Is mainstream success on the horizon for Africa’s biggest film industry?

 
 

Vanity Fair film critic Guy Lodge described Nollywood as the “prolific, still export resistant Nigerian film industry” in a scathing review he wrote about Jeta Amata’s Black November, the largest budget movie to come out of the country to date. It is true that most Nigerian movies never achieve a wide cinema release internationally. It is not for lack of trying though, as several Nigerian directors in the past five years have included American and British actors in their movies in the hope of gaining that elusive crossover appeal. Now new avenues for distribution are opening doors for the industry.

The story goes that Nigeria’s reported $500 million film industry begun in 1992 when enterprising electronics dealer Kenneth Nnebue decided it would be easier to sell his overstock of empty video cassettes by putting some content on them. So he made the movie Living In Bondage for $12,000 that went on to sell over 750,000 copies, beginning the mainly straight-to-video style of filmmaking that has continued to evolve and gain huge popularity ever since. By 2009 Nollywood surpassed Hollywood in terms of the number of titles produced, making it the second largest film industry in the world behind Bollywood.

It is worth being cautious about accepting some of the multi-billion dollar figures being touted about the industry’s worth today. Much of the business is informal and difficult to measure but there is no doubt that it is a fast growing and influential segment.The volume of content (1,844 films in 2013 alone) is often quoted as evidence of the industry’s dominance. However it’s patently unfair to compare Nollywood to Hollywood, which is over 100 years old (Nollywood recently turned 20), where the average studio movie costs $107 million to produce (for Nollywood it’s less than $100,000) and has 40,000 cinema screens at its disposal in the US alone (Nigeria has less than 100).  

The obvious answer to how to improve the budget, often questionable quality and reach of Nollywood movies is to increase the number of cinemas in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa where the films resonates most. However, the cinema business is a capital intensive one and returns are not necessarily stellar. It is a scale business and the average net income margin of the large players in the US is less than 10 per cent. Nevertheless with the promise of a growing middle class and rising wages, there has been an expansion in Nigeria, largely consolidated by three major players – Silverbird (50 screens), Film House (32 screens) and Genesis (15 screens).

 
 

There are other challenges that arise from a poorly regulated industry but perhaps the biggest is piracy. Less than 5 per cent of earnings come from official cinemas and since physical DVD is the predominant medium of distribution, copyright laws are rarely enforced. Nollywood producers complain that they lose more than half of their profits to illegal copying but much of the popularity of Nollywood across the continent is due to the wide distribution networks of pirates. President Muhammadu Buhari recently vowed to save the entertainment industry from these illegal activities. This would be a welcome development and industry players remain hopeful that there may be some meaningful and structural intervention that brings these bootleggers into a legal framework that leverages their existing networks.

Obtaining funding is also a difficulty for Nigerian producers. Traditionally, the often-maligned marketers (who have been accused of using mafia-like tactics to control the business) are the primary funding source for movies. Sometimes the money comes along with pre-conditions, such as the use of amateurish screenplays written by their relatives, that impact on the film quality but not necessarily the commercial success. Banks have limited exposure to the movie industry since it is difficult for them to accept films as collateral and with interest rates over 20 per cent, producers who can access their financing are often reluctant. In recent years, the government has made attempts to intervene, financing large film projects through Nigerian Export-Import (NEXIM) Bank and the Bank of Industry. With the growth of the cinema industry where filmmakers’ revenues are better protected, perhaps there will be more opportunities for them to monetise their output and hence benefit from bank and other regulated financing.


 

“Nollywood's future main revenue lies with the African-American and Caribbean market with over 50 million people with a spending power of over $1 trillion per annum” - Tony Abulu

 

With the launch of its Africa Magic channels in 2004, African media giant Naspers demonstrated its belief in the importance of Nollywood movies beyond the silver screens. Present in over 8 million households across the continent, its DStv platform has provided a significant outlet for Nigerian films. Additionally, in 2014, the media giant launched Africa Magic Go, a video on demand (VOD) platform targeting African audiences in the US. At $8 per month, it provides some of its popular content to the audience at a similar price point to US video-on-demand behemoth, Netflix.

Reaching overseas markets with Nollywood films on traditional TV platforms has at best been a niche play with stations such as BEN TV (UK) targeting Africans abroad. The segment is small and not entirely lucrative, limiting the impact on Nollywood filmmakers. However, new players are coming into this space and attempting to broaden the audience. “We believe that Nollywood's future main revenue lies with the African-American and Caribbean market with over 50 million people with a spending power of over $1 trillion per annum,” says Nigerian director Tony Abulu (Dr. Bello – 2013, Superstar – 2015). His company, Black Ivory Communications is set to launch Blaze Channel, USA, a distribution platform on US mainstream satellite and cable television networks such as Dish Network, Comcast and Verizon FiOS, in late 2015.

Purely digital channels are also seizing the opportunity. The founders of iROKOtv, the first major African strictly video-on-demand platform, have had great success raising $8 million in their most recent round of funding. As access to broadband improves, there have also been huge strides made in reducing the cost of devices and improving the technology required to deliver movies to users. “The main challenge we see for the coming years continues to be the cost of internet connectivity for the vast majority of Africans,” says Jessica Hope of iROKOtv. “At the moment, being able to stream iROKOtv, or any other VOD service, on any device, be it mobile, tablet or laptop is a luxury. We want streaming to become an everyday commodity, like it is in the West.” Considering the abundance of mobile devices and the paucity of cinemas, watching movies on a small screen has huge potential for growth. iROKOtv recently announced the discontinuation of its website and web streaming service in Africa, deciding that the way forward is on mobile platforms. It also introduced a new discover and download service, making it easier for users to access their catalogue.  

The company recently signed a deal with Netflix, which will allow for wider distribution of the digital content they have amassed. Netflix is showing growing interest in Nigeria  having signed an exclusive deal with producer Kunle Afolayan for his film October 1. Netflix also acquired Beasts Of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala’s critically acclaimed novel in a landmark deal for $12 million. The movie starring Oscar-nominated actor Idris Elba was shot in Ghana for $6 million and debuts on 16 October. It has been praised at the Toronto and Venice film festivals and is for an Oscar next year.

There are several other evolving options for digital distribution of Nollywood. According to web traffic data provider Alexa Internet, YouTube is the 5th most popular website accessed by Nigerian web users. Naturally, there is an opportunity for advertising revenue and some enterprising filmmakers are already capitalising on this platform. Also, indigenous smartphone maker, SOLO who sells reasonably priced devices in Nigeria, recently launched a VOD app for Android phones that could be another good outlet.

For all its critics and lack of structure, production values and institutional support, Nollywood continues to thrive. And there remains an appetite for fresh African stories worldwide, as the recent spate of independent Nigerian films shows. “My feature directorial debut, Half Of A Yellow Sun, was invited to and screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide,” says Biyi Bandele of his adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning novel starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. “Everywhere I've seen it I know the audience has strongly connected with it.” Despite its critical and commercial success (it reached over 80 screens in the UK and is also on Netflix) and decent budget ($10 million), the film still struggled to achieve a full release in the US. Bandele puts this down to a lack of acceptance of Nigerian film in the mainstream. “The movie seemed to hit a brick wall when it came to the cultural gate keepers, who have decided that the only African stories worthy of being seen are stories of famine and stories of African victimhood.” It may take a while before Nollywood movies achieve truly global distribution but with each bold attempt, the industry gets closer to reaching the mark.

Beasts Of No Nation is released on Netflix and selected US cinemas on 16 October.


Words Osahon Akpata

Images Netflix, Akintunde Akinleye/Reuter, Yellow Sun Limited