A look at the never-say-die Nigerian film industry’s emerging money-spinning trends.
POPULARLY KNOWN AS Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry is the world’s second-largest producer of commercial cinema, and also accounts for 5% of Nigeria’s GDP. It is estimated that over 2,500 movies are produced each year in Nollywood with the industry employing more than a million people. Ingenuity and resourcefulness have always been a trademark of Nollywood, from homemade movies to ground-breaking blockbusters over the past decade. But the industry is not without its share of controversies. On the one hand, you have the never-say-die attitude of Nigerians combined with the glitzy and glamorous red-carpet events with celebrities attracting multi-million-naira brand endorsements. But underneath, the industry is characterized by a lack of funding and piracy, which has consistently robbed filmmakers of their revenues. But Covid-19 has led to a halt in Nollywood production decimating millions of dollars in earnings for the industry. The pandemic’s arrival has led to producers looking at new ways of staying afloat as well as focusing on higher-quality movies for streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon who are hoping to take a slice of the 200-million content market. FORBES AFRICA spoke with three of the key players in Nollywood to find out about the current state of the industry and what trends will affect its future.
‘Nollywood Offers A Gateway To A New Opportunity In Africa’
Mo Abudu, CEO, EbonyLife Media
Abudu began EbonyLife in 2013 by launching a premium TV channel and in the same year, the company announced its first international partnership with Disney Media Distribution EMEA on the iconic hit series Desperate Housewives, bringing a new take on the series’ darkly comic view of suburbia to African audiences. In 2018, Sony Pictures Television announced a three-year deal with EbonyLife TV, In January this year, AMC Networks (USA) announced its partnership with EbonyLife to produce Nigeria 2099, an Afro-futuristic crime-drama created by EbonyLife and in June, Netflix signed a multi-title deal with EbonyLife to create two original series and multiple branded films and a series. Abudu shares more:
How has Nollywood evolved over the years?
The Nigerian entertainment industry is currently going through a renaissance. While historically, Nigeria has been dependent on oil and agriculture to subsidize its economy, Nollywood is rapidly taking over this role, not just in terms of content creation, but also in terms of distribution within Africa and the rest of the world. It’s inspiring to see more stories out of Nollywood told by Nigerian creators, and using resources found in Nigeria.
As a result, there is an international desire to invest in Nollywood stories, to make investments in productions within the nation’s borders, and hence elevate the quality of output to make it more appealing to a global audience. For example, among the highlights of our partnership with Netflix will be a film adaptation of Death and the King’s Horseman, a play by Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, and a series based on Lola Shoneyin’s best-selling debut novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. Nigerian entertainment is no longer just for Nigeria, but also the world.
How far can Nollywood go in the global content marketplace?
The new interest in black culture and the questioning of colonialization’s legacy has resulted in international interest in Nollywood. Nollywood can draw upon the rising momentum in the United States and the United Kingdom in particular and offer viewers a wide array of works by black creators. Global streaming services are now offering more curated content to subscribers than ever before. Now, millions of people have access to content from Nollywood. EbonyLife’s first feature film Fifty, the only film selected from Nigeria, and one of only five films from the entire continent of Africa from 238 films selected globally for screening at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival, became the first Nigerian film to stream on Netflix in 2015. Our other film projects licensed by Netflix include The Wedding Party 1 and 2, Chief Daddy, and The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. Recently, Netflix acquired EbonyLife’s most popular drama series: Castle & Castle, Fifty: The Series, Sons of the Caliphate, and On The Real, amongst others.
What are the current trends you are noticing in the content space and how is Nollywood adjusting to those trends?
Nollywood offers a gateway to a new opportunity in Africa – in light of the recent racial tensions around the world, broadcasters are now more committed to commissioning relevant and authentic content reflecting the lives of global black audiences on an ongoing basis. There is a new desire, in short, for authenticity, or people speaking from their own experiences, telling stories from their unique perspectives. Nigeria has a historic tradition of exhibiting emotional, dramatic, and dynamic, rich content. Nigerian audiences have always been unafraid to see social issues mixed even into otherwise escapist entertainment. New media and the craving for new ideas has made Nollywood creators interested in exploring new formats for storytelling. Nigerian creators are also seeking outside training and resources to produce films that meet high international standards of visual and artistic interest. To meet this demand, EbonyLife is setting up a creative academy to build a bridge to the sub-Saharan African film and television industry, towards a value chain based on international best practices.
How has Covid-19 affected the Nigerian entertainment industry?
In light of Covid-19, many international film festivals and global conferences have gone online, which has enabled more Nigerian creators to gain access to new audiences through live streams and virtual spaces rather than physical sessions that are more costly to attend. As a result, the online move has opened doors for virtual networking and building opportunities with Nigerian creatives in the industry. The pandemic also forced Nollywood to work differently, to become more technology-driven in a manner that reaches more specific niches, including black audiences all over the world.
There are now more reasons than ever to connect people around the world via the internet. The fact that more people are watching content on the small screen versus movie theaters has, in particular, caused this shift. Despite the halted production and gradual move back with increased health insecurity and insurance costs, interest in film-making remains high in Nigeria. The loss of jobs has balanced with opportunities for innovation. There has been a greater focus on pre-production, story development, writing and post-production work virtually.
