AFM Special Report: Nigeria

Nigeria has built a vibrant film sector from virtually nothing. But can it survive?

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It all started with what the locals call "Yoruba traveling theater."

A long-standing Nigerian tradition, Yoruba theater troupes began in the '40s, traversing the countryside performing live dramas -- often based on Biblical stories -- for eager local audiences. By the late '80s, actors and directors who had been filming performances on 35 mm in an effort to reach larger audiences switched to the cheaper and easier video format.

"Yoruba traveling theater artists began making video films in 1988," says Steve Ayorinde, film critic, journalist and editor of Nigeria's newspaper the Punch. "That was the period when, to remain in business, the practitioners conceived of video simply as the most cost-effective way of producing audio-visual materials for projection to an audience."

No one knew it at the time, but the Nigerian film industry -- or Nollywood as it is now known -- was about to be born.

These days, the industry may still be using handheld cameras, but the digital revolution has led to better production values, and the access to affordable equipment has led to a film movement like no other in the world.

In May, according to the results of a survey conducted by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, Nigeria is now the second-most-prolific film culture in the world after India, producing a staggering 872 films in 2006. Local filmmakers like Amaka Igwe, a pioneer who helped turn Nollywood into the juggernaut it is today, were understandably thrilled when news of the report surfaced.

"I am elated at the development," she says. "The UNESCO report was not all about numbers -- it was also about cultural export and development. It praised Nigeria for taking a cheaper option in telling her own story. It is a great positive report, written by UNESCO, a credible world organization, after a three-year study."

Similarly, Jeta Amata, director of the well-received 2006 film "The Amazing Grace," is thrilled that such a small, homegrown film movement is garnering global attention. "We are not the ones lauding Nollywood for producing so many films, it is the world that is enthralled at our dexterity and proficiency to foster something from almost nothing," he says. "We do not go around bragging about this, it is the world inviting us to every corner of the globe to come talk about our creation. We have all made a decent living from this industry and quite rightly so."

So what led to this success? If Nollywood could be traced back to one man, it would likely be local businessman Chief Kenneth Nnebue (now an evangelist), who opened the video market to a large audience through the retail sale of video. Nnebue spurred interest in the production of video films after he made a success of the two-part Ibo language movie "Living in Bondage," which he funded. It took that effort, shot on a shoestring budget estimated at a little above $2,500, to wake up a moribund film industry fighting a collapsed economy. Soon after, however, a deluge of films would be shot with VHS cameras and edited in tele?vision studios using used VCR machines.

Produced and released in 1992, "Living in Bondage" tells the story of unemployed man whose quest to get rich results in the death of his wife. The film caused a major shift from production in the standard celluloid format to video and attracted an eager viewing audience which, at the time, had few alternatives to Indian and Chinese movies.

The film's popularity led to other successes, proving that features shot on video could be as lucrative as any other viable business. Not only was the movie industry reinvigorated, it metamorphosed into a national art.

Soon, a growing number of filmmakers -- some skilled, some not -- emerged, and

Nollywood was off and running.

But with success came attention, and soon businessmen who had no connection to film embraced what they perceived as a lucrative investment. Since they came mostly from the eastern flank of Nigeria, that area has remained the major hub of movie distribution in the country, even with the introduction of a distribution and marketing framework by the National Film and Video Censors Board, a regulatory body that was clearly reinvigorated in the wake of the Nollywood boom.

In terms of subject matter, sleaze and the celebration of rituals and violence took center stage. The producers, some of whom doubled as marketers, cashed in despite the mounting impression that Nigeria was all about witchcraft, Satanism, bloodletting and gun play. While many hinged their stories on the idea that no African film was complete without rituals, others, including Emmanuel Isikaku, president of the Video Marketers and Producers Assn., insisted that the stories they told should be "everyday occurrences that the people liked and could easily relate to."

Soon, however, the quality of the work began to decline, and many in the industry began to complain. It didn't take long for such well-respected producers and directors as Tade Ogidan, Zeb Ejiro and Tunde Kelani to actively attempt to change the direction in which the industry was headed. While the situations improved somewhat, producers whose only intention was to make money persisted because they had the finances to produce more movies compared to more serious-minded filmmakers.

During this time an average of 20 movies were released weekly according to statistics from the Nigerian Video Producers and Marketers Assn. While some were quality productions, most were lacking technical expertise. Criticisms mounted, and even the West vilified Nollywood for exuberantly embracing cheap religious sentiment, occultism, rituals, bloodshed and violence. Two of the industry's regulatory bodies -- the Nigerian Film Corp. and the NFVCB stepped up efforts to address the unprofessional and unethical practices that pervaded the local film scene.

This did not, however, diminish the market potential of Nollywood. Indeed, the film sector was one of the largest informal employers of labor in the country, worth more than N522 billion ($3.5 billion) according to statistics provided by Nigeria-based Leke Alder Consulting. PriceWaterhouse Coopers also estimates that the industry will generate $600 million 2010. Emeka Mba, director general of the NFVCB notes, however, that "this potential in the Nigerian (industry) does not translate to any manifest economic index in the national economy." In fact, most observers agree it is difficult -- if near-impossible -- to accurately asses the net worth of the industry.

At the moment, Nollywood, like everywhere else, is dealing with the effects of recession. The frenetic pace of activities that characterized the industry has disappeared. From producing 80 movies monthly, production has slowed to 20 movies, and DVD sales have dropped to 10,000 against 100,000-500,000 copies marketers claimed they sold in the past.

Local movie marketer Rotimi Aina Kushoro paints a bleak picture of the current situation. "Nollywood now records a lower volume of production, distribution is in shambles and sales have really plummeted," he says. He has a supporter in the notable marketer and producer, Chief Gab Onyi Okoye, who attributes the low volume of sales to the failure of the new distribution guidelines introduced by the NFVCB. Okoye, who produced "Battle of Musanga," widely considered Nollywood's first epic film, claims that the guideline has led to the "collapse of the industry and the licensing of some unqualified distributors who lack the capacity to handle the intricacies of movie distribution."

The NFVCB, however, says that the distribution guideline was intended to provide some much-needed structure within the industry. "The industry needs the framework and its auditable process to endear and align itself to the mainstream business family and have a platform to be integrated with global practices of movie distribution," says the NFVCB's Mba. Okoye, a critic of the framework, describes Mba's defense of the guidelines as "mere grammar," adding that the "framework only looks good on paper."

"The so-called new distribution framework has destroyed the industry," adds Victor Okhai, director general of the International Film and Broadcast Academy. "It is a monumental failure and has succeeded in setting the industry back at least a decade. You cannot regulate a free market that is informal."

Nevertheless, Catherine Ruelle, artistic director for the ION International Film Festival, a traveling event that takes place in December in Port Harcourt, Rivers State in the Niger Delta Region, is optimistic about the future. "The industry must seek collaboration, training and partnerships to enhance the entire filmmaking process, from development to distribution," she says. Ruelle believes that such partnership and alliances with South Africa, Europe, the U.S. and India will offer an opportunity to expand the local skills base in the craft and will enhance production quality and profitability through distribution.

Expectations are high that the ION festival will help the local market mature, and continue to draw international attention to Nollywood's remarkable potential. "The ION International Film Festival offers a platform to showcase the industry's vast potential," she says. "The festival wants to update potential partners from around the world that might be searching for new 'green' opportunities. The festival wants to invite them to come, to read about it or even to hear about it and experience Nigeria and the Niger Delta's heart, Port Harcourt, and their limitless potential."