iROKOtv Boss, Jason Njoku Shares How His Wife Built ROK From Ground Up
Tech investor and founder of iROKO, Jason Njoku, has shared how his wife Mary Njoku‘s ambitions birthed beloved DStv channel ROK.
Njoku, writing on his Medium page, shared how Mary had always loved storytelling and wanted to end up behind the camera rather than in front of it.
She had struggled to get roles in Nollywood, he wrote; producers saw her as a waka pass and not a lead character.
Even after marriage, producers had advised she stopped working. She had married a rich man, they said.
With time on her hands, she ventured into storytelling, creating the tv show ‘Festac Town.’
In 2013, after the birth of their baby, Mary offered to create content for his iROKOtv. Although he was as supportive as a husband was expected to be, he wasn’t that interested.
Focusing on talent, Mary Njoku slowly built ROK from the ground up.
Today, ROK is launching two new channels – ROK2 and ROK3, the former to focus on epic movies and shows, the latter on Ghanaian content.
With his permission, we’re publishing Jason’s story on how his wife, Mary, came to be a major content producer in Africa.
Read the story below:
So, ROK on DStv was one a few weeks ago. I thought it important to tell the story of how it came to be. How a new approach to movie making fundamentally returned Nollywood to its roots as a medium to tell our stories.
In 2011, when Mrs Njoku was still Miss Remmy, she told me that she would prefer, by 40, to end up behind the camera rather than in front of it. That was her dream. She always loved storytelling and felt that Alaba-led filmmaking was disconnected from the storytelling core which had popularised Nollywood. She had all these ideas but no-one would really listen. I was her boyfriend so I was obliged to.
Everyone who knows me knows I am pretty much wrapped up in myself and I rarely bother about anyone else. So it pretty much went in one ear and out the next. Even though she had been in arguably the biggest hit of 2011, Blackberry Babes, the year was a dry period for movie making for Miss Remmy. For whatever reason, she just wasn’t getting scripts or roles. With the way Nollywood churns out starlets, it was super worrying. She implored me to lobby producers, after-all I was spending millions of dollars acquiring content from them. I asked a couple of dozen. Only two agreed. The rest, in someway or form, told me I should not spoil their job or that they required me to pay for the entire film budget for her to feature in. See I believe in meritocracy so that wasn’t even an option. Not to mention those who point blank told me to mind my own business. So I let it be. Miss Remmy wasn’t satisfied and I remember we argued when I told her I ‘was too busy’ to run around, too busy to be making these phone calls and jeopardising the relationship with my producers. Jeez, sometimes I wonder why she married me. I could be pretty brutal in those days. The frustrations of wealth creation. See, Miss Remmy was considered a wakapass. So she was always given random supporting or very small roles. And if you think Harvey in Hollywood is bad. What happens in Nollywood? Blood of Jesus. But we will come to that another time.
2011 wandered into 2012 and Miss Remmy became Mrs Njoku. Mid-year, we took our first gamble at financing original content. Let’s say out of five producers, we commissioned 10 movies (2-each), four were satisfactory, five were okay and one movie-budget was converted into a container-of-goods which never ended up reaching Nigeria from the high seas of China. Acting roles were here or there. So Mrs Njoku still had time on her hands (post honeymoon) so ended up going to London to attend the London Film Academy.
It actually had gotten worse post our wedding. Being pregnant and all. Every single marketer / producer / fellow actor etc. advised her to stop working. They literally couldn’t understand why she still wanted to work. What was she chasing? Abi her journey had ended. She had married a rich man (when we married everyone called her a gold digger). If you look very carefully across Nollywood, most actresses who marry, the first thing their new husband does is attempt to stop them from acting. Well, if they can afford to. For the life of me, I don’t understand this. Miss Remmy had me promise a thousand different ways that I wouldn’t force her to stop. But because ‘she had married a rich man and gave him a son,’ producers literally didn’t think of her as a candidate for acting. She was out of the industry. No matter how many times she or I told them to the contrary. They assumed she was gone.
So, now that Mrs Njoku had some time, she started storytelling. Developing a script which became Festac Town. See, Mrs Njoku grew up in Amuwo-Odofin (it’s part if not adjacent to Festac in Lagos) so it was easy for her to tell this story. Except this wasn’t glamorous Island living schleck. This was a pidgin-led, gritty 126-cast monster. And she was 5–7 months pregnant throughout the entire set. It almost broke her and was definitely the most ambitious thing she has done to date. For all those who are still waiting for Festac Town season 2. There it is. She is scared to do it. Youthful enthusiasm created the first 13 episodes. With wisdom, she dare not try again.
Fast forward late 2013. We were in the fight of our lives. The venture financing had not gone unnoticed, the use of capital to realign the entire Nollywood windowing had not gone unnoticed. We had awoken the bear, AfricaMagic (MNET) began waging a content war to price (read force) us out of the market. The price of content had, for no other reason than some distant strategy change somewhere in Randburg, exploded from $2.5k/movie license to $25k, within the space of six months. It was stupid. I was stupid and desperate so just kept on increasing the pricing until someone folded. Mrs Njoku had just returned from London with our first child, O. So she was surprised to walk into my office to see one of the biggest female Nollywood producers shouting. Not necessarily at me, but in disgust at the $25k we were paying her for a movie. A hit. A blockbuster blah blah bloody blah. And the fact that we structured it that she was still able to also sell to AfricaMagic. Mrs Njoku looked at her. Looked at who was in the movie. Did some quick mental arithmetic and decided the movie couldn’t have been made for more than $20k. No way. See, Mrs Njoku knew the talent. Being in front of the camera and around marketers, she kinda knew the prices. She called the BS.
After said producer left, she turned around to Bastian and I. Simply. Give me $25k for a few titles. Let me see if I can shoot this kind of movie. Bastian was sceptical. I was sceptical, the board were nonchalant.
(of a person or manner) feeling or appearing casually calm and relaxed; not displaying anxiety, interest, or enthusiasm.
“she gave a nonchalant shrug”
Right there and then, ROK was born. To be honest, I was as supportive as a husband has to be. But I wasn’t that interested. We were desperate and pressed against the wall. I had learned the hard way. Content is King. And now Mrs Njoku and ROK = leads content at IROKO. Does that make me Queen?
IROKO, IROKO (in a typical hailing loud Nigerian accent).
Mrs. Njoku glanced nervously at me. This was the week ‘How I ended up working for Mrs Njoku’ came out. 1,000% sure this chap hadn’t read the article. Yet here he was. Confirming what I knew.
Hailing my wife, Mrs. Njoku. Madam IROKO, IROKO.
She answered him nervously, Noooooo, that’s my husband, he is the IROKO. He looked at me and laughed.
‘I know him. We know him. Leave that thing, we know he is in the background, supporting, you are at the front doing great job. IROKO, IROKO. Madam IROKO’
That was 2018. Back to 2014.
As we emerged from the content wars of 2013, one thing became obvious. License costs going from $2.5–5k to $20-25k per movie in 6 months, for the same content rights, was unsustainable at best. Lethal to our long term ambitions at worst. See the thing with content is that over the last 100 years, the price has only ever gone in one direction. Up, up and up! Example; in 2008 Netflix paid Starz $30m/year for 1,000 movies. A decade later they will spend $5B/year content for a similar amount of content.
So in 2013/14, Mrs. Njoku produced two movies. Hazeezat (rated 86%), Raging Passion (91%). That was a very strong start. And even though it wasn’t widely supported at IROKO board level, she slowly started to build out what would become a massive competitive moat around IROKOtv. Content. This was way before it was in vogue. This was way before we could even really afford it. It was primarily for IROKOtv, but she always saw it being beyond just the internet. She felt it needed to reach into the homes of the masses. It was a different kind of Nollywood.
