From very small beginnings in the early 1990s, the Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, has expanded beyond all recognition and is now the second largest in the world. Funke Osae-Brown writes that the industry is now entering its next phase, with better quality films and going global.
Ebinpejo Lane, located at the bustling Idumota Market in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos State, is a beehive of activities on any sweltering day. Myriad posters announcing the latest film releases adorn the walls and doors of the shops in the lane. Ebinpejo Lane is the heartbeat of Nollywood, as Nigeria’s film industry is now called.
The other major market for Nigerian movies is Iweka Road in Onitsha, Anambra State, from where Nollywood films are distributed to different parts of Nigeria.
Kenneth Nnebue is credited with making the first Nollywood film in 1992. It is said that he was a dealer in electronic goods, including VHS tapes and when he was left with a large pile of unsold blank tapes, came up
with the ingenious idea of making a film on them to help sell the tapes.
The film was called Living in Bondage and was about a man who is prepared to sell his soul in order to gain wealth. It was shot straight to video and, subtitled in English, was released simultaneously in the two markets in 1992. This kicked off what became the Nollywood phenomenon.
The success of Living in Bondage encouraged other film makers, who quickly adopted the new trend of shooting straight to video. As technology improved, Nollywood also progressed from shooting to video to shooting on DVD, which soon dominated the industry, even as Nollywood began to gain global attention.
Although the quality was generally poor, the usual themes, infidelity, the search for wealth, love and romance, crime and magic and supernatural beings, were so popular that production went up from half a dozen films to over 2,500 a year.
But the DVD format, or its cheaper version, CD-DVD, had a major challenge: piracy. Those who produced the movies did not make the money. Pirates usually took over the movies even before they hit the market, with duplicate copies sold all over Nigeria and Africa.
Large-scale piracy may have introduced Nigerian movies and actors to the world, but did not make the latter rich. Nevertheless, by keeping costs to a minimum, shooting quickly and outpacing the pirates, producers were able to turn around sufficient profits to keep on making more films.
Comparison is often made with Bollywood, the Indian film industry, but there are significant differences. Bollywood began in the 1950s and films were made for cinema release. After independence in 1947, Indian film-going audiences grew at an astonishing rate. Fortunes could be made from popular films. As a result, budgets became bigger and mega-stars were created.
In Nigeria on the other hand, audiences for cinema releases, mostly Hollywood movies, remained small and confined to urban elites and expatriates. But the appetite for Bollywood films, despite the language barrier, was big enough to keep cinemas running without making a loss. But even here, Bollywood films on VHS tapes began to take over, shrinking cinema audiences.
Cinema comes to the rescue
But the re-birth of a cinema-going culture in Nigeria, which coincided with the rise of the country’s middle class in the early 2000s, provided Nigerian movie makers with a solution to the piracy problem. From shooting to DVD, film makers started shooting for cinemas and other platform releases and that was when the money started rolling in.
Kene Mkparu, former CEO, Filmhouse Cinemas, explains: “In the new distribution model for movies, it is no longer possible for a good film to shoot straight to DVD. It must first go to the cinema, be streamed online, be shown on in-flight systems before it goes on DVD and later TV. This makes it possible for a good film to make good money. The new distribution line makes it possible for us to track the success and sales of a movie at the cinema.”
The cinema has been good to Nollywood. Many well-produced films have been commercially successful at the cinemas since 2009. In 2009 for instance, Stephanie Okereke’s movie, Through the Glass, made over N10m.
This was followed by Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine, which become the first local film to make over N30m at the cinemas. Chineze Anyaene’s film, Ije, also recorded tremendous success at the cinemas, making over N57m.
In 2010, Ije was reputed to be Nigeria’s highest- selling movie in the cinemas, returning to the screens three times that year. Its success ran parallel to that of Hollywood’s Avatar. Anchor Baby produced by Lonzo Nzekwe also made over N17m in 2013. The Meeting produced by Mildred Okwo, and Afolayan’s Phone Swap, also recorded huge commercial success.
In 2015, Nollywood films started contributing to global theatrical distribution figures with comedian Ayo Makun’s 30 Days in Atlanta grossing a stunning N76m over seven on-cinema screens across the country.
“That N76m was quite impressive for a Nollywood film,” recalls Guy Bruce, director, Silverbird Distribution Company. By December of 2015, 30 Days in Atlanta would also surpass that figure, as it made N135m.
However, The Wedding Party produced by Mo Abudu broke all records in 2017 when it grossed about N450m at the cinemas, the highest amount by any Nigerian movie.
Toni Kan, film critic and author, believes there is an emergence of a new Nollywood which is positive for the country. “What the new Nollywood will do is direct world attention to us in a way that begins to bring in much needed interventions to the industry technically and financially. The New Nollywood will engender a paradigm shift. It will see the transition of Nigerian movies from what I call the ‘DSTV ghetto channels,’” he says.
Industry becomes more professional
According to a 2014 report by Nigerian Export-Import Bank, Nollywood generated not less than $590m in revenues with an average production of about 50 movies per week, making it the second largest film industry in the world behind India’s Bollywood in terms of volume of production.
In revenue terms, Nollywood is third, behind Hollywood and Bollywood (however, this ignores the astonishing rise of Chinese cinema which by some accounts, generates more revenue than Hollywood). Currently, revenues in the Nigerian industry are estimated to be more than a billion dollars.
Victor Okhai, film maker, says a new crop of filmmakers in Nollywood have begun to bring professionalism into the industry, which explains the improvement in the quality of films produced lately.
“It is expected that the quality of films will improve. We are at a stage where we can no longer produce mediocre movies any more. We discovered this when we attended film festivals and realised that nobody pays attention to our films. Other global film makers looked at Nollywood with disdain. Then local film makers came back home to do some serious work. Many film makers were challenged by what they saw at these film festivals and worked to improve on their movies,” he explains. This improvement is already paying off. Netflix has just announced the acquisition of Lionheart, a film produced by actress, Genevieve Nnaji, from
MPM Premium. It is the first such deal for a Nollywood film.
Not much is known about the deal, but insiders believe Lionheart could enjoy similar box office success Mo Abudu’s The Wedding Party, which made N450m.
The Lionheart deal has also opened up Nigerian movies to a global audience and given the country’s actors and actresses a bigger stage to showcase their talents and tell their uniquely Nigerian stories. From its small beginnings, Nollywood looks set to take on the world. Certainly, Nollywood is no longer ‘living in bondage’.