The corpse was breathing.
Having already had to locate a key prop – a missing golden necklace – remind the crew to switch off their mobile phones and persuade local spectators to keep their children quiet, Nigerian film director Izu Ojukwu must have feared that the epic biopic’s crucial scene, in which warrior queen Amina mourns her dead hero, might never get filmed.
Luckily, the corpse, played by Nigerian megastar Ali Nuhu, managed to breathe so subtly, that the next take was a wrap.
This scene, described in Emily Witt’s book Nollywood: The Making Of A Film Empire, captures the significant challenges facing – and the growing sophistication of – Nigeria’s vibrant movie industry.
Nollywood didn’t exist 25 years ago but today it makes at least 1,500 movies a year (more than Hollywood), employs 1m people, and has become, some experts say, the most influential expression of Africa’s popular culture around the world.
In 1992, Nigeria’s first hit movie, Living In Bondage, a thriller about a man who sacrifices his wife to a satanic cult and is haunted by her ghost, was shot on VHS camcorders to save money – it cost $12,000 to make – and was released straight-to-video. (Even today, the country, which has a population of 180m, still has only 30 modern cinemas, so most films are watched on VHS or DVD.)
Living In Bondage was such a smash it inspired a low-budget movie formula that attracted investors and created an industry. Today, while many straight-to-DVD productions cost as little as $25,000, some $1m-budget movies are released first in cinemas. In 2016, the madcap rom-com The Wedding Party became the highest-grossing Nigerian movie of all-time, generating $1.3m in ticket sales. Although the industry has been criticised for “ritualistic killings”, “voodoo-mongering” and “devilish spiritism” by the country’s film censors, its three biggest commercial successes – The Wedding Party, A Trip To Jamaica and 30 Days In Atlanta – are all romantic comedies.
The domestic box office might seem small – in 2016, it was worth $11.5m, with 30% of that accounted for by Nigerian films – but Nollywood is booming. Its films are so popular across Africa that the industry is said to account for 1.2% of Nigeria’s GDP. (Revenue estimates for the industry vary so wildly – by a factor of 10 – they are not worth sharing.)
The country is producing its own celluloid icons. Genevieve Nnaji, a 38-year-old actress who has starred in more than 80 movies, is described by author Witt as “Africa’s Julia Roberts and Audrey Hepburn”. In the process, it is exporting its culture too. Tanzanian journalist Songa wa Songa told the New York Times: “Nigerian movies are very popular in Tanzania. A lot of people here now speak with a Nigerian accent thanks to Nollywood.”
Many Hollywood studios, searching anxiously for growth in an unpredictable and static global market, regard Nollywood as a tantalising opportunity. Yet the industry faces many serious challenges – corruption, currency fluctuations, power cuts and copyright being merely the most obvious.
American entertainment giants are unlikely to invest heavily in Nollywood right now because, as Yewande Sadiku, a producer and financier who promotes FDI in Nigeria put it, the industry is “in desperate need of a financial makeover”.
The government’s own statistics show that only 1% of the money the industry makes comes from official ticket sales and royalties. The other 99% came from pirated reproductions sold on the black market for around $2 each. The national film agency has declared war on piracy, albeit with limited success.
Technology could soon help Nollywood create a more sustainable business model. Backed by American and Swedish money, the subscription-based video-on-demand service iROKO licenses content to consumers across the globe for around $1.50 a month. With reliable internet access far from the norm in many African countries, the start-up has tasked developers with creating smaller movie files and more direct to download options.
SOLO, another local start-up, offers smartphones for $75 with an app enabling customers to buy and rent digital content at digital hotspots across the country.
If such innovations can stop the Nigerian film industry bleeding billions of dollars in revenue, they will probably do more for Nollywood’s long-term fortunes than the hotly anticipated release of The Wedding Party 2 next month.
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