A Lesson in Voodoo Economics
It has overtaken Hollywood to become the second largest producer of films on the planet, so what is the secret behind Nigeria's movie success? Colin Brown reports
Around 1990, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola delivered what became a global rallying cry for the digital video revolution. Put cheap camcorders in the hands of the masses and his great hope was that "suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera — and for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed. Forever."
Two decades later and the godfather of personalised cinema would see little evidence of that creative democracy being unleashed in Ohio, or anywhere else in the developed world outside the odd Blair Witch anomaly. For all their means of production, even well-heeled film students struggle to pay for their graduation movies and launch expensive careers. And while some may point to YouTube as an anarchic breeding ground for amateur videographers, the nearest any of them get to Mozart is a hamster on a piano.
But venture 12,500km from his Napa Valley vineyards to Surulere, a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, and there amid the belch and sprawl of Africa's largest megapolis is vibrant proof of Coppola's prophecy. From this chaotic corner of Nigeria's impoverished economy has sprung one of the business world's most unlikely success stories, one that is rewriting the script for commercial cinema elsewhere.
Welcome, as they say, to Nollywood. In the span of just 16 years, this irrepressible industry has leapfrogged Hollywood to become the second most prolific on the planet, according to figures in May from UNESCO's Institute of Statistics. Churning out a combined 872 features, Nigeria's filmmaking community trailed only Mumbai's Bollywood in terms of output in 2006 – although some estimates put West Africa's yearly volume ahead even of India, at a staggering 2,500 films.
Just as incredibly, certainly to a European film industry that has grown dependent on public support as their only economic bulwark against Hollywood, this Nollywood explosion has come without any government aid. And all this in a country where 54% of the 140 million population lives on less than a dollar a day.
The reason the First World has been slow to wake up to this phenomenon is that so few of these video quickies ever see the inside of a movie theatre. Shot on budgets initially of no more than $20,000 (€14,000) apiece, they are rushed out as DVD and VCD titles within weeks of their conception. Among the country's 300 fast-and-furious filmmakers, Nigeria's answer to those B-movie pioneers Roger Corman and Ed Wood – Chico Ejiro – is so famously prolific he supposedly shot two films simultaneously, with cameras pointing in opposite directions.
Not long after wrapping their rapid-fire shooting schedules, the resulting works surface on the street-market stalls of Nigeria's boisterous electronics merchants, where they are hawked for around $2.30 (€1.60) a pop. Either that or shown as rentals in the 200,000 "video parlours", essentially private rooms where Nigerians can pay to watch a televised film for 30c (€0.20).
This guerilla approach to cinema was born of necessity in a nation whose relative oil wealth belies its poverty: GDP per capita is no more than $1,418 (€1,000), says the World Bank. "While other nations have struggled coming to terms with digital video as a means for storytelling, Nigerians had no choice really due to the high cost of celluloid, and the failed distribution and exhibition infrastructure associated with celluloid films," says Emeka Mba, chief of Nigeria's National Film & Video Censors Board (NFVCB). "Such digital democracy also meant that people outside the definition of filmmakers now had access and opportunity to join this new creative economy. This created the problem of increasing waves of poor-quality movies."
Schlocky, perhaps, but these cautionary melodramas of witchcraft, voodoo and comeuppance for the rich, with their dodgy sound quality and poor lighting, are also undeniably popular. Nollywood films typically sell 25,000–50,000 copies, with some blockbusters clearing sales of half a million. Nollywood's paying audience extends well beyond West Africa and even the continent of Africa. Nollywood's largely English-language titles are snapped up across the globe, not just among Nigerian immigrant clusters such as London's Dalston and Hackney boroughs, but across other ethnic groups too including Florida's Haitian community, and in Belize, Barbados and Brazil.
"Nollywood broke the myth that only big budgets can guarantee market success," says Peace Anyiam-Fiberesima, filmmaker and founding CEO of the African Movie Academy Awards, the continent's answer to the Oscars. "And that success can be replicated elsewhere if there is a similar vacuum for local content that needs filling." Sure enough, copycat industries have erupted in Soweto, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya ("Riverwood") and Ghana (yes, "Gollywood"), where government patrons and films that talk above audience heads have been ditched in favour of Nollywood's populist approach.
All told, Nollywood's annual revenues are estimated at $590.2m (€420m) by the NFVCB, although Mba freely admits such figures are at best extrapolations. There is no hard data either for the number of Nigerians who earn a full-time living from the film industry although the consensus suggests a young workforce of some 200,000 professionals and economic benefits to a further one million people in related services – certainly enough to make cinema the country's second largest employer after farming.
Impressive as those numbers might be, Nigerian film experts all agree that the industry still has enormous growth potential. "The distribution structure that we have now is basically informal and has not yet even scratched the surface," insists Femi Odugbemi, a US-trained filmmaker who was president of Nigeria's Independent Television Producers Association. "We know there is a huge market in Africa and in the diaspora for creative works that tell stories. We know that if we can overcome issues of piracy, these works will outsell anything else. Even though the quality can't stand beside Hollywood, the content is enthralling. And there's the feeling of connectedness we have with these films. Regardless of where you put an African, you can't take Africa out of the man."
Such pent-up indigent demand creates its own problems. A lack of institutional finance for these largely self-funded films has led to insufficient numbers of discs being duplicated. Only too happy to fill the supply gap are local pirates, with access to high-tech Chinese video compression facilities.
But, as with so much of Nollywood, an ingenious solution to piracy is now being cooked up. While European distributors are rushing to close the window between the theatrical and DVD release in an effort to thwart illegal copying, Nigeria is thinking of going the other way and building a network of digital cinemas, powered by cheap LED projectors, across sub-Saharan Africa that would expand Nollywood's addressable audience to some 800 million people.
"Intellectual copyright enforcement is never going to be a huge priority in a region with so many other issues," says Dayo Ogunyemi, a lawyer and business consultant who has been advising the Nigerian film industry on matters of economic development. "But an exhibition window of three weeks might help since it would make offending discs very easy to spot and prosecute. Having box office figures will also make it easier for filmmakers to raise finance since you can demonstrate track records; it helps minimise risks if we can release a movie simultaneously across 3,000 screens."
With one eye on India, a similarly sized market with comparable income characteristics to Nigeria, Ogunyemi is targeting some 12,000 screens across the continent, knowing that India itself can accommodate another 20,000 screens before reaching saturation. Such simple theatre halls, charging no more than $1.50 (€1.05) a ticket and boasting their own generators, provides a solution to another of Nollywood's challenges: in a country where 80% of the people don't have reliable electricity, let alone TVs, even watching DVDs is futile during the frequent blackouts. Sometimes, the revolution just cannot be televised.