iROKOtv: delivering Nollywood content to the world
By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO
Nollywood films are now available on a screen near you. Increasingly, distribution is moving online, giving Nigeria’s movie industry global reach.
Leading the way is iROKOtv. In just seven years, it has become a global media platform, boasting the world’s largest online catalogue of Nollywood films, a clutch of TV channels and viewers in 178 countries. And it is also becoming a major producer of Nollywood content.
Tope Lucas, the company’s Legal Counsel and Head of Content Acquisition, talks about its explosive growth, the role that intellectual property plays in its fortunes, and its plans for the future.
How did iROKOtv get started?
Our CEO, Jason Njoku, came up with the idea of starting a Nollywood film distribution business in 2010 at his family home in Manchester, United Kingdom. His mother was a great fan of Nollywood movies, but they were in short supply. The only way you could watch them at that time was on DVDs that people brought back to the UK from Nigeria or via odd pirate sites with low-quality films. Jason came over to Nigeria and met with producers to see if they were interested in putting their films online. They were hesitant at first. They had been “burned” in the past, and when they were presented with a genuine contract that would enable them to be paid for the use of their work online it sounded too good to be true. But eventually they warmed to the idea, and thanks to that approach we are where we are today. iROKOtv started out as a YouTube company. We were the first company to put Nollywood content online legally. Then, in 2011, we moved to our own platform, iROKOtv.com, and began licensing in and developing our own content.
What services do you offer?
At first, we operated both a freemium and a subscription model, but now almost everything is based around subscriptions. Just over a year ago we expanded our TV presence and we now have partnerships with various TV stations. We also distribute content for in-flight entertainment and to TV stations in a number of French-speaking African countries.
Where do you source your content?
We recently started producing our own content. It has been challenging but super-successful. Over the past year, ROK Studios, the company’s creative arm, has produced or commissioned 90 percent of the content featured on iROKOtv.com. We own the rights to that content.
iROKOtv has shown the world that Africa has a lot of great content and many talented producers.
We also have iROKO Global, which was originally established to handle distribution of third-party content licensed by iROKOtv from various content producers, but these days iROKO Global is concentrating on the distribution of our own content. We were paying premium rates for licensed content and it just wasn’t financially sustainable. We realized we could actually produce better content ourselves.
Can you tell us more about iROKOtv’s distribution business?
Distribution wasn’t a priority until we realized we could make money from all the rights we hold in our content for use on the Internet, TV and in-flight. People began buying content from us because it is easier than going to individual producers. We realized we were sitting on a goldmine and started investing in producing and distributing our own content. Many people now come to iROKOtv to source Nollywood content because we have a reputation for properly licensing our material. Distribution now accounts for around 40 percent of our business.
And your TV channels?
Television is a new area of our business. It is taking off and is now bigger than distribution. We have four ROK TV channels: one on DS TV (a Nigerian cable channel), one on Sky in the UK and two (iROKO 1 and iROKO2) on Nigeria’s Star Time TV network. They all feature content that we own or license.
What specific challenges do you face in the African market?
Licensing work from some Nollywood producers can be a challenge, especially those who sell rights to multiple parties. And of course online piracy is a constant battle. No matter how well we protect our content online, there are always those who try to take it and put it onto other platforms for free. These are daily frustrations that we generally overcome. We put a lot of emphasis on nurturing close relationships with producers, which helps. They are now coming to recognize that they need us as much as we need them, and are increasingly playing by the rules.
On the technical side, bandwidth is a big challenge. The majority of people here watch content on their mobile devices, so we have developed a mobile app and set up about 50 kiosks around Lagos. The kiosks allow any iROKOtv subscriber to access and download our content onto their phone. They simply download the app using the Internet access we provide in the kiosk – they don’t need to use their data – and then select and download the content they want to watch. It’s available on their phone for up to 30 days.
Have you noticed any change in the way people view Nollywood content?
Today there is a lot more respect for Nollywood content. Over the past two years there have been many positive developments. The quality of our movies has really improved. We now have better stories, better actors, production values, direction and cinema releases. Whereas in the past American movies were popular, today Nollywood movies dominate cinema in Africa. People are intrigued by them and want to watch them. I think things are only going to get better for Nollywood.
