There is a slight nip in the air as the sun rises on the horizon and workers join the frenzied rush-hour traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge to Victoria Island. Crawling along the Falomo Bridge towards the mainland, I am joined by Kunle (not their real name), a former ringleader in Nigeria’s lucrative piracy industry. We are on our way to Alaba International Market, the largest electronics market in Nigeria and, incidentally, where it all began for Kunle.

“This is big business. At the top of the food chain is the Igbo movie producers and marketers who control the distribution of all the movies,” says Kunle.

Alaba is typical of most Nigerian markets. The place is heaving with sellers vying for every inch of space available on the streets, forcing people to walk in a straight line, like soldiers going to battle. The ‘area boys’, who are the unofficial tour guides of the market, expertly maneuver through teems of people, shouting frantically to get the attention of potential customers. We stop at Alake Enterprises, a rundown shack selling the latest Nollywood movies and gospel CDs.

“Madam, we get brand new movies, I beg [you to] come inside,” says one of the vendors.

As we enter the dilapidated building, a wall appears out of nowhere adorned with the latest cinema releases.

“There are two types of movies here. Those at the front of the shop are the legal ones, which have been released in the cinema and have now made their way to DVD. What you are seeing at the back are the ones that are currently in the cinema and some that are yet to show,” says Kunle.

Alaba Market (Photo by Andrew Esiebo/Aljazeera America)

Hiring more than a million people, Nollywood is the country’s second largest employer, according to a United Nations report. The ability of film crews, using guerilla filmmaking, to shoot a full-length feature in a week, has made Nollywood a powerhouse in the world of movies.

The National Bureau for Statistics (NBS) estimates that the Nigerian film industry contributed about 1.4% to the GDP in 2013 and 2014, and employed over 250,000 people directly. According to the World Bank, Nollywood produces up to 50 films a week, surpassing Hollywood in volume. Subsequently, the rise in copyright crimes in the country grows alongside the Nollywood industry.

“A couple of years ago Kunle Afolayan’s movie, October 1, was pirated and sold on the streets for less than $3 before the movie’s premiere in the cinema. He spent $2 million producing that movie. Now tell me, how was he going to make his money back? How many cinemas do we have in the country to help him recoup that amount?” says Bose Oshin, Head of Productions at GAME Productions.

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The incident almost led to the writer and director boycotting Nigeria for good. In 2014, a week after the release of Half of a Yellow Sun, a film adaptation of the award-winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, film vendors were hawking pirated copies of the film in Lagos. According to Oshin, you can’t fix the problem without understanding why there is a leak in the supply chain cycle.

“Before a movie shows, they need to send a copy to the cinemas where it will make its debut. The pirates pay the workers in the cinema a lump sum of N1 million ($2,790) to steal the copy. For these culprits, this is more money than they would earn in a year, so the temptation is quite high,” says Oshin.

Kofi Ansah, an emerging Ghanaian movie producer looking to have a piece of the lucrative Nollywood pie, experienced this in what he calls his worst day in business.

“I literally used all my savings to shoot this movie and managed to secure some top stars from Nigeria. We were two weeks away from the movie premiere when I got a call from someone saying they had a copy of my movie and I should pay N5 million ($13,950) to prevent its release on the streets for one month. It was as if someone had just shot me in the stomach. We barely had enough to do our promotion and now we were being blackmailed by these thugs,” says Ansah.

He believes the leak was orchestrated by competing producers who do not want any new names to enter the hugely competitive, and often fickle, world of Nigerian cinema.

“We all use the same production crews so it is easy to get your hands on footage. I couldn’t afford to make the payment, so the movie was on the street before we could even do the premier and we lost all our investment. I ended up having to take the movie to other parts of Africa to try to recoup some of the money,” says Ansah.

Nollywood movies for sale in a market (Photo by Andrew Esiebo/Aljazeera America)

In the belly of the beast lies an ongoing war between the ‘New Nollywood’ producers and traditional ‘Asaba’ producers.

“New Nollywood does not make any money. They have the fame, the glitz and the glamour, and they do lavish launches in cinemas, but nobody goes to the cinema to watch a Nollywood production when Captain America is showing. Asaba, or old Nollywood, is where the money is made. Movies are shot on tight production schedules, usually about a week, and then the same movie is broken down into several sequels from part one to sometimes part 16,” says Kunle.

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Asaba movies are for the masses. Storylines are simple, humorous, and movies are mostly shot in the local dialect. The top actors in this sector are in such high demand that they sometimes shoot up to 10 movies a week, jumping from one set to the other.

“As soon as the marketers hear that a New Nollywood movie is about to hit the cinema, the whole gang is on high alert. Once the inside person is paid, and we get a copy of the video, we begin mass-production. Sometimes as many as 20 million copies are created and immediately moved by trucks to Onitsha, Aba, Alaba and Idumota, where agents are there to pick up and distribute to a network of street hawkers and shops in those areas,” says Kunle.

The mass production provides economies of scale, with DVDs as cheap as N100 ($0.30). Contrast this with the N3,000 ($8.30) for a cinema screening and it’s obvious why piracy thrives in Nigeria.

“This is simply a case of supply and demand. The demand is there because people want to watch the same movies that are shown in the cinema for a fraction of the cost, and so long as that demand exists, these pirates will always be in business and that is the unfortunate truth,” says Oshin.
To combat piracy, the Nigerian government established Project ACT Nollywood, with a N3 billion ($8 million) grant. In a press statement, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, says the proper distribution of movies is important if Nigeria is to win the fight.

But Ansah says it’s not that simple.

“Like any criminal organization, there are those at the top who make the real money and make all the moves. These people have a strong network and they work with the copyright owners or those who have been officially contracted to produce the legitimate DVDs of the new movies, so they have direct access to the source thereby hijacking the market,” he says.

“Piracy works with informal networks and to be honest, there is really no fear of punishment because you hardly hear of anybody who has been arrested on the grounds of video piracy. That is where the law needs to act. Instill a fear of imprisonment and people will behave accordingly.”

But this suggestion may be flawed.

“We have informants in the law enforcement agencies that give us a heads-up so we know all the plans they are making, which means we have enough time to react,” says Kunle.

For now, the clandestine networks continue to grow and as long as they have an insatiable audience looking for the lowest prices for the latest cinematic releases, it is unlikely that piracy in Africa’s largest movie industry will end.