See, 100% of the producers in Nollywood are independent of a platform. Mrs. Njoku no doubt would have been also. I guess I am fortunate to have married her into mine. A new protective layer around IROKOtv.
But she was going to do things her own way.
Whilst there was an established star system in Nollywood, Mrs. Njoku never cared about that, she honestly didn’t believe she could afford to. At the beginning, I attempted to pressure her into using established stars, you know to help me drive subscribers, for the most part, unless the prices were within budget. She straight refused. As she struggled her way through Nollywood, she saw boatloads of talent that was never given the opportunity by the ‘Men from Alaba’. So she decided to try a different route. She would focus on talent first, second and third. Can you write? Can you act? Can you produce? Can you direct? She would give a new breath of fresh air to Nollywood. She would introduce true meritocracy in Nollywood. Everyone gets a chance.
This became the DNA which differentiated ROK. It became a sanctuary to talent whom many others wouldn’t give a chance.
When established stars attempted to over price her? She didn’t even flinch. She just respectfully de-casted them. She wouldn’t even bother to negotiate. I have never in my entire life seen a person who can be as cold / brutal as Mrs. Njoku when needed, yet somehow in the most respectful and diplomatic way. I’m like a cupcake compared to her. In fact, I am pretty soft when it comes to it.
I remember when she spent time trying to convince established stars to feature in TV series, so many refused claiming it would kill their movie careers. There is a reason one of the biggest series of recent times, Husbands of Lagos, didn’t really have stars. But yet it still performed. Talent is what talent does. Talent wins.
Nobody saw this coming. Especially not me. I’m a commercial guy. I didn’t realise the far reaching impact this would have across Nollywood. She literally (and very quietly) turned everything on its head. Everything. 16 months ago, the launch of ROK on DStv ushered in a new era for Nollywood (in my humble opinion). Even though AfricaMagic had a 10-year head start and everyone assumed (myself included) the game was tied up. ROK became arguably one of the most successful channel launches in recent DStv history. It crushed ratings from Month 1. Crushed them. Not just in Nigeria. In the UK. I was genuinely shocked and surprised at how well it performed. ROK won by focusing on new faces, new talents. This was the time I started to lose my identity and become Mary Njoku’s husband.
Today everything changes…
Today is a big fucking deal in the Njoku household. Multichoice are giving her the opportunity to take this ROK thing to a different level. 5th April, Mrs. Njoku will be launching two more channels across Africa on DStv, but more importantly expanding to a GOtv audience. Now the audience for ROK will be x10. Now I truly believe the earth will shake.
ROK — Contemporary New Nollywood DStv 168
ROK2 — Epic Movies and Series — DStv 169 / GOtv 17
ROK3 — Ghanaian Movies and Series — DStv 164 / GOtv 18
The meritocracy she introduced will be amplified x10, as a new breed of actors are created and more and more dreams can come true. When we first started dating, this was like February 2011, I told her I was going to be the most important person in Nollywood (leave me jor, I was young(ish), broke and boasting with sweet big words), she didn’t care. I was wrong. Mrs. Njoku is arguably the most influential person in Nollywood today. I am biased of course. But I can’t think of anyone who shapes the creation (writers / producers / directors etc.) of so much content (1,000+ hours per year) and also whose content has the fans / distribution reach globally, whether it’s via IROKOtv or DStv or GOtv or SKY. No one to mind comes even close to that. She is increasingly becoming the prism through which the masses who watch Nollywood around the world, are experiencing it. It’s happened.
So where does that leave me?
See, I have finally come to the simple conclusion. In the end, no one really cares about IROKOtv. Yes, it’s a brand they have come to know and love. Yes we are making massive strides on lowering the barrier to adoption and have some neat tech. But what they are really interested and fall in love with is the content. ROK on DStv demonstrated this fact, without a shadow of doubt. That they are in love with what is cooking in the Njokus’ kitchen.
And I can’t cook.
So I will just have to play my position as Mrs Njoku’s husband.