Mary Njoku: The Rok Woman

Mary Njoku, Nollywood actress, film producer, head of Rok Studios and CEO of Rok on Sky and Rok on DStv. Rok has produced some of the most talked about TV series of the last couple of years, including Husbands of Lagos and Cougars. Rok Studios has developed, produced and financed film and TV series for distribution platforms globally. ROK owns one of the largest content libraries in Nigeria, with blockbuster films and series, as well as an Animation Studio called ROK Animations Studios. 2016 was a busy year for Maryr as she launched not one, but two TV channels, with Sky in the UK and DStv across Africa. In this exclusive interview with Guardian Woman, Mary NJOKU talks about her career, Nollywood and what it takes to run two television stations.

Launching two television stations in one year must have taken a lot of planning to get done. Can you walk us through what it took to accomplish the feat?
Yes, 2016 was an extremely busy year for my team and I. We didn’t stop. We launched Rok on Sky [Channel 344] in the UK in September – and then went on to launch Rok on DStv [Channel 168] in November. Obviously, there are a lot of logistical and administrative details involved in launching the channels – months of talks and negotiations with the platforms, as well as time spent on developing our brand, programming schedule, quality control and broadcasting regulation. It’s a complex process.

Then, on top of that, we had to increase our original production output, in order to ensure we had a big enough library of content to programme the stations with. The whole process was at least a year in the making, with a large international team in place to oversee every last detail – we knew that when we were going to launch the Rok channels, we had to stand head and shoulders above the rest, so attention to detail was essential.

One of the channels was launched in the UK where there is a large Nigerian community. Are members of the community responding positively to the launch of the channel?
We knew Rok on Sky would be popular, because of the large pan-African community in the UK, but the feedback we’ve been getting from our fans has been mind-blowing – above and beyond what we were expecting. I personally spend a lot of time going through our viewers’ feedback – on social media, or in the emails they send to us, and it’s great to hear the positivity about what Rok is building, and what we are striving to achieve. Our fans in the UK ‘get’ what we’re doing – giving Nollywood a platform it deserves, and showcasing the fine talent our industry has to offer.

Being at the forefront of promoting Nollywood to the outside must have exposed you to what outsiders think of Nigerian movies? What are the drawbacks that foreign critics point at in Nigerian movies?
I think, in all honesty, that foreign critics don’t understand the cultural context of Nollywood – the in-jokes, the sense of humour, often the indigenous languages, the cultural points of reference that are inherently African. Also, until recently, the production quality of Nollywood was such that many foreign critics weren’t willing to even give a film a go, as they were put off by poor camera work or sound quality. But this is now being addressed, as more investment is going into the industry and as a collective, we are producing a much higher standard of content now. And we will continue to improve. Whilst it is great to increase our reach and develop a more international audience, I don’t think we should do this at the risk of diluting our African stories and our African heritage. We must stay true to what makes Nollywood great. Nollywood is African stories, by Africans, for Africans. It’s a celebration of who we are and Africans are our primary audience, I just hope that our foreign critics bear with us and seek out some of Nollywood’s newer content – they may surprise themselves how quickly they become Nollywood fans!

How successful have you been trying to correct some of these?
Well, we are investing heavily in state-of-the-art equipment, as well as in technical talent. By that, I mean we ensure we have highly trained, professional technical operatives working behind-the-scenes to ensure production quality is at its best. We then combine that with incredible acting talent. We’re able to attract some real superstars from Nollywood – Desmond Elliott, Mercy Aigbe, Annie Idibia and many, many more – so the standards just keep rising and improving. And we also bring on young, fresh talent and encourage them to hone their craft and develop professionally.

Apart from coordinating Rok Studios, you act and also produce hit series including Husbands of Lagos and Cougars. How do you manage to juggle your many responsibilities?
I think I’ve forgotten what it is to rest. It isn’t easy, especially with a young family. But I’ve always been a hard worker, from a very young age. My mother instilled in me and my brothers and sisters a sense that you must work hard to achieve your dreams. And making movies is my passion, my dream. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, I feel compelled to create, so it isn’t really work when you love it so much. But I’m also very lucky in that I have a great team around me, who I’ve worked with for years, and I have a super supportive husband and family, who I wouldn’t be without. But yes, you are right – juggle is most definitely the right word when it comes to my life.