‘We Have Stories The World Hasn’t Heard’
Omoni Oboli, Actress, Producer and Director
Oboli began her career in 1996. Her company, Dioni Visions Entertainment, has produced blockbusters in Nigerian cinema, with such films as Being Mrs Elliott, Wives On Strike and Okafor’s Law which was an official selection at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Her movies are on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Iroko, and other streaming platforms. Her views on the movie business:
How would you describe the current state of the Nigerian entertainment industry?
The Nigerian movie industry needs a major boost to spark the flames that are clearly unwilling to be put out. Unlike other forms of entertainment, movie producers have only the sales and release of their movies to make their money back. With no serious checks and curtailing of the nature of piracy and no aggressive protection of intellectual property, we’re pretty much left to our own individual means of getting our money back from our work.
While all areas of entertainment are touched, I’m more specific about the movie business. We’ve been able to push our products far and wide with little resources, so it’s clear we have what it takes to break the ceiling given the talent that abounds, but without the structured means of having good returns on our investment, it’s hard for so many who are in the industry, especially those who are not at the top of the food chain, to make ends meet. There’s hope, and that’s the hope many hold on to.
What factors would you say have contributed to the global demand for Nollywood?
The first would be the obvious one: migration. With Africans everywhere in the diaspora, our movies, music and brand of comedy, and stage performances, are being demanded by them first, and then by others who see the infectious frenzy around our work by Africans everywhere. Our movies and entertainment bring a nostalgic feeling. The next is our unique stories. We have stories that the world hasn’t heard, or nuances to the same stories that breaks the monotony of the often-recycled stories.
What we may lack in production value, [compared to the likes of Hollywood and Bollywood], we are able to hold our audiences with the storylines, which are different, but resonate with everyone who watches them. Also, with the internet and social media, we can see the cross-cultural advantages that come with the global village and the growing yearning for inclusion and diversity. Whatever the reason, we love what we see with the popularity of our work.
Do you think Nollywood has what it takes to compete in the global content market?
Sure it does. Nollywood started as the outlier; the great stories (product) with a poor wrapping, but has metamorphosed into the more presentable work we see today, and improving and competing with contemporaries the world over. We may not have arrived where we’re going, but where and what we are right now is far from, and better than, where we used to be. We have the stories, and with new stories to tell, the world has come to appreciate what we’re saying, and with time, has grown to appreciate and celebrate how we’re delivering it. With better returns on our investment, we can see more and more works of great art with each year and each producer pushing the envelope to give our stories more life and present our stories in its raw yet easy-to-watch format that resonates with all audiences. With the growing love the world has for our music, and its expression by us through our movies, we have seen more foreigners beginning to appreciate our candid presentations that are closer to our reality than if they were shot by a foreigner who may have the means to do justice to the production value, yet lose the essence that makes it authentically Nigerian. You can’t separate our stories from our mannerisms and language and culture.
‘The Progress Of Nollywood Is In Leaps And Bounds Now’
Richard Mofe-Damijo, Actor and Producer
Mofe-Damijo, popularly known by the moniker ‘RMD’ is one of the most successful actors in Nollywood. At 59 years old, the veteran actor has starred in over 75 movies and is also a qualified lawyer specializing in Intellectual Property. Over his acting career, which spans a period of 37 years, he has won every best actor award there is as well as is the only actor who has won the prestigious African Movie Academy Awards twice for best actor along with receiving a lifetime achievement award. He is the founder of RMD Productions which produces content for DSTV as well as is currently developing a slate of docu series in Nigeria. He is also starring in a lead role in Netflix’s first original Nigerian series.
How far has Nollywood come over the years?
The progress of Nollywood is in leaps and bounds now and there is a lot of collaboration with other film-making countries in the world. The streaming services have been very kind to us in Nigeria, so Nigerian movies have a very strong presence on the Netflix and Amazon platforms… So, in terms of impact, they usually say we are the second-largest film production industry in the world or the third, always between Hollywood or Bollywood and the good thing is we are in contention.
Covid-19 has been a major threat to the industry but just like the never-die spirit of Nigeria, we are all back again and making sure we keep producing movies.
What factors have led to the proliferation of Nollywood on the global market?
The authenticity of our stories means we tell our stories in the best way we can. We don’t have access to funds as most Hollywood or Bollywood movies will have. What we do here is like performing bypass surgery with forks and knives because of the limited funds. Technology has improved so we have embraced technology in production. So at least the standard of production has increased significantly. This has accounted for the big box office movies we have and created the cinema-going culture.
Nigerians are also getting cast in international movies now and we have more or less affected the whole of the West African region and African continent and a lot of them are now also looking inward to tell their own stories. Nigerians in the diaspora are constantly looking for ways to connect back home so our movies have become a tool for them to connect. The reason Netflix is here is because they know we can compete; our films are beginning to speak for themselves.
What new trends are shaping the stories being told in Nollywood?
Producers are looking to get their movies to the point where we can get our movies to be judged for international awards now and this means we are going to get more authentic stories from Nigeria.
This is something that will help boost our movies globally.