Alaba Market in Lagos is perhaps an unexpected centre for the centre of the world’s second-largest film industry by volume. Since its creation in the early 1990s, the Nigerian film business, or “Nollywood”, has grown to a $590 million industry, producing thousands of films each year that are distributed across Nigeria, across Africa, and to Diaspora populations around the world. Typified by their accessible soap-opera plots, Nollywood films are a high-volume, low-margin business. Most are made on a budget of between $25,000 and $70,000 and distributed on video CDs and DVDs.
Although private distributors have made good money buying and trading in Nollywood movies, it is only in recent years that the true commercial potential of the industry has become clear to policymakers and big business. The increasing visibility of the Nigerian film industry is just part of a building wave of interest in Nigerian cultural exports, from music to fashion.
For the past two years, Nigeria has held its own domestic fashion week, attracting designers from around the world. Contemporary art from the country has dominated African art shows and galleries in London, the Middle East and North America. Nigerian musicians, such as D’Banj, are performing worldwide.
The explosive growth in telecommunications and the increasing number of Nigerians who are now online has created a consequent surge in the value of media businesses. As more and more bandwidth becomes available, and more and more Nigerians come online, the potential for these creative industries to flourish through streaming video, downloads and e-commerce, is enormous.
Encouraged by the economy that has built up around India’s movie business, Bollywood, the Nigerian government and its partners in international development institutions are supporting the industry’s evolution, with the belief that it could create up to a million new jobs. The industry is already believed to support 500,000 direct jobs.
In 2010, the Nigerian government created a $500 million loan facility, the Nigerian Creative and Entertainment Industry Stimulation Loan Scheme, backed by the African Development Bank, which included $200 million for Nollywood, distributed through the Bank of Industry and Nexim Bank.
The fund’s earliest beneficiary was Tony Abulu, a New York-based Nigerian who has worked in the entertainment industry for three decades. Abulu was approached by the American actor Isaiah Washington in 2011 with a view to shooting a film in West Africa. The project came together over the course of the next year, and Abulu went back to Nigeria to secure funding.
“My movie was a budget of $1 million, and I was able to get a loan of $250,000 from the government,” he says. “My intention, and the intention of Nexim Bank, who loaned me the money, was to see if we could find global distribution for Nollywood films. That was the objective: can we make a film relatively cheaply compared to American films. The idea was: Tony, you’re going to be the guinea pig.”
The film, Dr Bello, tells the story of an unqualified Nigerian doctor who stumbles upon a cure for cancer. Combining US and Nigerian talent, including Genevieve Nnaji and Stephanie Okereke, it is one of the first Nigerian films to secure cinema release in North America.
Further loans have gone to Michelle Bello, director of Flower Girl, and to Gabosky studios, run by Gabriel Oyoke. This latter support will help to fix the often inefficient distribution networks that currently operate in the industry.
The advent of internet distribution has posed enormous challenges for the industry, and the Nigerian Copyright Commission, National Film and Video Censors Board, Nigerian Export Promotion Council and the World Bank are collaborating on an initiative to help distributors and producers tackle piracy.
Experts say that the twin challenges of distribution and financing have been stunting the growth of Nollywood. With government support to overcome both, the industry could be poised to take off.
International distribution platforms, such as iROKOtv, a platform created by a UK-born Nigerian, Jason Njoku, have increased the reach of the industry. Njoku’s online platform has six million viewers in 178 countries.
The international reputation of the Nigerian creative industries is also set for a boost in 2014, when the Anglo-Nigerian adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is released. The film, which stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, was 70% funded by a consortium of Nigerian institutions and individuals, including the Bank of Industry. At $8 million, it is the largest budget ever amassed for a Nigerian film, and could be a reference point for the industry.
“I’m willing Half of a Yellow Sun to succeed,” says Obi Emelonye, director of the highest-grossing domestic Nigerian film, Last Flight to Abuja. “I think it will succeed, because it has a very connected, very suave producer, who was the producer of The Last King of Scotland. It has a leading man who is probably the best of his generation in terms of acting. It has Thandie Newton, who has done good things. And it’s based on a book that has a strong following. And they spent money on it. So you could say it ticked all the right boxes.”
Emelonye, like others in the industry, is trying to lift the quality of Nollywood by spending more on production values, bringing in higher quality equipment and investing in specialist staff. His movies, the Mirror Boy, Last Flight to Abuja and The Messenger are all shot with a greater degree of attention to lighting and sound.
His stories, he says, are universal, and he aspires to create films that have an international appeal without alienating the domestic audience. Although the attractions of Hollywood are always there, the rapid expansion of the consumer class and the increasing connectivity of Nigerian society, which is going online to consume media in all forms, means that Nigeria has to be the first market for content.
“Nigeria is a big market,” Emelonye says. “If one per cent of Nigerians buy my DVD or watch my film in the cinema, I would be a millionaire. A multimillionaire.”
More importantly, both Emelonye and Abulu say, is the status that these films, globally and locally, give to the value of Nigerian creativity and identity. Instead of remaining an importer and consumer of international products, Nigeria can become an exporter of culture that reflects its growing relevance and confidence on the global stage.