Hooray for Nollywood: Nigerian film industry raises the artistic bar

by @postcardjunky December 14, 2014 5:00AM ET

Piracy and shrinking investments are translating into fewer — but higher-quality — films

Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen recently produced an epic movie titled "Invasion 1897," which looks at the British Army's ransacking of the ancient West African kingdom of Benin.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America
The billboard for Imasuen's film, "Invasion 1897," in Lagos.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

LAGOS — By his own estimates, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen has directed somewhere between 150 and 200 movies over the course of his 20-year career — including hits like “Games Women Play,” “Last Burial” and “Behind Closed Doors,” which have made him one of the most prolific directors in the Nigerian film industry, popularly known as Nollywood.

But Imasuen tends to distance himself from his early, mercenary years, when producers would approach him with shoestring budgets and shoddy scripts for movies he might have shot in just four days. Today he produces and directs his own films. “I wouldn’t even have the time to be as prolific as I used to be,” he said recently, while discussing his latest movie, “Invasion 1897.” 

An epic tale about the British Army’s ransacking of the ancient West African kingdom of Benin, “Invasion” was a labor of love that took Imasuen close to four years to produce. Ten years ago, the movie’s million-dollar budget would have been enough to make a movie like “Games Women Play” and 24 sequels. But like many of his peers, who have watched shrinking investments and rampant piracy hobble their industry, Imasuen is gambling that big-budget, big-screen blockbusters will breathe fresh life into Nollywood.

“If ‘Invasion’ can make back its money, then rest assured that production is going to come up in Nigeria,” he said with characteristic swagger.

It is an uncertain time for Nollywood, the homegrown movie industry whose baroque tales of fast money, gunplay, witchcraft and amorous treachery have captivated audiences for more than two decades. Once a fledgling film biz built around low-budget home movies sold on VHS tapes, the industry has grown into a $5 billion juggernaut, which UNESCO credited in a 2006 study as being the second-most prolific movie industry on the planet, ahead of Hollywood and behind only India’s Bollywood.

But since then, the numbers have been in steady decline, according to Don Nkems, of the Association of Nollywood Core Producers (ANCOP), which estimates that the industry’s production peaked at more than 2,600 films in 2008. Even UNESCO, in its most recent report on the global film business, criticized the industry’s “semi-professional/informal productions” as it downgraded Nollywood’s output. In the U.N. agency’s roundup of the most prolific film industries on the planet, Nigeria didn’t even crack the top 10 list.

Residents of Lagos watch a film at an outdoor kiosk.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

Undeterred, Nigerian filmmakers have gotten bolder, making movies on increasingly bigger budgets, while at the same time hoping to raise the artistic bar for an industry whose quantity hasn’t always translated into quality. Having conquered a country and a continent, they’re now looking to go global.

Along with splashy Lagos premieres, new films are increasingly getting the red-carpet treatment in such diaspora hot spots as London, Houston and New York. (Imasuen himself had just returned from a U.S. tour.) In this year’s “30 Days in Atlanta,” a romantic comedy by the Nigerian actor-director Robert Peters, Nollywood icons Ramsey Nouah and Desmond Elliot share the marquee with American stars Lynn Whitfield and Vivica Fox.

Yet for all its gains, a movement that’s been sometimes dubbed the New Nigerian Cinema, or New Nollywood, is facing some of the same old problems as the industry it’s trying to supplant.

“When everybody finishes applauding,” asked Imasuen, “how do we sell the film?”

For all its shortcomings, the old Nollywood model was an efficient moneymaking machine. Razor-thin budgets allowed even modestly successful titles to turn a tidy profit; for Imasuen, it wasn’t uncommon for a movie made on a $40,000 budget to rake in $300,000 from VCD sales — which he would quickly plow into more productions.

The Alaba film market is in a suburb of Lagos.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America
A vendor's table at the Alaba film market.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

At the industry’s core is a Byzantine distribution network, centered in Lagos’ chaotic Alaba market, which manages to swiftly get new releases on shelves — and in the hands of the country’s ubiquitous street hawkers — even in Nigeria’s most far-flung cities. In a country whose government is often seen as a cabal of bungling kleptocrats, Nollywood has offered a textbook vision of free-market efficiency.

But the market is starting to change. Piracy has eroded the foundations of DVD distribution; according to the World Bank’s estimates, 90 percent of the DVDs in circulation in Nigeria are illegal copies, with new releases enjoying just a two-week window before pirated versions flood the market.

“The law about piracy in Nigeria is a toothless bulldog,” said Nkems, of ANCOP. “People are losing millions every day.”

