By Olubunmi Ajiboye
VENTURES AFRICA – Ben Murray Bruce, CEO of the Silverbird Group, who has his fingers in almost every pie from entertainment to real estate, is remarkably celebrated as the man who brought back the cinema culture to Nigeria.
Bruce has garnered many firsts from his investments in the entertainment industry in the country. This is hardly surprising considering his passion for entertainment industry in Nigeria, which was birthed more than some 32 years ago, is to make showbiz a thriving and lucrative industry in spite of the challenges hindering that possibility.
Silverbird Group’s interest in entertainment includes: Beauty Pageant, Radio, TV, Cinema holdings and Film Distribution networks. Its radio station, Rhythm 93.7 FM, was established in Lagos in 1997 and was one of the first radio stations in the country that blazed the trail of quality and entertainment in radio broadcasting, it quickly gained a cult following. Rhythm has now spread to other states in the country including the nation’s capital Abuja and oil-rich Port Harcourt. Riding on the success of Rhythm FM, Silverbird Television was subsequently set-up.
The Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria Pageant (MBGN), which matched and later surpassed the older Miss Nigeria Pageant (sponsored by The Daily Times of Nigeria), in 2001 produced the first Nigerian and African to win the Miss World Pageant, Agbani Darego.
Capitalising on win, Bruce signed on with the organisers of the Miss World Pageant to bring the 2002 edition of the Pageant to Nigeria, to the thrill of Nigerians. However a series of unfortunate events culminating in religious riots in the northern part of the country put a kink in the plan.
Egged on by his dreams, Bruce bided his time and then finally launched the Silverbird Cinemas in 2004. He did what was hitherto thought impossible.
The cinema culture in Nigeria had until now been eroded by many factors; the reign of military governments opposed to anything that would create uprising or opposition; the dwindling fortunes of the Nigerian economy, which also affected the purse of many Nigerians; the general disinterest in the arts among Nigerians and then the evolution and subsequent flourishing of the home video industry, which enabled Nigerians to just be content with buying the video tapes, CDs or DVDs of their favourite movies.
This trend also created the monstrosity called “piracy’ which till date has a huge market in Nigeria. The pirates not only feed off the intellectual properties of Nigerian entertainers, they also flood the market with the latest foreign movies-box office hits or not, making it possible for movie lovers to catch the latest movies- albeit in sometimes unclear picture due to poor production.
With the tumultuous history of Nigerian cinema in sight, Bruce braved these odds to establish the Silverbird Cinemas.
In an interview with a BBC correspondent in Lagos, Anna Borzello, shortly after the launch of Silverbird Galleria in Lagos, the entrepreneur said, “I’ve wanted to bring Cinema back for more than 20 years-but the timing wasn’t right. And I thought the timing is right. In entertainment you work with your gut instinct.”
Bruce also braved the challenge of unreliable power supply, a challenge facing the industrial/manufacturing sector in Nigeria and has driven many start-ups, home grown industries and some foreign industries to migrate to neighbouring West African countries with relatively better power supply. However, given the nature of the business venture, the pertinence of generators had to be factored in. Bruce never deterred. He persisted and the result – an instant hit.
Bruce revealed in the interview the challenges of convincing film distributors to send their prints to Lagos, because of the menace of piracy in the commercial city.
“The argument I make to the studios is this: if you provide a product, maybe it will be pirated. But if you don’t, then it’s guaranteed to be pirated. And anyway, with the kind of box office returns we have now, they are convinced they have a hit on their hands,” he stated.
Nigerians, born in the 80s and before, had nursed nostalgic feelings of cinema culture prior to Silverbird; however the launch of the Cinemas brought a reunion of sort, and a new experience for young Nigerians; couples, lovers, teens and even toddlers.
Bruce told Borzello that, “what gives me the most pleasure is seeing married couples, in their 30s, 40s, 50s coming here, watching movies and holding hands. “I see it as a social service. It makes me money and I’m grateful for that, and we can also make a difference,”
In certain ways Bruce has also contributed to improving the Nigerian movie industry and upped the ante in filmmaking in that when the cinema in Lagos opened he was adamant that only quality Nigerian movies would be screened at the cinemas at a time when Nigerian filmmakers where producing only in Video tapes, CDs and DVDs.
