Nigerian group pushes for more theatrical bookings


It has been nearly two decades since the current incarnation of Nigerian filmmaking -- Nollywood, as it has come to be known -- took Africa by storm.

A lot has changed since 1992, when Ken Nnebue's "Living in Bondage" -- widely considered the forerunner to today's Nollywood -- hit the streets, selling an estimated 750,000 video cassettes and igniting a do-it-yourself film movement that relies on an informal network of DVD distributors.

Since then Nigerian film has become a surprisingly viable industry, built from the ground up by enthusiastic locals working with little money and few resources. Nevertheless, while local releases like Izu Ojukwu's "The Child" and Kunle Afolayan's "The Figurine" remain popular, Nollywood finds itself at a crossroads. In order to move forward, insiders say theatrical distribution is the next logical step. But can it actually happen?

If a group of roughly 70 local artists and filmmakers have their way, the answer is yes. The group, incorporated as a company called FameCorp., aims to transform the industry by creating the infrastructure necessary to ensure local films will be screened in theaters before their release on VCD (video compact disc) and DVD.

"FameCorp. is intending to build in each state capital a complex with a cinema hall, a multipurpose hall for concerts and a warehouse for CD/DVD and music magazine distribution," says chairman Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli, who adds that its members have pooled their resources and plan to have an initial public offering by year's end.

Currently, there are 50 screens in Nigeria, primarily in the capital city of Abuja, as well as Lagos and Port Harcourt, an oil hub in the south. The FameCorp. goal to build 36 new theaters -- one for each state -- is coupled with an attempt to ensure that moviegoers pay a reasonable price for a ticket.

"The few existing cinemas in Nigeria are visited by the elite, as cinema tickets of N1,500 ($10) are too expensive for 70% of the population," says Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, a Lagos-based producer whose Communicating for Change film company produced the Nollywood trilogy "Too Young, Too Far, Too Late." "By addressing the lack of cinema infrastructure in Africa's most populated country, with a 150 million population eager to become regular theatergoers, FameCorp.'s model (of) local entertainment centers is sure to draw huge crowds."

Will locals will pay to see quality films in theaters? There are glimmers of hope. Last year, when director Afolayan released his thriller "The Figurine" in three local multiplexes, the film ended up beating Hollywood fare at the boxoffice, according to the National Film & Video Censors Board.

Afolayan says the time has come for Nollywood to think bigger than the local market.

"Nigeria definitely needs more theatrical distribution, not only within the country but also on other continents," he says. "We are beginning to make films that the rest of the world can relate to; quite a number of people are back to shooting on celluloid and HD, and telling our own stories with good production values."