Why is iROKOtv recognized as one of Africa’s leading tech companies?
iROKOtv broke new ground and brought a totally new offering to the table. Technology made it possible to do this. We started out working with YouTube; now we have our own platform and payment model to deliver content to customers. In effect, we are both a tech company and an entertainment company. We keep evolving and bringing new technology on stream to ensure our customers have a smooth and seamless viewing experience. We are committed to innovation.
How do you explain iROKOtv’s explosive growth?
Content and the technology. When your technology makes it easy for anyone to get the movie they want to watch, and when you do what you say you are going to do, you have a winning formula. Our consistency has enabled us to build trust. Our customers know they will always find something to watch. We release movies onto our platform at least three times a week. Imagine getting three brand new movies every week! That is enough to drive consumers to our platform.
What role do social media platforms play in promoting your movies?
Social media platforms offer a really cost-effective way to promote our content. Our social media team manages our presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and regularly shares short clips with our users. The great thing about social media is you can simply post a movie and if people like it, word spreads very quickly. People will watch it on the strength of comments posted. It’s great!
How do you keep up with the rising demand for Nollywood content?
Keeping up with demand is not always easy because we don’t just post any movie, we want good movies. Demand is high, but we have producers shooting movies for us all the time. And we also review material that other producers send to us. We try to close as many deals as possible and to have movies lined up well in advance.
Is iROKOtv supporting local filmmakers?
Yes, for sure. If a producer sends us a movie – we receive movies from all over the country – we send it for review to our team in London. And on the basis of their evaluation, we reject or accept the movie. If we accept it we negotiate a deal. And if it doesn’t make it to our platform, we offer a partnership deal whereby the movie is loaded on to our YouTube freeview channel, with any revenues generated shared. Eighty percent goes to the producer and 20 percent to iROKOtv.
How many movies or series has ROK Studios produced so far?
So far, we have produced around 200 movies and 30 TV series and are on track to produce around 100 feature-length movies in 2017. Our aim is to shoot as many movies as possible to avoid having to license content from producers. Content licenses have a shelf life and require periodic renegotiation. When we shoot our own movies we hold all the rights and can license them on our own terms. In the long run it’s more cost-effective.
When we shoot our own movies we hold all the rights and can license them on our own terms. In the long run it’s more cost-effective.
Why is IP important for your business?
IP is the core of our business. From licensing to movie production, everything we do is about IP. Sometimes it is difficult to put a value on creativity, but having been in this business for some years we are now able to put a value on a film and pay a fair price for it.
What are the growth prospects for the African entertainment and broadcasting landscape?
For many years, entertainment in Africa was not taken seriously, but that’s changing. Africans are starting to appreciate African content, and this is fueling the fortunes of companies like iROKOtv. So if production values continue to rise, I think the sector will see exponential growth.
What impact would you say iROKOtv has had on the African entertainment scene?
iROKOtv has inspired many people to start creating and monetizing their own content by, for example, setting up their own YouTube channel. Indeed, our platform has become a go-to place for producers who want to showcase their work to an international audience in the hope that they will get financial backing for future film projects. We carved the trail and continue to lead the way.
iROKOtv has drawn attention to Nollywood and has shown the world that Africa has a lot of great content and many talented producers. We are delivering brand new content to viewers every week and people are now seeing that this is the future. Nollywood is the future. African content is the future. Nigerian movies are winning awards, and collaborations with international artists and producers are on the rise. Everyone is getting in on the act now.
What gives iROKOtv the edge on competitors like Netflix?
Netflix is predominantly a place to find American movies. They have great content, but for Nollywood and Africa, we are the specialists.
What lessons have you learned?
Consistency and focus are key. When you focus and do something repeatedly, you get better at it. At one point we thought about distributing other types of content, but realized our competitive advantage is Nollywood. That’s why we remain firmly focused on Nollywood content.
What are your plans for the future?
For iROKOtv, the sky is the limit. The company has evolved beyond recognition since 2010 and I think this will continue. We now have a handful of TV channels, but I foresee that they will grow in number in the coming years. And every week we produce new high-quality content for which we hold the rights. All we need to do is to use them. We are only now beginning to gather steam.
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