My Vision for Jamaica’s Creative Economy

Last year, with the announcement of the eMedia Interactive Group’s partnership with the then University College of the Caribbean (now University of the Commonwealth Caribbean) to house our iCreate Institute, I wrote about how the creative economy is a prime area of growth for Jamaica. It’s a song I’ve been singing for the past nine years, and I won’t change my tune any time soon. The long and short of it is that the cultural and creative industries (CCIs) worldwide are generating billions of dollars in revenue per annum — US$2.250b or 3% of global GDP, according to a 2015 Ernst & Young study, and generating millions of jobs — 29.5 million, according to the same study. If Jamaica is to truly take advantage of the tremendous value of our cultural products, the powers-that-be must have a sustainable vision for what the industry will look like in the future, and clear steps to get there.

I have my own vision for the local creative industry, especially the film and television production sub-sector. When I look 10 years into the future, here is some of what I would like to see: the industry should be a major overall contributor to economic growth; 10% of all publicly listed companies on the Jamaica Stock Exchange Junior Market should come from the creative economy; there should be sustainable cinema options, allowing filmmakers to earn from their craft; and there should be at least one strong alternative to the traditional tv networks for distribution. In terms of output, I hope we will be up to the task of distributing three movies per year, as well as around 12 television series — streaming or on traditional networks; have one major animation outsourcing contract per year from the likes of Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks; and finally, 70% of film professionals should have formal training and certification.

The launch of the iCreate Institute — a partnership between eMedia Interactive & the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean (UCC). From left, Executive Chairman of the UCC Group of Companies — Dr. Winston Adams, Richard Byles — Chairman of eMedia Interactive Group, Tyrone Wison — President & CEO of eMedia Interactive Group and Professor Dennis Gayle — Executive Chancellor of the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean (UCC).

I’d actually like to start with training, as this is the first link in the creative economy value chain, and it is vital to the success of our local industry. There aren’t enough training opportunities that are geared specifically towards working in the film and television industry — for example, in production and screenwriting, or with an eye on the future, where the focus is on areas like animation and virtual reality. Over-the-top (OTT — referring to audio, video, and other media transmitted via the Internet without a cable operator or direct-broadcast satellite television systems controlling or distributing the content) services like Netflix and Hulu have completely shifted TV viewing habits from one episode per week over a three-month season to binge-watching entire seasons over a week or a few days. This on-demand appetite means that networks have gone from needing one big show per quarter to at least three. If we’re to have any sort of presence in the global television industry, it’s in our best interest to develop screenwriters, because we’re going to need some Shonda Rhimes’ of our own to churn out high-quality scripts and episodes at a fast pace. We’ll also need to invest in training directors, cinematographers, editors, animators, special effects technicians, lighting technicians, sound mixers, gaffers and more behind-the-scenes players to complete the picture.

I have used the term ‘industry’ quite often, referring to the creative sector as a whole, but would hesitate to use it when talking about film and television production specifically. I recently came across an article by award-winning Jamaican filmmaker, actor and author Donovan Watkis entitled ‘Jamaica does not have a film industry’ that mirrors many of my thoughts. Watkins speaks out against the lack of dedicated training, infrastructure and support for local filmmakers, while lamenting the prohibitive costs of access to the tools of the trade, such as sound and lighting equipment, for example. Those are essential to the development of an industry, which he defines as “an economic activity concerned with the mechanical processing of raw materials, and the goods (or services) manufactured in those factories are made perfect, packaged and offered to specific markets for sale.” Looking closely at this definition and then holding up it against our current local situation, the gaps are evident. We don’t really have dedicated spaces for film and television production that could be considered ‘factories,’ and there is certainly a breakdown when it comes to offering the finished products to the markets for sale. I’d also argue that we don’t even produce enough content to warrant the use of the term ‘industry.’

Without the proper industry framework, what we have is an overabundance of ideas — essentially unwritten stories — and raw talent, with nowhere to be developed except overseas, which is expensive and inaccessible to the majority of the population. Training is the key to unlocking this latent potential so that the ideas can be developed into content, which is what people both here and abroad will pay to see, thus generating income that will go a long way towards ensuring sustainability. Jamaicans love their own stories. We’ve seen that with Better Mus Come, and even as far back as The Harder They Come. Destiny was also in the local theatres for a long time. With the successful generation of consistent, high-quality content, we will also be ready to go when the OTTs come calling for local shows. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Special Report: Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2016–2020, content is still king, and this will continue to be evident as OTT platforms “seek to differentiate and expand internationally. In a world in which Netflix can launch its streaming services in 130 new countries in a single day, it’s easy to assume that content is becoming more globally homogeneous. But the reality is that content is being redefined by forces of globalization and localization simultaneously… Netflix, for example, has said that locally produced content is its future.” We cannot afford to miss out on that opportunity.

I’ve already mentioned that creative industries globally employed upwards of 29 million people in 2014/2015, many of those people in film and television production. I believe this sector is ripe for entrepreneurship, from content creators to production companies to distributors and more in between. Regarding distribution, I think we also need to look at different models and devise ways to make our films more cost-efficient in terms of pricing at different tiers (eg. low budget versus high budget), and encouraging product placement with top local brands, which can help to subsidise production costs.

In terms of the TV model, we can’t just rely on the two major stations we have right now. That’s not going to grow the creative economy. We have to look at online options, such as Television Jamaica’s 1Spotmedia, and OTT, subscription-driven streaming services like iVu TV, which we’re going to relaunch with a subscription-based model. One of the things we have to do is satisfy the appetite of people in the diaspora, because Jamaica is bigger than the three million people that live here. It extends to the first, second and third generations living overseas, as well as those non-Jamaicans who are just fascinated by our culture. Online TV and streaming services is the only way to tap into this huge market. If we can replicate just a fraction of the international success of our local music, we’d be good to go. People overseas are fascinated by our artistes, from late icons like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, and Gregory Isaacs, to current stars like Alkaline, Popcaan and Vybz Kartel. These people are the ones buying the albums and attending the tours, so it stands to reason that they may be just as willing to spend money on our other cultural products such as films and TV shows.

When you look at it, what are they fascinated by? What are these artistes singing about in all their songs? Jamaica and Jamaican life. This means that people have an appetite for our culture as much as they do for any other cultures. Jamaica is not the only country that people love. People love the United States, but the difference is that the number of people inside America who love America is 300 million, compared to our 3 million. They can build mega-industries off their culture and stories. But then when you look at the success of films like The Fast and The Furious franchise, you see that for the most recent one, Fast 8, the biggest viewership comes from outside of America, generating more than 5 times the local (US) box office. They’ve done an excellent job of marketing their culture outside of their country and that’s what we need to do.

In order to get to where we should be, organisations like JAMPRO need to be more involved, with more money allocated to developing and promoting our films and stories outside of the country. The Jamaica Tourist Board can also do more as a strategic partner positioning our films. It’s not just about going to a few film festivals overseas, but trying to develop an industry here that people can make a living from, and build careers and businesses.

eMedia is one company trying to do just that. We’re creating jobs in video production, graphic design, storytelling and more, and with iCreate, we’re training people to take advantage of what’s happening locally, or create their own opportunities. With iVu TV, we’re primarily trying to build a strong distribution platform for Caribbean content. Those are the things we need to be replicated across the board with other businesses.

Another part of my vision is to get more private investors involved. Sagicor invested in us in 2012. They also invested in a film, Ghett’a Life, around the same time. We need more private investors to take a second look at these types of businesses. Growing this thing is going to take money and time. We need investors who are going to make the effort to understand the nature of the business and understand that in many cases, the ROI won’t be immediate. Investing in one film might take you a few years to get some gains, unless it’s hugely successful immediately. For some films, the earnings from their entire box office take only covers the cost of production; it’s only when they start distributing on DVD/BluRay and OTT sources, and when merchandising comes into play that the investors start recouping significant returns.

A promotional photo of Jamaican Film — Ghett’A Life

The type of investor has to match the business. It doesn’t make sense to approach people who are looking for returns in one to three years as some films can take that long just to get to production. FirstAngelsJA is also making some inroads in this area. They’ve participated in several related JAMPRO conferences and have a good set of investors who understand entrepreneurship and what it takes to build a business from the ground up. Those are the kind of people we want to invest in films.

We also need to tap into the public capital markets and the stock exchange with IPOs for film production companies. This is not an alien concept. In the US, Time Warner, Comcast and the Walt Disney Company — the world’s largest entertainment companies in terms of revenue — are all publicly listed. Those are the types of businesses we have to look at and study their playbooks.

Taking all of what I’ve said into consideration and actually making the necessary steps will help these visions become reality. We can build a Jamaican film industry that not only survives, but thrives. Once we get on stable ground in the local market, we can turn our attention overseas. Too many times, people talk about expansion when we haven’t even begun to exist in our own domestic space. In the US, a film’s success is first gauged by how well it does in their domestic market. The focus on international numbers is secondary. Yes, Jamaica is small, but what that means is that we have to build a business that fits this scale, survive here, then level up.