The Nollywood Phenomenon
“In Nollywood we don’t count the walls, we learn how to climb them.” - Director Bond Emerua in This is Nollywood. (©Aimee Corrigan)
“We tell our own stories”
Nigeria’s burgeoning film industry, now considered the world’s third largest after Hollywood and India’s “Bollywood,” is in a league of its own.
Dubbed Nollywood, the industry is characterized by its prolific output of ultra-low budget films, shot with digital cameras, produced straight to video/DVD format, and sold directly to customers for two or three dollars. For 15 years, largely ignoring the external cinema world, Nollywood has fuelled an insatiable appetite in Africa’s most populous country for homegrown films made by Nigerians about Nigerians. The market is expanding as the popularity of the films spreads across Africa, supplying the needs of local television stations and audiences for low-cost entertainment content.
It is an industry made possible by affordable digital technology, and driven by the ingenuity, resourcefulness and keen business sense of Nigeria’s people. Production time for an average video-film is often less than two months, from casting through to distribution. Films are shot under conditions that professionals elsewhere would consider impossible, with budgets as little as US$15,000. A film can expect to sell about 50,000 copies, or several hundred thousand if it is a hit. The returns on investment attract ever more hopefuls into the industry, which is now a major employer in parts of the country.
Chris Obi-Rapu’s Living in Bondage, released in 1992, is widely credited with having sparked the Nollywood revival out of the ashes of the country’s moribund feature film industry. The film’s cheap video format, and the bold narration of family melodrama laced with black magic, made it a smash hit, and provided the hugely successful formula for those which followed.
The Nollywood phenomenon has begun to catch the eye of the world’s media and cinema pundits: “The raw energy of the movies – and the flurry in which they are filmed and sold – is a kind of grass-roots creative revolution on a continent where stories have been told for generations but rarely committed to film,” wrote Neely Tucker in the Washington Post, inspired by the rare screening in a U.S. movie theater of a Nigerian film, Behind Closed Doors. And the Nigerian industry has itself become the subject of films. This Is Nollywood, by Franco Sacchi and Robert Caputo, follows director Bond Emerua’s quest to shoot a feature length action film in nine days, armed with just a digital camera and two lights.
Yet Nigerian films remain largely unknown to cinema audiences outside Africa. Among a handful which have become more widely known, is Osuofia in London, starring comic actor Nkem Owoh, which satirizes British and Nigerian cultural differences. Ezra, from director Newton Aduaka, won top prize at the Pan-African Festival of Cinema and Television (FESPACO) in Burkina Faso this year. But few as yet pass the quality threshold for major international festivals. And the blunt portrayal of popular themes, such as religion, witchcraft, morality and revenge, makes little concession to U.S. or European tastes and expectations. “We tell our own stories,” explains actress Genevieve Nnaji, who shot to superstar status in hits such as Blood Sisters and What Women Want. “That's why a lot of Africans can relate to it, and understand and laugh about it and learn lessons. So the industry does play a huge role in our lives."
|Inside the Industry – Madu Chikwendu|
“The Nollywood model is easy to understand. It is a system of production based on the use of digital video equipment. The movies go straight to DVD format for sales and rental. It is highly mobile, highly efficient. The system of distribution is also very informal. The DVDs are replicated in their thousands, and then distributed every two weeks on a Monday in big wholesale markets in Lagos, Kanu and Onitsha. There are about 90 new movies released every month – over 1,000 each year.”
Not one Nollywood“There is a misconception about Nollywood. It is not actually one film industry but four. The part that the world knows is the English language industry, which has its production center in Lagos and is dominated by people from the south east of Nigeria. While the language used is English, the stories in these films reflect the ideology of the Igbo people of the region.
“The second industry is much, much older, and consists of the indigenous Yoruba language movies. This can be traced back to the Nigerian feature film industry of the 60’s and 70’s, up until the economic downturn meant that people could no longer afford to produce feature films anymore and started making videos instead.
“Then you have another industry in the North of the country, by the Hausa population. That is different again. It has a lot of Islamic influences, and is also influenced by the style of Bollywood films, with lots of song and dance. There are also pockets of smaller production, like in the south around the Niger Delta. These are also indigenous, mainly made in the Edo language.
“Each of these has its own associations for the industry professionals, so it is a bit polarized on ethnic lines, which is regrettable. But there some meeting points, such as the Motion Picture Council of Nigeria, in which all the different areas are represented for the purpose of regulating the industry and lobbying the government.”
“Nigerian films are being pirated all over the place and no-one seems to care. Perhaps some of the other countries in Africa which don’t produce their own movies don’t feel they have a stake in protecting intellectual property. They think that the Nigerian industry is king and doesn’t need the money. We have an obligation to promote centers of production in different parts of Africa, which will also be a means of protecting our own intellectual property.
“Within Nigeria, illegal rentals are the biggest form of piracy. There are 40,000 video clubs, which just buy the DVDs and rent them out without paying anything to [the copyright owners]. We petitioned the government, and the Copyright Commission is now setting up a system of royalty payments.
“But the problem goes beyond the Copyright Commission. Some of the major forms of piracy we experience are not local. There is all the illegal broadcasting of Nigerian films by TV stations in other African countries, which just buy a copy of a movie from a shop then play it on their stations. Then there is massive piracy of our movies on the Internet. We know of more than 1,500 sites pirating Nigerian products, including sites domiciled in the U.S., U.K. and Europe, and in developing countries which have mechanisms for enforcement, but are not using them. In the U.S. they are always talking about piracy of their films. But no-one talks about piracy of Nigerian films. We want the world to begin to understand the wider implications. We are trying to assess the level of loss.
“Being a creator in Africa can be so frustrating. That is why I have turned more towards the distribution side. But piracy will not kill our industry. Nigerians are too resolute, too strong to let that happen. Now we are concentrating on trying to license Nollywood content across the world.”
Elizabeth March, WIPO Magazine Editorial Staff, Communications and Public Outreach Division