Article

Nollywood’s streaming romance

The Nigerian film industry produces approximately 2,500 films a year. With its rapid and low-cost production model, Nollywood has become one of the continent's most prolific cinema industries. Major digital platforms' interest has prompted a shift towards better-funded and more diversified content.
© JC Moschetti

Joey Akan
Journalist in Lagos

Nollywood is on the verge of an explosion. Several streaming platforms, the American company Netflix in particular, are courting local content creators. The Nigerian film industry is thus booming with projects and investments. Netflix, which launched with much fanfare and vigour in 2020, has already established itself as the leader in the industry, committing to original movies and shaping innovation and progress. 

In December last year, Amazon Prime Video inked a multi-year agreement with Inkblot Studios, an African production company that has created some of Nigeria’s biggest box office hits. It is the first licensing agreement the streamer has struck with an African production company. After the theatrical runs, Amazon will own the exclusive, worldwide rights for Inkblot's slate of releases.

The feeling in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial and creative hub, is upbeat. Filmmakers are feeling the boost of being connected to a global audience. Streaming has delivered on many promises, from access to capital and training courses to infrastructure contributions. In addition to galvanizing an audience tired of frequent visits to the movies, it has increased the choice of films available to consumers. “There's a shift in the types of films people make”, says film director Imoh Umoren. “Now we are making more nicely framed shots, Mexican opera style movies… since we try to compete with shows on American channel HBO, we tend to emulate their style.”

 

Streaming has delivered on many promises, from access to capital and training courses to infrastructure contributions

Meteoric rise

Nollywood has grown in leaps and bounds since the 1990s when it first emerged from the shadows. ​​The Nigerian film industry quickly grew popular despite its shortcomings – early Nollywood was mainly characterized by its volume and weekly, low-budget releases. Critics complained about restrictive budgets, weak plots and repetitive dialogue.

Whereas the era turned out classics such as Living in Bondage, Glamour Girls, and Nneka The Pretty Serpent, the storylines tended to overlap, with recurring themes including relationship dramas, revenge, and explorations into voodoo.

Profit-driven filmmakers regularly churned out cheap, rushed movies, as the industry struggled with fast growth and an insatiable demand for new content around the continent. In the early 2000s, Nollywood was producing up to 50 films per week, with an annual total of over 2,500 movies.

Most Nollywood movies were developed for the small screen and mainly viewed on DVD and video formats. Overproduction eventually led to market saturation. “When you have budget constraints like we did, you mainly tell drama, because drama is about people’s lives”, says Naz Onuzo, a co-founder of Inkblot.

Movie time

A change occurred in the early aughts when filmmakers began to take local production to the cinemas. This marked a turning point for the industry. From 2006, the Nigerian film industry began to create movies using an innovative approach to everything, all in a bid to rescue an ailing industry. The new wave was crystallized with The Figurine by Kunde Afolayan in Nigeria. Filmmakers – among them Afolayan, Chineze Anyaene, Obi Emelonye, Stephanie Linus, Jeta Amata and Mahmod Ali-Balogun – adopted a different marketing strategy to bolster filmmaker finances. This new strategy brought Nollywood back to the cinemas.

With cinemas, Nigerian filmmakers could attract a primarily urban middle class audience. Consequently, Nollywood entered the golden age of movie premieres and extended marketing campaigns throughout the continent.

This change came with its challenges. Nigeria – with a population of over 200 million people – had only 77 cinema screens in 2020, as indicated in the UNESCO report The African film Industry: trends, challenges and opportunities for growth (2021). Most of them are located in major cities. It’s also still considered a luxury to go to the movies in a country where 40 per cent of the entire population live below the poverty line.

For a population of 200 million, Nigeria has only 77 cinema screens in 2020

The control that certain power holders exert over film distribution poses another obstacle. Filmmakers in Nigeria have to navigate the cinema industry politics to get their films accepted and shown across the country. In 2021, a veteran filmmaker, Mildred Okwo had her movie, La Femme Anjola pulled from prime cinema locations owned by FilmHouse Cinema, the largest cinema franchise in Nigeria. “FilmHouse has removed us from all cinemas . . . I guess it is to make way for their new film. It is their cinema and they will do with it what they please”, Okwo wrote on Twitter.

Okwo’s tweet incited an industry debate along several lines. FilmHouse is affiliated with FilmOne, a production and distribution company. The sister companies provide screen owners the leverage to make films, distribute them and use their cinemas in strategic locations for bottomline priority. Due to their large market share, the best performing movies need ample showtime at FilmHouse. And to ensure that, filmmakers hustle to get FilmOne as distributors.

In a predominantly conservative country, some films considered controversial may offend. In April 2014, the global hit, Half of a Yellow Sun, was banned for months. The movie examines the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, one of the most searing episodes in the nation’s history.

Breath of fresh air

Streaming allows for greater freedom in this context. “It has given filmmakers hope to make more films, and at least we have something to bank on if you can’t get into the cinemas”, says Blessing Uzzi, a film director whose debut film, No Man’s Land is due for release this year. “If the streaming companies had not been here, I wouldn’t have made No Man’s Land in Nigeria”, she says. 

The influx of capital from streaming giants presents a clear opportunity for filmmakers to expand their visions. With better access to capital, local producers can afford to dream a little, to create better films. The reverberations are already being felt. Nollywood has attracted its first one million dollar budget thanks to producer Editi Effiong's latest project, a political thriller titled The Black Book. Nigeria’s drug trafficking gangs of the 1980s are featured in the film, which has yet to be released.

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