‘Nollywood’? It’s where the smart money is headed

Nigeria is home to 200 million people, and the need for entertainment is as high as anywhere in the world. Here is a market which is ripe for filmmakers and distributors – there’s terrific scope to experiment and develop trends appealing to the local and regional audience. Nigerian filmmakers Saheed Apanpa, Tchidi Chikere and production house PUE Pictures’ CEO Phina Egbuchu spoke to Paul Godfrey about the evolution of the cultural identity of Nigerian cinema – not to mention the issue of piracy which has plagued the industry for decades.

Watching a Nigerian film is an experience. While much of it is inspired from Hollywood and Bollywood films, there are some added elements which sets the films apart. Bright colours, loud dialogues and elaborate scenes are the major features that greet the eye with traditional themes of action, drama and suspense. But given the fact that Nigerian Cinema, informally called Nollywood, took its inspiration from other film industries in its early days, it’s fair to say that the industry has now moved ahead in leaps and bounds.

UNESCO conducted a widely-cited survey in 2009 that claimed Nigeria had the second largest film industry in the world after Bollywood, producing almost double the number of films made by the US in one year, estimated to be around 700 on average. Although its revenues are not on par with Bollywood and Hollywood, Nollywood still generates $590m annually, according to a report Nigeria’s Film Industry: A Potential Gold Mine published in the United Nations Department of Global Communications.

Up until a few years ago, the quality levels of an average Nollywood movie didn’t even come close to its American counterparts. It’s only recently that the desire to make films that are on a par with other film industries to compete on a global level has seen a surge among the regional filmmakers.

Nigerian cinema took off in the 1960s, around the same time that the country was asserting its independence from the United Kingdom. However, it was only in the 1990s that there was a boost in the film industry in terms of intensive production patterns, made possible with advanced digital filming, producing, and editing tools.

Since then, Nigerian Cinema has established its name; with in-house content being distributed globally to a welcoming audience. Netflix has also opted to host several Nigerian films like Lionheart, or The Wedding Party on its platform.

Nigerian film director Tchidi Chikere, who has over 100 films and two music albums to his credit, terms it as a diaspora advantage. “Most Africans and Nigerians travel a lot for economic tourism. They are well-settled in different parts of the world and the Nigerian films travel with them.

“Nollywood has been gaining ground and will continue to grow in the coming years. We are visible on Netflix as well as film festivals around the globe. We have a large population in Nigeria, and that audience is a huge part of our success story,” says Chikere.

The regional filmmakers are looking more and more into their own local culture for inspiration. “As Nollywood is dressing African themes in universal clothing and vice versa, the industry is bound to thrive,” says Chikere.

Nigerian filmmaker Saheed Apanpa agrees. “The Nigeria cinema is here to stay, given the types of productions that are being made; from comedy to drama to action films.” The director, whose latest film Jumbled was released in 2019, believes that there is both passion and business in the Nigerian film industry and that one fuels the other.

The industry is rapidly gaining ground with substantial film productions every year, a number which has reportedly gone as high as 1,000 films a year. The audience is also eager to consume more and more content. The National Film and Video Censors Board reported that by the end of 2009, “the NFCVB had registered more than 14,000 Nigerian feature films made on video”. The number could be more as the figure quoted doesn’t include the films that were denied registration or filmmakers who failed to apply.

With such a high number of films being produced every year, there is a growing concern about the quantity affecting the quality. And filmmakers are not unaware of it. “Nigeria produces a lot of movies within a short period of time. Earlier, we used to have video movies and the consumption rate was high. People wanted to see something new as soon as they were done seeing the last one. But that is changing now,” notes Chikere.

In fact, Nigerian production houses and filmmakers have taken steps to improve the quality of films that they produce. “We are paying more attention to quality and detail, as our audience is exposed to films from around the world. There is now a demand for quality. So, the number of movies being produced has reduced because quality takes time. I started filming a film in August last year. I am still working on that. In the past, I would have been done in one week. Now I’m on one movie for five months and still counting,” says Chikere.

The quality impacts the timeframe of a production and focus is now being shifted to perfecting details in a film rather than the number. For Nigerian production and distribution company PUE Pictures, the focus is to spend money on equipment to produce quality films rather than on the number of films.

A fully registered business entity with the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission, PUE Pictures has set a goal to meet international distribution and production requirements. “Quality control is a vital part of production in Nigeria now as some producers ensure we get the best equipment for an excellent output. Having quality control in mind, we moderate the number of movies being produced yearly to ensure it doesn’t affect quality,” says Phina Egbuchu, CEO of PUE Pictures.

With quality in mind, there’s now a healthy mix of good content, lighting, storyline and performance which is helping raise the standards of Nigerian productions, remarks Chikere.

While Nollywood has succeeded in finding its footing in terms of identity and style in the market, the Western influence is evident in the films being made. While the focus is on the authenticity of the films, there is a concern among the filmmakers about the influence of Hollywood in the Nigerian Cinema.

“I think that the authenticity of Nollywood is validated in the truth of the African experience. By experience I mean ancient, modern and futuristic. However, through a disease of culture, Hollywood influences Nollywood from time to time. This usually happens when Nollywood is trying to tell stories to cater to the desires of our younger population who are also exposed to Hollywood,” says Chikere.

Hollywood churns out better films because they can afford it. “Hollywood has the budget to enhance films and in doing so open our eyes to the realities of the richness of the culture and stories we have. We can tell better stories than Hollywood if you give us the money and enhancements,” Chikere adds.

For that, funding plays a very important role in raising a production to match international standards. Despite their popularity, investors are hard to come by, forcing producers to dip into their personal funds to make a film.

