Two spotlights from a film set

Bigger than Hollywood: The quiet ascent of New Nigerian Cinema

It’s a bold statement, but with an output of over 1000 movies a year, the Nigerian film industry – or Nollywood – is now the second largest in the world, sat between Bollywood and Hollywood. However, up until recently, the production levels of the average Nollywood movie didn’t even come close to its third-place American counterparts. But this is beginning to change as a culmination of many factors throughout Nigerian cinema history converge and we see the beginnings of a perfect storm that will take these uniquely Nigerian stories global.

The fastest growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria is home to some 190 million people and their appetite for entertainment is nothing new. However, the desire to produce movies that can compete at a worldwide level has only started to take shape over the last twenty years. Leke Alabi-Isama is a photography and film trainer in the region for the Canon Miraisha programme and has watched the way New Nigerian Cinema has grown and developed from its roots in the colonial era. “I split this into three areas,” he explains “The colonial era, the home video boom era and New Nigerian Cinema.” As different as each era is historically, they have a few things in common: vision, resourcefulness and an eager market.

Nollywood generates $600m yearly and employs more than one million people

From stage to sitcom

Pre-feature films (as we know them today) entertainment in Nigeria could be found through a tradition of travelling troupes who performed for large crowds in one city after another. As technology allowed, these performances were recorded and screened in small picture houses across the country, helping them to reach a wider audience with less effort. Of course, this made the transition from stage to screen a far easier ambition for actors such as ‘Father of Nigerian Theatre’ Hubert Ogunde and famous comedian Moses Olaiya. “This was Nigeria’s first taste of cinema culture,” says Leke and it coincided with a time of great prosperity in Nigeria, the 1970s, when the cinema business boomed, and disposable income meant that more homes than ever owned their own TV.

By the 1980s, families were hooked on a sitcom called ‘Papa Ajasco’and its spin-off movie became Nigerian cinema’s first blockbuster. In 2004 Wale Adenuga Productions, the company responsible, went on to form the only active film institution in Nigeria – Pencil Film and Television Institute or ‘PEFTI’. But by 1984, a change of rule in Nigeria completely changed the entertainment landscape and the funding for home-grown series like Papa Ajascodried up. Instead sitcoms and programming from around the world, especially South America, were bought for broadcasting and entered into everyday Nigerian life. “During this period, filmmaking was almost non-existent. But all that changed in 1992 when a man called Kenneth Nnebue wrote a beautiful film called Living in Bondage.

Blank tapes and a cunning plan

If you had a container load of unsold blank VHS tapes sitting around, what would you do? Well, to Kenneth Nnebue the answer was obvious – put a film on them and sell them! This simple, yet ingenious idea is how one of the most famous movies in Nigerian cinema history came to be. “Instead of going through the normal process of having a movie premiere at the cinema, then when the run is done, distributing the film by VHS, Kenneth recorded straight to VHS and started the home video boom era.” This extraordinary event led to a full decade of thousands of low budget movies being shot straight to VHS, cutting out cinemas entirely. Piracy was a problem, but the format also meant that movies were reaching homes in a matter of weeks – from set to settee – and it wasn’t unheard of for a producer to release two movies every month! Films were generally centred around social and cultural issues, which meant that the story was more important than the production values. “But there came a time when the Nigerian film industry was stuck in a rut,” says Leke. “A lot of people either hated or loved the Nigerian film industry at the time. It was stuck in this phase for almost ten years, until the New Nigerian Cinema arrived in 2002/2003.”

A group of students gather round a Canon pro video camera.
Canon Miraisha students enjoy intensive filmmaking courses, using industry standard equipment.

New Nigerian Cinema

During the military rule of Nigeria, many nationals fled abroad but by 1999 democracy had returned and Nigerians began to head home, bringing with them the skills and money they had gained from outside the country. During their absence some had worked in the film industry and learnt techniques that could be applied to home-grown movies. And though the film industry was still very much saturated with straight-to-video content, there were some forward thinkers who dared to be different. Silverbird Cinemas, a chain which launched in 2004, showed predominantly western movies until Kunle Afolayan (the son of famous director and producer Adeyemi Afolayan, known better as ‘Ade Love’) returned from film school in New York. His debut, the supernatural thriller Irapada (or ‘Redemption’) changed everything and opened Nigerian eyes to the possibilities of locally produced films.

