The Rise of Nollywood
The Past, The Present and Its Golden Future
While its struggles thwart its triumphs, Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo reports on an industry that has built itself into a $590 million commercial giant in just under two decades, and which continues to grow apace- shifting from quantity to quality, from tape to big screen, from local to global presence. Welcome to Nollywood.
Referring to her American college roommate reducing her to a single ‘African’ story, acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asked the audience during her 2009 TED talk on the Danger of a Single Story: “What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they are the best example of Nigerians consuming what they produce?”
As the world of literature mourns the recent passing of Nigerian storytelling legend, Chinua Achebe, and is abuzz with the release of Adichie’s latest offering Americanah, and the highly anticipated movie based on her groundbreaking tome Half of a Yellow Sun (featuring Nollywood heavies Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor), there is yet another world of stories that we have been dismissive of for too long – indigenous ones born out of ingenuity, incubated with passion against all odds and slowly, steadily raised beyond our living rooms on to big screens in Lagos, Accra, London, New York. Tales of love and betrayal, revenge and redemption, decadence and deliverance – stories of the people, for the people, by the people. Stories of Nollywood.
Now the world’s second-largest film industry – ahead of Hollywood – in terms of the number of annual film productions (which roughly translates to 40 films per week, at an average cost of $40,000 per project), Nollywood has built itself into a $590m industry in just under two decades.
“What is more, Nollywood has impacted greatly on the economy, especially as it relates to the youth,” says Mildred Okwo, director of the 2006 political thriller 30 Days and last year’s hit romantic comedy, The Meeting. “A lot of young people are employed by this industry. The impact of one good film on the economy can be tremendous, from pre-production all the way through to the post-production; that’s money going into the economy. If you have the entertainment industry adequately structured, you can forget about your unrest.”
With a host of talented new filmmakers ready to up the ante in terms of quality, along with a digital revolution to reform distribution and possibly eradicate or at least minimise the bane of piracy, and President Goodluck Jonathan’s promise of an entertainment intervention fund and his N3bn largesse to boost the sector, the future is brighter than ever for the African dream that is Nollywood.
The Simple Past
There is no questioning the perseverance and ingenuity of the Nigerian people in the face of adversity, so it should come as no surprise that the country’s film industry itself was born out of coincidence meeting
initiative. Industry veteran, actor, writer and director Emmanuel France explains that the unique system of producing films straight-to-video grew in response to a twofold crisis in the Nigerian film industry at the beginning of the 1990s, as public theatres closed in the face of dwindling audiences due to civil unrest and Nigerian television started importing cheap Latin American tele-novellas rather than supporting original local production.
“We grew up watching Indian films, and cowboy films from America; then all of a sudden the Chinese came in with their kung-fu fighting. Today we have Nollywood, I am proud of that,” says France in This is Nollywood, a documentary produced by Franco Sacchi and Robert Caputo.
While telenovellas dominated the small screen and all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood productions, Bruce Lee karate chops and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly took the audience on flights of fancy, there was still a hunger for indigenous stories, with characters and situations the masses could relate to, and filmmakers were desperate to tell their stories in an inexpensive medium; cue the humble yet innovative technology that provided the outlet and proved to be the birth of a film industry, the VHS.
It all began in 1992 with Chris Obi Rapu’s groundbreaking Living in Bondage, created out of mere ingenuity and sheer coincidence. The urban legend has it that writer and producer Kenneth Nnebue, a merchant with a large number of videotapes, decided to put these to good use to shoot the film, which then went straight to video. With that, a new cinema revolution was kick-started, and the era of Nigerian home videos was born.
The acting may have been amateurish, the plot lines feeble and production values next to non-existent, but this booming Nigerian industry not only saw a rise in popularity across English-speaking Africa, turning its stars into celebrity names from Zambia to Liberia, it also provided a framework of reference for its counterparts in Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe, and a vital lifeline for what has become known as “the fifth region” – the African diaspora, giving them a small slice of home on celluloid.
“Nollywood started with simple stories written by people who were not even aware that they were speaking for Africa. They simply wrote about things happening around them, incorporated some old myths and tales and added a good measure of spirituality to keep everyone in check. Now it has grown into this massive export of culture,” says Okwo.
As this “massive export of culture” continues to grow and take sophisticated shape at unprecedented pace, it is also undergoing a sea change where gradually the focus shifts from quantity to quality, from tape to big screen, from local to global.