“We usually face financial challenges as we rarely get investors who are willing to put money in the production,” notes Egbuchu. “We also encounter challenges in distribution when payments from other platforms are delayed or sometimes paid on installment.”

Funding is a huge challenge, says Chikere, while adding that limited money and distribution are big challenges that filmmakers face these days. “Films are mostly funded via personal sources. One can get funding from banks. But they usually ask for an arm and a limb, so it’s not a very popular funding alternative. There are film grants from NGOs sometimes, but such instances are rare.”

“I shot a film called All For The Money. Ironically, there was no money for the production, but I was ready to go all out,” says Apanpa, while adding that he personally invested in that film, which was shot in Lagos.

From a wider perspective, the financing of Nigerian films is different from other film industries like Hollywood. On average, producing a movie in Nigeria costs between $25,000 and $70,000, estimates the BBC. However, the cinema market space requires lots of funds to accommodate the budget for production, post-production and publicity, according to PUE Pictures.

For them, the budget required for a production depends on the script. “The script tells us the budget for a film which is based on the number of locations, cast, props, among other factors. Cinema movies are more expensive to produce than movies that are made for just TV,” remarks Egbuchu.

It is a challenge to be able to pull off the production of a full feature film in a short time frame and budget, says Apanpa. “Give them [other film industries] our budget and see if they deliver.” Apanpa is one of the Nigerian filmmakers who claims to have a flair for filmmaking. After staying in New York for two decades, Apanpa came back to Nigeria to make films. Living abroad helped shape his mind towards what kind of films he wanted to make and how. Focusing on the importance of a script, Apanpa says: “I worry more about directing great scripts. For me, scripts always come first. That is the key to having a great production. It’s all about shooting good films.”

But this attitude and maturity towards filmmaking is a very new phenomenon. Early Nigerian films were not made for the big screen. They were made on VHS tapes to be sold and rented at cheap prices being distributed via methods ranging from DVDs and theatres, to downloading or streaming online.

Now things are changing, says Egbuchu while adding that new cinema facilities are coming up across the country. “The cinema market space is growing now. The popular cinema houses include Film House (IMAX Cinema), Silverbird Cinema, Ozone Cinema, Genesis Deluxe Cinema, etc, with over three screens in different locations.”

The market, fuelled by the eagerness of the Nigerian audience, has been evolving and welcoming new productions, supported by the latest market and technology trends which have now become the backbone of Nigerian cinema.

The films are more advanced, due to the digital tools available to the filmmakers to enhance the viewer experience.

For example, the ‘bridging shot’ is a film technique employed by most Nollywood filmmakers these days because films are centred around developing stories; sometimes from one generation to another. The films use high and low angles to tell stories of oppression, or inequality. Other techniques include dissolving, crosscutting, crane and dolly shots as well as drone shots which is one of the new trends in filmmaking.

The most popular genres are romantic comedies, drama, and movies of exploits. “Our people also love the action genre, especially when there is poetic justice at the end and good triumphs over evil,” says Chikere. “We hardly tell horror stories. Times are hard and people just want to feel good. Intellectual films don’t do well, except when a filmmaker knows how to mix the right doses of comedy and romance into them.”

The need for the type of content has also evolved with the growing exposure provided by the internet, says Apanpa. “You have to be ready to move with the trends. As the demands in the market changed, I changed. The tables have turned from those days when the marketers ran the industry – now we have plenty of avenues to sell our content. It has really evolved.”

However, Apanpa says Nollywood can grow further only with the support of the government. “The revenue that comes in from Nollywood alone is massive. We need film villages, better equipment, more training and bigger facilities. Taking such steps will help Nollywood compete with other film industries.” 

Being in the same league as other film industries is important for Nollywood as it provides a platform for the people to represent themselves without any filter, as the films are made by Africans, about Africans, for Africans which fills a void. “Nollywood is different from other film industries as we tell our stories in a unique way. We showcase our rich cultural heritage through our movies and our actors are simply amazing in their characterisation,” says Egbuchu.

Performance has improved, says Chikere. “There has been a shift from a single storyline to multiple narratives that hold the audience by offering more than one intertwined plot.”

However, with the rising growth of the industry and various forms of distribution, piracy has been a rampant challenge faced by the filmmakers. Although Nigeria has laws against piracy, it remains a thriving business partly due to poor implementation of copyright laws, a near-lack of prosecution of offenders, and corruption in governance agencies.

The World Bank estimates that for every legitimate copy sold, nine others are pirated. Piracy has been so high that in 2013, “it was estimated that pirated films outnumbered legitimate ones in the market by five or ten to one”, according to Jonathan Haynes article, Nollywood: The Creation of Nigerian Film Genres.

Piracy is now being increasingly recognised as a socially unacceptable practice due to loss of revenue in the potentially billion-dollar industry. The Nigerian Copyright Commission has taken steps to shore up copyright protection for producers.

“Over the years, piracy has eaten into our industry revenue. To combat piracy, we have come up with a strategy called a Preview Copy. We usually send a preview copy of content for approval first. We can only release the master copy once the deal is at the completion stage. However, these platforms usually protect the contents as they know the legal implications if piracy of any sort is traced back to them,” says Egbuchu.

Chikere calls for unity among the filmmakers to address piracy issues and involve the government to take steps to prevent the loss of revenue as the Nigerian film industry contributes significantly towards the country’s economy.

“We are facing online piracy. The government is aware of this. The question is who should tackle it? Filmmakers need to come together to address this. The government is not a professional film authority. The responsibility falls on the practitioners to tell them what to do and how they’re best needed as far as piracy and other issues go,” says Chikere.

While the struggle against piracy is just beginning, there’s a long way to go before the actors and the filmmakers of the Nigerian Cinema industry receive their due.

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