By TomTeodorczuk Entertainment writer, MarketWatch
MON, APRIL 30 2018-theG&BJournal–It has all the hallmarks of a typical scam. First-time filmmaker Faraday Okoro was offered $1 million by some people he didn’t know very well to make his debut movie, “Nigerian Prince.”
Except this wasn’t a scam, more like what New York-based Nigerian-American Okoro compares to winning the lottery. Just over a year ago, Okoro and producer Oscar Hernandez were the inaugural winners of the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Untold Stories” program funded by AT&T T, +0.64% which seeks to support movie projects from female filmmakers and minorities.
The initiative gave Okoro and Hernandez a million dollars to make “Nigerian Prince” in Lagos, a film they had been previously striving to shoot for $200,000.
Scamming has become synonymous with “Nigerian princes,” promising millions if you only supply them your financial information and a portion of the payment upfront. Okoro felt the subject would make a riveting movie. “I love heist films and I knew this world would offer a lot cinematically,” he told MarketWatch.
“Nigerian Prince,” which counts Spike Lee as an executive producer, can be described as a “scamming-of-age” movie. A troubled Nigerian-American teenager Eze (Antonio J Bell) is sent to Lagos to live with his aunt, where he becomes drawn into the scams undertaken by his cousin Pius (Chinaza Ube), who makes money from impersonating Nigerian tycoons.
The FBI published a report in May 2017 estimating that “business email compromise” scams cost American businesses $1.6 billion between January 2015 and December 2016. In 2013, the world lost $12.7 billion due to scams, according to a report published by Ultrascan.
But the actions of Pius in the movie typify how prevalent the practice is in Nigeria. “People scam all around the world — look how big advance fee fraud is in America,” said Okoro. “But the folks who do it in Nigeria make an art of it. Initially they sent physical letters out. Once the Internet came about, they moved into emails and ever since have been able to do it on a much higher level exponentially.”
Eze joins Pius in scamming foreigners in order to make money for a return ticket to the U.S. But their scams vary in form and scale, something Okoro said was reflective of how the practice has diversified. “E-mail companies have got better at sieving stuff and people have got more savvy so scammers have to try harder,” he said. “They have got quite sophisticated — some of the people who do it are craftsmen. It’s their art. You almost have to take your hat off to them.”
Okoro added: “There are now all different kinds of scams, as you see in the film. It’s no longer someone just proposing or doing something. Love scams have become popular and more people are using Craigslist, eBay EBAY, -1.16% or Match.com. Technology has allowed them to be more anonymous and create better characters by being able to reach a lot more people more easily.”
Okoro, a graduate student at New York University who has directed several acclaimed shorts, wrote the script with Andrew Long. He said the beginning sequence of his movie, in which Eze is conned into paying a fake customs fee upon arrival at Lagos airport, was inspired by what happened to his co-writer.
“The first time we came in order to research the script Andrew and I had to diverge because I had a Nigerian passport and he had an American passport,” he said. “Someone came up to him and said you have to pay customs in order to leave the airport quickly because they have to check your luggage.”
“He was a fish out of water who didn’t know any better and paid them money, So when he came to me and said we had to pay customs, I started laughing and knew that would be in the film,” he said.
Okoro says researching scamming reinforced that the practice is more about the victim than at first it might appear. “I came to learn if a scammer knows what you are bias towards, what you’re susceptible to or what you want, they can make you suspend your disbelief because you want to go along with it,” he said.
Winning the Untold Stories program means having to premiere your movie at the Tribeca Film Festival a year later. The incredibly tight shooting and post-production schedule worked out better for the “Nigerian Prince” creators than they envisaged.
“I did think I would be a lot more stressed out about things like finding locations in Nigeria and dealing with the transfer of funds from the US to Nigeria,” producer Oscar Hernandez said. If the financing of the movie was unusual, then so is the movie itself, which is remarkably assured for a debut feature.
“Nigerian Prince” will be shown on DirecTV later in the year and its backers were delighted with the result. Fiona Carter, Chief Brand Officer for AT&T, which has been the presenting sponsor of the Tribeca Film Festival since 2014, said the $1 million investment in Untold Stories was as much values-driven as it was financial. “Having our logo outside Tribeca wasn’t enough,” she said.
“AT&T is committed to diversity and inclusion but we didn’t just want to make a small donation together with some positive rhetoric. We wanted to make a meaningful difference,” she said.
“Email scams are immediately resonant to everyone in America but a story about the subject hasn’t been told and we had the wherewithal to make a film you haven’t seen anywhere else happen. We’re committed to original stories that audiences haven’t seen yet,” she added.
Producer Hernandez said he was taken aback how endemic scamming is in elite Nigerian circles, among government officials and the police force. But he added, “The most elaborate and popular scam of all time is perhaps Donald Trump being President which shows how there are still high-profile scammers in the world.”
“Nigerian Prince” is being shown at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend.