For the past five years, Nigerian actor, producer, and director Ibrahim Yekini has released most of his movies exclusively on YouTube. In November, he posted two of the biggest films of his career on the platform, which have garnered over 1.5 million views in total so far. Yekini — who starred in one of Netflix’s most successful Nigerian originals, Jagun Jagun, in 2023 — told Rest of World he has earned thousands of dollars from his YouTube releases.
“We moved to YouTube to escape CD piracy, which has now reduced,” he said.
Another popular Nigerian filmmaker, Seun Oloketuyi, decided to start releasing his movies on YouTube in 2022, after battling piracy for years. “All it takes is just one person going to the market to buy one copy of the CD and send it to the U.K. and the U.S.,” he told Rest of World. “The person in these countries makes multiple copies and sends them to multiple African stores.”
Oloketuyi has since released six films exclusively on YouTube, and plans to release two more before the end of 2023.
He and Yekini are among a growing crop of filmmakers in Nigeria — home to Nollywood, Africa’s largest film industry with around 2,500 films produced annually — who are using YouTube as a movie streaming platform. They told Rest of World they consider it a more democratic alternative to Netflix, Prime Video, and Showmax. Uploading their content on YouTube allows them to control the distribution of their work, without fear of piracy.
Selling movies to Netflix, Prime Video, and Showmax can be challenging as these platforms are too picky, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, a Nigerian film critic, told Rest of World. “For low-budget productions, YouTube has had the most impact. For those who have built a following on the platform, there’s no real revenue sharing, [unlike] cinemas,” he said. “There are also lower expectations of quality — something Nollywood loves. You don’t have to shoot in multiple locations, even if your script calls for it. Low costs, dollars, obscure revenue sharing. What’s not to love?”
Its popularity among filmmakers has made YouTube a bigger streaming service in Nigeria compared to platforms like Netflix, Godwin Simon, who researches streaming media and the platform economy at the Queensland University of Technology, told Rest of World. “So many of them now produce direct-to-YouTube films so that they could make money and also pay the cast and crew,” he said. Nigeria reportedly has around 31.6 million YouTube users, and about 169,600 Netflix subscribers. YouTube did not respond to Rest of World’s request for comment.
Some filmmakers sell their movies to YouTube channels that aggregate content from the country. These aggregators operate just like streaming platforms, acquiring content or striking profit-sharing partnerships with filmmakers to exclusively release content on their channels.
Some YouTube channels also commission original content made exclusively for them. Rest of World found at least 10 Nigerian film channels on YouTube that post new releases at least once a week.
“We have a lot of people submitting their content, but we have a policy of screening all the content and making sure they are all on par with what our subscribers will want to watch,” Lekan Wasiudeen, a network engineer-turned-film producer who runs the Libra TV channel on YouTube, told Rest of World. Libra TV, launched in August 2015, now has more than 550,000 subscribers, and over 100 million views across 400-plus videos. The channel uploads at least three new movies each week.
ApataTV+, a Nigerian YouTube film channel with 1.69 million subscribers, has racked up more than 479 million views since its launch in September 2015, creator Olusola Akinyemi told Rest of World. “We publish and delete [movies] based on the contracts with our partners,” he said. “We procure movies and also do profit-sharing with our producers.”
Oloketuyi said the prospect of earning in U.S. dollars makes YouTube attractive to Nigerian filmmakers. He said he once made a film with a budget of 1 million naira ($1,200), and received $3,500 in his first check from YouTube.
But earnings from YouTube are still limited, Oloketuyi said.
In Nigeria, YouTube ads are not very sought-after, according to Olawale Adetula, founder of TNC Africa, a Lagos-based film production company. TNC Africa started out by making drama series for YouTube, and now produces original content for Netflix.
YouTube makes money from the ads that run before, during, and after videos, and shares those earnings with creators. For premium users who don’t see ads, YouTube shares a fraction of the viewers’ subscription fees with creators. Some Nigerian creators are now looking for ways to target YouTube viewers in the U.S. and the U.K. as they believe that would improve their earnings.
“If I make a video and … get a million views and all my viewers are from Nigeria … I’ll probably get paid $1,000 or maybe $1,500,” Nigerian YouTuber Tayo Aina told Rest of World. “If that same video had 1 million views from America, [I would] probably make like $10,000 to $15,000.” Anita Eboigbe, a Nollywood critic and co-founder of trade publication Inside Nollywood, believes targeting global audiences will give local filmmakers more room to diversify their income on YouTube. “You need to create demand for your content so people are going to stumble on it,” she told Rest of World. “It comes down to expanding your market, which is now equal to influence, money, and impact at a bigger scale than what you’d have if you limit it to just Nigeria.”
The shift to YouTube has helped Nigerian filmmakers fight piracy, which is rampant in the country. The illegal distribution of movies is so widespread that there are organized groups controlling the industry, Adetula said. Before YouTube became a popular option, producers often had no alternative but to sell their films at cheaper rates to piracy platforms. “[Those were] some of the compromises producers were making back then because of the limitation of distribution channels,” Adetula said. “Platforms like YouTube reduce piracy.”
By Damilare Dosunmu, Rest of World