Nollywood Takes Centre Stage

Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry is an unsung hero among African moviegoers. The aptly named Nollywood produces approximately 50 films a week, second only to India’s Bollywood and well ahead of Hollywood. Although its revenues trail the likes of the above, Nigeria’s film industry still generates an impressive US$600 million on average annually towards Africa’s biggest economy; with most of this coming directly from the continent’s diaspora and representing 1.4 percent of the country’s US$307 billion GDP.

Most notably, it is estimated that more than one million people are currently employed in the industry, making it one of Nigeria’s largest employers, second only to agriculture. Moreover, if the industry is properly managed and regulated, the Nigerian government is confident that the sector has the potential to double in size, an aspiration that is supported by the World Bank, who is currently working closely with the authorities to generate growth and local employment in projects that support the entertainment industry.

The stars of Nollywood cinema are natives who appear within familiar settings that depict situations that the indigenous population understand and confront on a daily basis, consisting of popular genres and social issues including; romance, comedy, the occult, crooked cops and HIV/AIDS. Bond Emeruwa, a Nigerian director well-versed in the country’s film practices, describes the industry as one where “we can tell our own stories in our own way. That is the appeal both for the filmmakers and for the audience”. 

This appeal now stretches far beyond Nigeria as Nollywood has begun to disseminate across the English-speaking Africa, even becoming a staple on M-NET, a South African-based satellite television network. Furthermore, Nigerian stars are becoming household names across the continent from the far west, east, south and beyond; with the likes of the UK and US also recognising Nollywood as a vast and varied industry. For example, London’s Film Africa festival, Bristol’s Afrika Eye and Scotland’s Africa in Motion are the United Kingdom’s three major annual showcases for African cinema formed in the past decade that shine a welcome light on regional African movies that might otherwise have a tough time.

Digital evolution

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, like many African countries, Lagos faced epidemics of crime and insecurity; with movie theatres and other entertainment facilities opting to close as citizens withdrew from the streets after dark. This led to the growing popularity of film viewings at home, with movies often imported from the west and neighbouring India; and from here, Nollywood was formed as an enabler to produce local content.

Coinciding with the advent of 35mm film cameras and digital systems in the 1990s, Nollywood was able to rapidly grow its low-cost production and distribution capabilities, with budding directors adopting new technologies as soon as they became affordable.

Thanks to the evolution of technology, Nigerian films have been welcomed into the 21st century, gaining a large following in not just Africa, but among 30 million African emigrants around the world and counting. The main difference between Nollywood and its namesakes’ Hollywood and Bollywood is that the majority of films go straight to DVD and VCD disks, in an attempt to curb piracy and appeal to the home market. Approximately 30 new titles are delivered to Nigerian shops and market stalls every week, where the average title will sell around 50,000 copies. Disks typically sell for two dollars each, making them affordable for most Nigerians, while providing significant returns for the film producers.

However, legitimate purchasing of these disks is something the filmmakers continue to battle with.

Informal industry

Perhaps the reason that Nollywood is lesser known than rivals’ Bollywood and Hollywood is because of its longstanding informal structure and rampant piracy. Keeping up with these two industry giants’ in India and the US is a difficult task in a developing country, where the regulatory framework environment is lacking and avenues for large-scale international marketing is also limited due to value chain and distribution/translation interest from overseas.

Although pirates initially helped to establish the Nigeria’s film industry, these individuals now dampen future domestic and international growth prospects due to lack of written contract formalities in preference of cash transactions and non-law binding oral agreements. A 2006 study estimated that 99 percent of screenings were in people’s homes rather than cinemas, with an estimated five to 10 illegal disks circulated for every genuine one purchased for home use.

Consequently, completing claims on intellectual property rights are often common, but with little ground to stand on in terms of the relevant documentation, there are few avenues for legal redress.

In addition to these copyright challenges comes a whole host of country-specific issues that would be unimaginable for the likes of Hollywood. As the largest metropolitan area in Africa comprising 21 million people and counting, Lagos has its fair share of filming nightmares including huge amounts of traffic, pollution, decaying infrastructure and frequent power outages.

Yet, Nollywood filmmakers are undeterred and remain committed to the lucrative and long-neglected market; committed to what movies can offer audiences through the characters they can identify with in stories that relate to their everyday lives, a far cry from blockbuster action adventures and Bollywood musicals which are of little relevance to life in African slums and remote villages.

New Nigerian Cinema

Thanks to the efforts of a number of key industry players and Nollywood’s increased exposure at festivals around the world, there is now a sense of an emerging ‘New Nigerian Cinema’ that is broadening the horizons of Nigerian film beyond those with the stereotypical attributes of being tightly-budgeted and mass-produced. Parallels can clearly be seen between the ideologies and pragmatism of this new wave of Nigerian cinema when compared directly with British New Wave Cinema; which often challenged the status quo and provided a voice representative of the working-class gaining economic power for the first time.

Films belonging to the newly emerged wave of Nigerian cinema promise to bring valuable content to world cinema, equipped with a higher budget than ever before and subsequently, all the more reason to ensure the right legal frameworks are in place to better enforce copyright and piracy legislation.

Considering that a mere two decades ago, Nigeria had only one telecoms operator and around 300,000 installed telephone lines, the country has come a long way to get to where it is today, joining a digital world and bringing the best entertainment possible to its citizens.

Ultimately, Nollywood movies both old and new, will continue to play a crucial role in showcasing the country’s rise to economic prominence from the perspective of its citizens, while simultaneously proving just how much Nigeria has accomplished in such a short space of time.

See the full article on Nollywood in the latest edition of our magazine here.