According to Bruce in another interview with Vanguard Newspapers, the naysayers said the opening of the cinemas was not fair to Nigerian producers because they didn’t shoot movies on 35mm film. Nevertheless the naysayers stumbled on their logic as a couple of Nigerian movies have premiered at the Cinema in Lagos and this has helped to bring back the standard tradition of making a film and premiering it first at the cinema- a tradition which was once alien.
Presently, it is a tradition for films to be premiered at the cinemas- usually a glitzy, star-studded affair. Nigerians troop to see movies charting a new course in the Nigerian movie industry. One of such movies is ‘Ije,’ which came out with a bang in 2010 especially since it featured two of Nigeria’s famous actresses, Genevieve Nnaji and Omotola Jolade-Ekeinde.
“At present, ‘Ije’ has made over a quarter of a million naira in Silverbird cinemas alone. In the next two years, a Nigerian movie showing in Silverbird alone will make a hundred million naira. Two years after that it will make two million dollars. As we open all over Africa, a Nigerian movie will make ten to twenty million dollars. Nigerians are beginning to produce the right product for the market. There is a revolution going on,” he told the Vanguard.
Bruce isn’t crossing cine-plexes off his checklist just yet as the venture has expanded to other parts of Nigeria as well as Africa. There is the Ozone Cinema complex in the Yaba mainland area of Lagos, which also houses Domino Supermarket, another venture of the Murray Bruce family, and other super stores.
This pattern of Cinema and complex replete with shopping malls, fast food joints, Game arcade and lifestyle store among others has been replicated in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Ghana, Kenya with sights already set on Zambia.
A strong advocate for fellow showbiz practitioners and young creative Nigerians, Bruce continues to chime his interest in making entertainment a profitable venture.
During celebrations to mark 30 years of Silverbird in entertainment in 2010 at the prestigious Expo Hall, Eko Hotel, Lagos- an occasion graced by the nation’s President, Goodluck Jonathan- Bruce delivered a passionate speech appealing to the Nigerian Government to support the entertainment industry and its resolute denizens who dare and persist at their dreams in spite of various obstacles in the industry.
President Jonathan in response said the Government would set up a 200 million dollar funds package to support the entertainment industry.
“For me, my greatest dream would be wealth creation in the entertainment industry. It would be for me to see artistes, producers; directors dominate the economy of Nigeria; that is my dream. If I did that in my lifetime, then my work will not be in vain,” Bruce said in an interview.
In the early years of Nigeria’s return to democracy, Bruce was made Director General of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), with the hope that his wealth of experience in the media and show business would help improve Africa’s premier Television station, which had been beaten down by many factors including bad management and bureaucracy.
His stint recorded some improvement for the NTA in terms of proliferation, staff salaries and programming. However, his tenure was dogged by controversies and allegations and he was relieved of his position.
He set up Silverbird Televisions shortly after; no doubt a fulfillment of a lifelong dream, but possibly with the aim of running an ideal television station free of government bureaucracy and influence, completely non-partisan and offering quality broadcasting and programming as obtained in much developed climes.
Bruce, whose home state is Bayelsa, was born some 56 years ago in Lagos. He had his secondary school education in Nigeria and then went on to study Business Administration at the University of Southern California in the United States.
He had always expressed interest in show business as a young boy – much to his father’s disapproval. Bruce often narrates how by a stroke of luck during his stay in the US he made friends with someone who was in the entertainment industry- a relationship that further strengthened his resolve to go into show business.
Bruce, as a concert promoter and music festival organiser, was instrumental in bringing international arts such as Shalamar, Dynasty and Kool and the Gang among others to Nigeria to perform in the 80s. He was also a member of a musical group that churned out a few hits back in the days.
Today, he is married with two sons and a daughter and runs the rapidly expanding Silverbird Group with his brothers Roy and Guy. Perhaps it will not be wrong to say that Bruce subscribes to the notion that ‘if you want something done you’ve got to do it yourself’, because in recent times he has expressed interest in contesting in the governorship elections in his home state Bayelsa. Though abruptly cut short at the party level, he is unlikely deterred.