While the government has done little to clamp down on piracy, critics say it’s stumbled in other areas as well. A $200 million film fund was launched by the federal government in 2010 to great fanfare, but few filmmakers have managed to tap into it. Many argue the fund was part of a broader plan by incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan to rally influential filmmakers and Nollywood stars ahead of his re-election campaign. (Responding to their criticism, the president announced a separate, smaller fund last year.) 

There was also the government’s ill-fated gambit in 2007 to streamline the film industry’s distribution system. In a business that often relies on personal relationships and handshake agreements instead of auditable paper trails, the tighter regulations scared off investors. Many of the powerful producers controlling the purse strings in Alaba — a cartel that Nkems says controls up to 90 percent of the industry — began steering their money toward other business ventures instead.

For the filmmaker Kunle Afolayan, who has emerged in recent years as Nigerian cinema’s leading light, making movies seems to require not an auteur’s touch but a magician’s sleight of hand.

“There’s no way I can recoup $2 million from the Nigerian market using the present distribution structure,” said Afolayan, referring to the budget for his latest movie, “October 1.” 

Filmmaker Kunle Afolayan
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

The son of the legendary filmmaker Ade Love, as well as a former banker, Afolayan has shown a nimble hand when it comes to balancing the books. Product placements, he said, can finance up to 30 percent of a film’s budget — the plot of Afolayan’s “Phone Swap” hinges on two characters accidentally switching BlackBerrys — while corporate clients such as the Standard Chartered bank and the oil company Oando pay a premium to host private screenings of newly released films. Then there are the deals with pay-TV networks and free-to-air broadcasters across the continent, as well as Afolayan’s recent talks with Netflix about the rights to “October 1.”

Many Nigerian filmmakers point to the growing importance of online VOD platforms, especially as they try to reach foreign audiences. But in a country where Internet penetration is still under 40 percent, few expect digital disruptors to have the impact they’ve had on American entertainment anytime soon. Instead, it’s in brick-and-mortar movie theaters that Nollywood has its biggest stake — a trend mirrored in other developing nations, such as China, where construction is trying to keep pace with a surging demand for an old-fashioned moviegoing experience.

“It’s about building the culture,” said Ayo Sewanu, general manager of Silverbird Cinemas, part of the Silverbird Group, which opened Nigeria’s first modern cinema in 2004. “There are huge opportunities to expand.”

Genesis Cinema is located at a mall in Lagos.
Andrew Esiebo for Al Jazeera America

By the end of the year, Nigeria will have just 23 movie theaters in a nation of almost 170 million — a figure that points to the untapped potential for a country with a young population and a rapidly growing middle class. Still, that’s more than twice the number the country had just two years ago, and more theaters generating more ticket sales means an exponential increase in the profits a film can make.

“The moment we have a hundred cinemas in Nigeria, a Nigerian movie can gross $2 million in the first week,” said Afolayan. “We have the numbers.”

In some ways, the country is coming full circle. For decades Nigeria had a thriving moviegoing culture, with audiences packing into colonial-era theaters to watch spaghetti Westerns, Bollywood musicals and kung fu flicks from Hong Kong. A local industry began to grow in the 1960s and ’70s, with celebrated filmmakers like Ade Love, Hubert Ogunde and Moses Olaiya — popularly known by his stage name, Baba Sala — predating the birth of Nollywood, often touring the country with just a single celluloid print of their films.

But when the Nigerian economy tumbled in the 1980s, culminating in the devaluation of the naira, the cost of producing movies soared. Local filmmakers suddenly found themselves out of work, while growing insecurity made many people fearful to leave the house at night. Soon the theaters began shutting down; many were converted into evangelical churches.

In the 15 years since the end of military rule in Nigeria, though, the economy has boomed. While insecurity, as evidenced by the uprising of armed group Boko Haram, still poses a threat, stability has taken hold across much of the country. Shopping malls — complete with brand-new movie theaters — are rising.

This month Filmhouse Cinemas, which began operating in 2012, will open the first multiplex in Kano, northern Nigeria’s commercial capital, just weeks after an attack on that city’s central mosque claimed more than a hundred lives. The move is both a testament to financial acumen — at an estimated $17 billion, Kano state’s economy is as big as Botswana’s — and a testimony to the resilience for which Nigerians are known.

It’s an encouraging sign, too, that for Nollywood — both new and old — the show will go on.

“Nigerians are not afraid … to tell their stories,” said the veteran filmmaker Mahmood Ali Balogun, who was raised in Kano. “Either good or bad.”