The Present Continuous
The struggles and confusions that plague Nollywood are so numerous that it is easy to forget its triumphs. Beginning as a local industry and rising from nothing, Nollywood is now the second largest after Bollywood. I would not be surprised – with the right elements put in place – if it becomes the world’s largest in the not too distant future,” wrote actor Yemi Blaq and his scriptwriter wife, Remi Olatunji, in the Nollywood issue of Nigeria’s FAB Magazine.
The challenges highlighted by the couple that could leave Nollywood in a continuous rut, are not two, or three, but multiple, ranging from a lack of finances to a lack of professionalism, leading to a “no so we dey do am” (“it is how we do things”) attitude born out of the apprenticeship culture in the industry. This in turn supports a system of continuum as opposed to a system of innovation, and a decentralised marketing structure, which allows piracy to exploit the industry.
Okwo – who returned to Nigeria from the US in 2006 and in 2012 founded her film production company Audrey Silva with celebrated actress Rita Dominic – believes low budget should not automatically be synonymous with low quality, but also stresses the importance of finance to take Nollywood to the next level.
“For years, in Los Angeles, we didn’t go into any recession because we have Hollywood. When there was recession all over, Hollywood was always making money for the state of California. I feel that if we have companies that are properly created to do what they are supposed to do, we will have Nollywood rank second to oil as a revenue earner,” says Okwo.
Although the promise of government funding may yet look after the finances, according to Obi Emelonye, director of acclaimed Mirror Boy and 2012 disaster movie Last Flight to Abuja, as long as poor distribution is not tackled, producers will not be able make money regardless of the funds available.
“We need to sort out distribution on all formats,” says Emelonye. “At the moment we have 12 cinemas in the whole country serving 180 million people. We need to sort out the distribution structure, which before now was the mainstay of the industry but has fallen apart completely. We need to find the means of making the money back; the structures present at the moment can no longer sustain the budgets we work with.”
Okwo is very much of the same opinion: “The greatest challenge is that Nollywood is growing in popularity, it is not growing in sales; we are not moving units as people might think. There is a problem in distribution networks and Nollywood producers are not making money. Once we can overcome the problem of the poor distribution network, then Nollywood will surely begin to be reckoned with.”
Hand in hand with poor distribution comes the ever-present danger to the industry – piracy. “A variety of challenges has haunted Nollywood since inception, but two of the most important challenges spoken about in Nollywood 10 years ago were poor distribution, and piracy. The important challenges everyone is still speaking about in Nollywood 10 years later are poor distribution and piracy,” wrote technology strategist Jide Rotilu in an article published on CP-Africa, further highlighting the bigger danger posed by torrent sites, a more cut-throat form of piracy that transcends beyond the one-man hawker. “Hollywood and the likes are presently facing a massive loss of revenue due to torrent sites. The amount of money Nigeria loses from piracy overseas monthly, if investigated, would be way more than that lost annually from the domestic market,” added Rotilu.
The hunger of diasporan Africans for homegrown content and the resourcefulness of online entrepreneurs who stream Nollywood content on the internet for public distribution without permission or a licence, and make money from the content without payment of due royalties to the movie producers, may have led to a surge in online piracy, but has also led to the birth of online sites such as iRoko, Afrinolly, Pana TV and doBox, which serve a dual purpose – making Nollywood accessible to the masses and sustaining the industry through the signing of revenue sharing agreements with the content owners. “Every little helps,” Emelonye says, when asked about the benefits of this new medium. “The monetisation of video content is a very difficult task anywhere in the world. We’ve seen an influx of TV stations showing the films and buying the rights for as little as £250, we have seen the proliferation of platforms online supporting Nigerian films. There will always be new technology to exploit our work; it is about monetisation. So long as the money is coming in I don’t care what format it is.”
If Africa’s digital boom, with ramped-up investments in broadband and a staggering number of mobile phones (an estimated 700 million on a continent of 1 billion), and iRoko’s success story (with a library of 5,000 films, over 500,000 registered users – and counting – and an $8m injection of capital in 2012) are to be taken into account, Africa may leapfrog traditional technologies like TV and the Nollywood revolution may well be digitalised.
Meanwhile, as digital media makes Nollywood available to the masses, the cinema culture at home is booming, bringing with it a plethora of star-studded red carpet premieres and national cinema releases. For example, Michelle Bello’s Flower Girl premiered in Lagos on Valentine’s Day and has recently launched in Accra, and The Meeting is still doing the rounds at cinemas across Nigeria months after its 19 October premiere, proving there are revenue streams as equally lucrative as the mere straight-to-DVD or digital options.