Does combining all these roles impede your ability to deliver on certain responsibilities?
I don’t believe so, no. When I sit back sometimes, and scrutinise the end results of all of my endeavours, more often than not, I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved. That being said, last year, I was late to release the second series of Husbands of Lagos, because I had not scheduled in enough time for the final edits. My team and I essentially camped out in the edit suite, working all the hours God gave us, yet we weren’t able to meet our deadline for final release. Why? Because I wanted it to be perfect. I didn’t want to disappoint my fans with a second series that I didn’t think was the best I could make it. I was so tired and I was distressed, and on social media, Rok fans were begging us for the release. I sent out a call on Instagram explaining the situation, that I wanted it to be better than it was. I knew I could do better. My fans, they appreciated my honesty and respected the fact that I was striving for the best. When we released Husbands of Lagos three weeks later, the response was incredible – our fans loved the series. That made it all worthwhile.

Your new series – Single Ladies – featuring Annie Idibia, Mercy Aigbe, Perdita Agu and Grace Ama is set to debut. What should we be looking out for?
Yes, we are so excited for the premier of Single Ladies on DStv 168 at 20:00 CAT on 12th February. You will recognise the characters – these are women you know; your sister, your best friend, your aunty, your associate at work; these are relatable characters who you warm to, who speak to you and whose journey you want to be part of. The plot follows the lives of five single young women, Mara (Mercy Aigbe-Gentry), Tochi (me), Bidemi (Grace Amah) and Maimuna (Padita Agu), as they try and figure out the scary and unpredictable world of dating to find ‘Mr Right’. These five young women are from traditional Nigerian families who feel under pressure to secure themselves a man. The story really focuses on their friendships, the men they meet, their relationships, their break-ups, their highs and their lows; their successes and failures; their laughter and tears as they search for ‘The One’. It’s a really intense, funny, life-affirming series that I hope faithfully represents life for Nigerian single girls, whilst at the same time is entertaining.

How was your experience working with an all-star cast and a director – Desmond Elliot – who is also a rising politician?
I was blessed. So blessed. The women on-set and Desmond are like my family – I love and respect them all so much. What I appreciate most, though, is their professionalism and their dedication to their craft. We are all on the same wavelength when it comes to being on-set; we want to produce a TV series that we are fiercely proud of and that continues to push Nollywood forward. It was a totally positive and enlightening experience, and these guys really make my job as a producer a lot easier, because they are so talented and so creative. I really loved the entire process – it was very intense and hard-work, but we had a lot of laughs and we’re all thrilled with the final cut. We now can’t wait for it to be launched on Rok on DStv channel 168 on 12 February, 20:00.

Irokotv provides a major outlet for marketing some of your products? How has technology enabled your company take firm control of the ownership of its products?
irokotv allows us to take Rok-produced content to a global audience, as it’s watched literally all over the world. And because it is digital, we can use the audience data to really analyse the content that’s popular. For example, when I’m making a decision about what script to invest in or what the next project will be, I’ll look at irokotv data and see what’s popular – movie themes, cast members and so forth. Then I combine this insight with what my team and I think about the script / plot / potential cast and we’re able to make better informed decisions as to what we put into production. It really is an amazing Nollywood platform.

A thriving multifaceted career and a successful family life – how do you cope with daily demands of these aspects of your lives?
It isn’t easy – I work very long hours, especially when I’m on set, filming. We regularly work from 5am until 11pm without any breaks. And then there’s the additional admin and day-to-day running of the TV channels across Africa and in the UK as well, which requires a lot of my time and attention. And I’m a stickler for detail. If something isn’t right, I don’t rest until it has been resolved. But I’m fortunate in that I have a fantastic team at Rok, in Lagos and in London, whom I can rely on. And in terms of family, I cannot thank God enough for the beautiful and supportive husband and children he has given me, who keep me grounded and whose love and faith in my work continues to power me on.

Who is Mary Njoku?
That’s a difficult question for me to answer – I am just me. A girl from FESTAC who never thought her life would take this journey. Who’s eternally blessed to live the life I do. A happy mother, wife and filmmaker who thanks God for all of her blessings.

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