Awards followed and before long Nigerian cinema caught the world’s attention. “Nigerians were used to the quality of Hollywood movies and could see that in the quality of Nigerian cinema. So not only was the story good, but the picture quality was also now standard. That caused a shift in the minds of Nigerian producers and directors. They realised that a lot more had to be done to get to the standard that Hollywood had.”

Half a Yellow Sun

The tipping point, Leke explains, came with the release of a single film. “One movie caught the minds of people and made Nigerian filmmakers realise that there was nothing that couldn’t be done here as long as they had funding. It was Half of a Yellow Sun, an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the same name.” It was everything a movie should be, following the lives of two sisters at the time of the Nigerian civil war, and starred Emmy award winning actress Thandie Newton. No previous Nigerian film had ever made so much money at the box office or received such critical acclaim, even though the numbers are competitively small in relation to Hollywood. Nonetheless, it heralded a step change in the way Nigerian cinema or ‘Nollywood’ (as it was now being referred to), was perceived and was one of several high grossing films to pave the way for the incredible success the industry now sees.

Younger filmmakers started to wake up and think ‘this could be our time!'

Inspired: young ambitious Nigerian filmmakers

Leke is naturally very excited by the wave of Nigerian cinema. “Filmmakers under thirty years old started looking for funding, the right cast and interesting locations around the country to shoot their own movies.” The most notable of these was The Wedding Party in 2015, which became a huge hit and was the highest grossing Nigerian movie ever to be shown in cinemas. “The crew for The Wedding Party were predominantly under 35 years old.”  Some had studied abroad and had decided they were “done with the old guard” and wanted to take a new direction. The transition from analogue to digital also played a large part in this, as young creatives picked up their DSLRs and video cameras to bring their movie ideas to life.

Movies to the masses – The VoD revolution

“All of this changed the entire cinema culture in the country. But if you don’t have enough cinemas, then your audience is immediately limited. Most filmmakers are wary of straight-to-customer services because of the risk of piracy and potential loss of revenue.” Leke refers to the fact that there are fewer than 100 cinemas in a country of 190 million people, but filmmakers often feel a natural caution when looking at alternative distribution channels in Nigeria. There are a limited number of cinemas available and more ‘Video on Demand’ (VoD) platforms, such as Netflix, or regional services such as Nollyland or Iroko TV. However, this traditional circumspection may no longer be necessary as original content on VoD is becoming an entertainment powerhouse in its own right. Since Netflix launched in Africa in 2016 it has made significant investment, including the purchase of its first original Nollywood production – Lionheart – and plans to move into producing its own shows and movies for the market.

What’s next for Nollywood?

Nollywood's importance to the economy cannot be overstated. It generates $600m yearly and employs more than one million people, making it second only to agriculture in the list of largest employers in Nigeria. So, the market is there, the distribution channels are broadening, and the likes of Netflix are opening up new funding channels for young filmmakers.

The next big challenge for Nollywood is keeping the talent pipeline constant in a growing industry that requires skilled people. Leke has seen this challenge first-hand. “The majority of people in the industry are self-taught. They’ve learnt on the job, or from the internet. Education is a big deal. Currently, Nollywood has only two recognised government institutes offering cinematography/filmmaking as a course – the National Film Institute in Jos, Nigeria and NAFTI in Accra, Ghana. Several privately-run film schools have emerged across the country in recent years, a testament to the demand in the country. Compare that to Bollywood, which has twelve film institutes and Hollywood, with over one hundred. We partner with PEFTI and NAFTI to deliver workshops and you can see the hunger that the students have. They are hungry for knowledge.” Canon Miraisha students, such as Judith Audu are already making their way in the industry, and Leke hopes to see many more making their voices heard. “With education, the quality of the movies we make in Nollywood would go toe-to-toe with any industry in the world.”

Written by Katie Simmonds

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