The Future Perfect
As the movie distribution and funding issues are gradually being addressed, notwithstanding other challenges such as poor scripting, poor continuity and poor editing, there is a new guard telling new stories in dazzling new ways. These include Kunle Afolayan with The Figurine (Araromire) and Phone Swap, Jeta Amata with Amazing Grace and Inale, Obi Emelonye with Mirror Boy, and Chineze Anyaene with Ije, Nigeria’s highest selling movie of all time, with gross earnings of more than N57m.
“We already have the stories, we have great actors, we just need to tie it into a format which is high quality. I know budgeting is a problem, but there are a lot of movies made on a budget of $10-20,000, it’s how you
put the narrative together,” says Wale Ojo, actor, director and founder of New Nigerian Cinema, established
with the aim of showcasing the best of Nigerian film, of any genre.
While films by Tunde Kelani and Kunle Afolayan celebrate a more mature approach to Nollywood narratives, films such as Ije and Mirror Boy also prove that those filmmakers with international influence and Hollywood collaborations can play an active role in telling local stories for a global audience.
“Nollywood is the best example of digital democratisation; we have shown that it is possible to pick up a camera and tell your own story and the world is watching,” says Emelonye.
Another name uniting Hollywood and Nollywood, in his 2012 production Doctor Bello, is Tony Abulu, also the recipient of the first $250,000 loan from President Jonathan’s Nollywood fund. “My aim is to introduce Africa to America and Americans and to introduce Americans to Africans,” he says of his film, which brings together A-list Nollywood stars, including Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke, and Hollywood names Isaiah Washington, Vivica A. Fox and Jimmy Jean-Louis.
Following in the wake of Abulu comes London-based Nigerian director Niyi Towolawi with Turning Point, which sees Hollywood veterans such as Ernie Hudson, Todd Bridges and Joe Estevez happy to take direction from a young Nigerian filmmaker, and working with a Nollywood cast featuring Patience Ozokwor, Oge Okoye, Ghana’s Jackie Appiah, and newcomer Igoni Archibong.
“I have always been interested in setting a film in the United States and writing Turning Point was motivated by that, with its premise of xenophobia and ethnic prejudice between Africa-Americans and African immigrants,” Towolawi explains. “Neither the cast nor crew would have been accessible but I was able to sign contracts with the Hollywood unions after successfully pitching my artistic vision. The Nollywood angle was quite straightforward: the film tells an African story, hence it was necessary to approach the best African talent that was considered suitable for the role.”
Beyond strong stories and solid standards of direction and editing, and collaborations with international cast and crew, there remain a handful of areas for progress. Despite Kelani’s adaptations of many literary works
such as Oleku, Saworoide and Maami, the Hausa film industry (popularly known as Kannywood) that is prolific in film adaptations of Hausa literary classics, and the highly publicised Biyi Bandele adaptation of Adichie’s award-winning Half Of A Yellow Sun, Nigeria’s rich
heritage of storytelling, from past to present, is yet to inspire more films.
Animation and computer-generated images (CGI) are doubtless the next frontiers. Although panned by some critics who deemed it anything but ‘special’, Emelonye’s experimentation with special effects in his 2012 production Last Flight to Abuja is a laudable effort, sure to pave the way for more similarly innovative productions. And there is already talk of Nigeria’s first African superhero film in the shape of Boltara, created by Nigerian actress and producer, Elvina Ibru.
From fantasy to reality, from the sloppy sludge of yesteryear to today’s reality, Nollywood has come a long way in telling African stories to its local and global audiences. With a few more tweaks to the blueprint, there is no doubt it will have a bright future, in which Africans tell their own stories, own their own images and create their own stars, offering the world, in the late Chinua Achebe’s words, “a balance of stories” straight from the rugged, resilient, relentless heart of Lagos.
This narrative on Nollywood is so apt. This article has proven a course I’m offering this semester, Nollywood and African Film very relevant and insightful. “Nollywood” actually came to the rescue of the Nigerian Film Industry at a period in history when galloping inflation and fallen value of naira made it challenging for filmmakers to continue making films in Nigeria considering the fact that equipment, personnel and editing were entirely handled abroad. In fact as at 1996, all films that were exhibited locally were recorded earlier (1990 -1992).
As touched on in this article and as articulated by my lecturer, Kenneth Nnebue of Nek Video Link, Onitsha set the stage for Nollywood as it is seen and known today as the huge success of Living in Bondage (produced in the Betacam SP format) facilitated by the use of English Language, challenged businessmen and film enthusiasts.
Today, the industry, which has blossomed into one that UNESCO has named the second-biggest film industry in the world and second-largest employer of labour in Nigeria (after the government), though faced with challenges holds a promising future.