film school and, as much as I have been onscreen a lot, I want to be behind the scenes as a producer,” she suggested.

Sarah and Faith guided him in getting the production team together. Gerald Langiri was the casting director. Fakii says “some big-time actors” wouldn’t have come to audition for “unkowns” if Gerald hadn’t called them.

Between December 2018 and January 2019, they had pre-production tied down.

He talked to his friend Kevin Mulei, who runs Film Studios, about his project. Kevin gave him filming equipment at no cost. They just had to pay the operators.

On February 4, 2019 they started shooting. Other friends invested in the project with sums of Sh100,000 and upwards. A mutual friend of his and Lucas pumped in Sh1 million into the production.

Even then, some pledges were not coming through. Fakii was now using their savings on the project with the hope that the promises would still come through. Production went on for 22 days. He would be at the scene during the night shoots, sleep for a few hours in his car, and then hustle for funds during the day. His wife would be getting supplies for the cast and did full catering, with the help of other women.

With production concluded, he still had no money. Cast, crew and suppliers were breathing down his neck for their pay.

Fakii says he almost went into depression. With calls from lawyers, the police, auctioneers, abusive texts, Fakii and his wife tried selling their cars, went to shylocks and gradually pay off their creditors.

At the time, Netflix had come to Africa through Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. Dorothy Ghettuba, Netflix Manager International Originals, got wind of the project and Fakii showed her its teaser trailer and synopsis. In September, she scheduled a meeting for them with her colleague in charge of films. He told them, to send their first cut once it was done. In December they did, and in January they were asked to change a few things.

Detailed feedback

“There’s someone whom we gave the movie to review, I wish I could shout her name. She talked on phone for an hour and 48 minutes to give detailed feedback; the film’s run time is an hour and 32 minutes. He biggest thing she told us was, “You need to hook people as early and fast as possible,’” remembers Fakii.

They brought the movie’s ending to the beginning and cut out some parts to not give away too much. They added the narration at the beginning and the end, that was Betty’s idea and written by her too. After that, they agreed to take the film.

“The pay isn’t ideal, but it’s a start. Netflix are looking for Kenyan content to grow their subscriber base. We were looking at the long game, to show them that we understand the Kenyan market, by having high views, so that project number two can bring in better money to plug the hole from this first one,” says Fakii.

He is glad that the movie has come in with the nominations the movie has gathered.

It means that even in Africa it has gotten a lot of eyeballs. Despite the amazing feeling, he has yet to see the return on investment. He is anxious to get to the next project to make business sense of venturing into film. They already have two projects they are looking at.

His only regret is that his father and mother-in-law aren’t alive to see the fruits of their children’s labour, having passed away in September and October last year.

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