Thursday, September 15, 2016

How Nollywood got ready for its close-up on the global film festival stage

At times it feels like Nollywood has been around forever, such has been the Nigerian movie business’ impact on pan-African pop cultures and awareness around the world—and in Nigeria itself.

In truth, the modern version of Nigeria’s famed movie industry is less than 25 years old, making it a relative youngster by film industry standards. That might be why this week’s showcase of eight Nollywood movies at the influential Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) feels like a coming out ball for Nollywood to the global movie industry.

For years, the industry has attracted interest globally with an exciting but mixed reputation. Its low-budget, high-volume production levels helped it grow rapidly to become the world’s second biggest movie industry by volume, behind only India’s Bollywood. Then, there’s its well-documented problems with piracy with which the industry continues to struggle. But in Toronto the world’s leading movie makers and marketers will be taking a close look at Nollywood for the right reason: the much improved quality of its films.

Toronto Film Festival is probably best renown for identifying early Oscar contenders but it’s also an important venue to meet a variety of North American distributors from cable TV to movie theaters. Nigerian movie makers will be keen to be seen with a new slate of higher quality movies compared with the early days of the industry.

There’s been a growing shift from movie quantity to quality in recent years. In the past, Nollywood filmmakers had a reputation for breaking up feature films into unnecessary stretched out sequels in a bid to eke out as much revenue as possible by selling more home movies on DVD. But now, rather than put out multiple films annually, filmmakers are beginning to spend more time and resources to making fewer but better movies with the aim of being on the big screen in movie theaters.

This is largely down to increased investment in creating content. Africa Magic, a television channel owned by digital satellite giants, Multichoice, has been at the forefront of content creation, commissioning the development of Nollywood dramas and sitcoms. Multichoice is a division of Africa’s largest company, the South African media giant, Naspers.

The movies selected for the festival have small budgets by Hollywood standards, but huge in the context of Nollywood. For example ’76’, a historical fiction drama, cost $3 million to make and is supported by Africa Magic. EbonyLife TV, a Nigerian entertainment network, helped produce ‘Wedding Party’, which has had a high profile at the festival.

In addition to the selected movies, Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling commercial capital, will also be in focus having been selected as part of the City to City programme for the film festival. For many in the industry, the recognition by the Toronto film festival is seen as a nod to Nollywood’s rapid growth and evolution over the years.

With deeper pockets, investors are starting to bankroll the production of better quality movies, thus raising standards across the board.

“Standards have financial implications—you can’t expect certain standards on low-budget production,” says Chris Ihidero, the Lagos-based producer of popular TV sitcom, Fuji House of Commotion and drama series, Hush. He says better quality is inevitable with increased investment. “Filmmakers have always been skilled but have lacked finance. What we’re seeing now is a result of investors putting money on the table.”

Pirates of Lagos Lagoon

In the past, the motivating factor for putting out multiple movies was down to the lack of revenue structure in the industry. Movies were typically released straight to DVD or Video CD (VCD) as producers sold distribution rights to promoters for small profits. More often than not, promoters then facilitated the piracy of the films to recover their costs.

When Nigerians didn’t buy pirated movies, they rented them for a small token from home video rental shops which were popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. Crucially though, the revenues generated from the hundreds of rental stores hardly made it back to the producers. But that has changed over the past decade as the local cinema infrastructure, and consequently movie culture, has evolved and grown.

There are now some 25 cinemas across the country, most opened in the last 10 years. This is a tiny number for a country of 180 million people, even if they were just focused on its burgeoning middle class—23% of its population. The good news is that the growth of local movie theaters means filmmakers now have their movies screened before going on to DVD, bringing Nollywood more in line with the traditional Hollywood model.

One of the big successes of this model is ’30 days of Atlanta’, a 2014 romantic comedy which went on to gross $434,000—reportedly the highest for a local movie in Nigerian cinema history. But Ihidero says the cinemas are not anywhere near enough yet. “We need about 1,000 cinemas,” he says. At current pace, Ihidero estimates Nollywood films average $15,000 at the box office screening for two weeks in local cinemas. “You cannot grow an industry with revenue like that,” he says.

To plug the gap, Nollywood can turn to video on-demand platforms like iROKOtv, the largest online distributor of African online video (and also a producer of movies through ROK Studios). Since launch, iROKOtv has been popular among Nollywood’s key diaspora market. But as the price of mobile data drops locally, Nigerians are beginning to consume more content on mobile than ever before.

While the cinema culture is crucial to helping local films generate revenues, piracy problems still persist. DVD sales still only contribute a tiny fraction of revenue for filmmakers. Instead, pirates bootleg films, often publicly, cutting into the filmmaker’s earnings. According to World Bank estimates, for each legitimate sale, nine others are pirated. Kunle Afolayan, a leading filmmaker and Quartz Africa Innovators 2015 honoree, has felt the brunt firsthand. Afolayan’s movie, October 1, ended up being pirated before its planned DVD release last year severely reducing Afolayan’s chances of recouping his $2 million investment in the film.

Telling our story
Regardless of the problems that persist, the spotlight on Nollywood in Toronto brings with it a chance for Nigerian filmmakers to take the lead in telling the country’s many stories. For decades, there has been dissatisfaction with how Western media has represented Nigeria and the rest of the continent. Hollywood films and music videos have also been complicit. Movies depicting war and famine as a pervasive and generic reality as well as music videos lacking nuance, like Taylor Swift’s ‘Wildest Dreams’, have come in for criticism.

Lonzo Nzekwe, a Toronto-based Nigerian filmmaker, says the growing popularity of Nollywood films and stories outside the country could help fix that. “When Hollywood goes to Africa, they’ll show you the jungles and the dirty part of the continent,” Nzekwe told Toronto Metro. “But through Nollywood films you see the excellence of Africa. You see the beauty and the positive aspects of it. That’s the good thing about what TIFF is doing now.”

As British-Nigerian Hollywood star David Oyelowo reminded the audience in Toronto, “We are storytellers.”

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