NOLLYWOOD: How Nigeria produced ten thousand films in fifteen years

Article  by  Pierre BARROT  •  Published 05.10.2010  •  Updated 11.10.2010
Nigeria is among the most prolific producers of feature films in the world, and despite their derisory budgets and often low quality, these movies have an immensely popular level of success. 
 

Summary

Introduction

With 1500 to 1800 movies shot per year, Nigeria holds the world record for production in video format. While the quality is rarely up to scratch, the audience is always to be found “en masse” in Africa as well as in the black expatriate communities.
 
The popular success of Nollywood, with an N for Nigeria, is considered as a matter of pride for many inhabitants of this federal state, the most highly populated in Africa. But there are also Nigerian movie-makers for whom this level of production is a national disgrace. This the case for Ola Balogun, whose films in 35mm met with international success in the 70s and 80s. He is extremely severe in denouncing the mediocrity of most Nigerian video films. Nollywood deserves attention nonetheless, for at least three reasons. Firstly, because there is a unique world economic model to be found there, based on “direct-video” transmission. Secondly, because this business makes its living directly from the market without any dependence on external funding, unlike the film-indutry in French-speaking Africa, which would not exist without European assistance. Lastly because of the enormous impact of Nigerian video production on the public at large.

 
[+] Note[+] “ The Amazing Grace”, shot in 2004 by Jeta Amata, a Nollywood director, is one of the rare Nigerian films in 35mm (the previous one came out in 1992). But the film did not enjoy the same popular success as the small budget videos.XX [1]
 
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Nollywood in figures


“It’s easier to get blood out of a stone than to get reliable figures on Nigerian video production”, said journalist Tunde Oladunjoye. We do have some credible pointers, though, at least on the number of films produced. The first Nigerian video-film was put on the market in 1992. Three years later the National Censors Board was already issuing certifications for 177 films in a single year. Production then went into exponential growth and the thousand-a-year mark was passed in 2004. In 2005 the figure was up to 1711 and a new record was reached in 2008 with 1770 films. These figures make Nigeria the world’s leading producer of long dramas[+] NoteUnesco, using figures in 2009 that were already out of date, placed Nigeria behind India. The Indian Bollywood studios produce a little over one thousand films per year, a quantity below that of Nigeria but of incomparably higher quality, particularly because they work in 35 mm and with far higher budgets than Nollywood.X [2] (one hardly dares describe them as “feature films”.)


In 2009, total Nollywood sales totalled an estimated 300 million euros[+] NoteSource : French Senate reportX [3]. If it is considered that less than a third of this figure represents production costs (leaving aside duplication and marketing expenses), aggregate yearly Nigerian film production runs on a budget below that of a single Hollywood film, in other words a “Nollywood” production costs no more than three to four seconds of an American film to make.
 
Despite the doubtful reliability of the figures on the production costs of Nigerian films, it can be assumed that the average budget stands between 15,000 and 30,000 euros. Against these low cost figures, productions from French-speaking Africa, even those shot as videos, have long been characterised by their high budgets. The reference to standards from the cinema tended to pull the budgets upwards. Amongst the planned short films (in video) or series supported by the Fonds Sud Television[+] NoteThe French Ministry of Foreign Affairs assistance fund that preceded the Fonds Afrique ImagesX [4] in 2003, the most expensive, from Burkina Faso, was over 10,000 euros per minute, whereas the cheapest, from Nigeria, was one-fiftieth of the price at 222 euros per minute!
It is more difficult to measure the sales of Nigerian films than to estimate their budget. The average distribution of a film was estimated, the same year[+] Note2004X [5], at 16,000 video copies by the Ministry of Information and at 50,000 copies by the producer, Francis Onwochei, speaking at the Berlin Forum of Young Cinema. To date, the biggest market success ever seen was the film “Osuofia in London”, released in 2003, the sales of which were estimated at 800,000 video copies by its producer, Kingsley Ogoro. Related to a national population of 140 million inhabitants, the figure is still low; it goes to show that even the most effective productions can do more than carve themselves a small market share where each film released has to compete with more than 1500 others every year.
 
[+] NoteOsuofia in London is Nigeria’s most successful video production, with more than 800,000 video copies sold. This comedy relates the adventures of a womanising villager who goes to London to collect an inheritance.X [6]
The Nigerian video market is fiercely competitive and those who believe that Nigerian producers enjoy a guaranteed return by virtue of the magnitude of their country are mistaken. One cannot speak of economies of scale in Nigeria because production is totally artisanal (without major studios or mass production) and the potential market for each film is limited by the competition from hundreds of others (40 to 50 new releases per week). Furthermore, only the films in English (i.e. half the production) enjoy a nation-wide market. This not the case with productions in Yoruba and Haoussa, even less so with those in Edo (the Benin City region) which recently made a quite spectacular appearance (50 films in 2006). The market for this regional production is even narrower than the national market for most French-speaking countries in Africa.
 
Without being necessarily generalisable, the economic model of Nigerian video has already proved itself to be transferable because it has had equal success with the various ethno-linguistic groups in the country: Ibos, Haoussas, Yorubas and now Edos. It is nonetheless interesting to observethat the Ibo producers, after starting out with films in their own language, have almost all switched to English to benefit from a bigger potential market[+] NoteThe first home video success in Nigeria was « Living in Bondage » shot in 1992 in Ibo, that sold 200,000 copies.X [7].
 
The number of jobs created by the video “industry” in Nigeria is estimated at 200 to 300 thousand, most of them in the distribution sector (countless bill posters, street sellers and video boutique operators). But Nollywood has also the advantage of providing a living for a large number of technicians and hundreds of actors[+] NoteThe average actor’s fee is fairly low (between 1100 and 1500 euros).X [8], some of whom have become stars making small fortunes (up to 17,500 euros per film for Genevieve Nnaji for a shooting time not over two weeks). These stars drive the audiences wild, not only at home but also abroad. Lastly, Nigeria is the only country south of the Sahara (apart from South Africa) where there are dozens of professional script-writers, some very talented[+] Note Since 2002, a score of Nigerian projects have been earmarked by the French assistance fund, where selection depends on the quality of the screenplay.X [9].

 [+] NoteDangerous Twins by Tade Ogidan, is a fable about nature and nurture, the influence of the genetic inheritance and the social and cultural environment. In this film, two twins, having grown up, one in London and the other in Lagos, exchange their lives, for better and for worse. This creates a terrifying psychological drama, played by the great actor Ramsey Nouah, whose double act is impressive (electronic special effects enable him to appear twice on the screen in scenes where the twins come together).X [10]
 One can also say today that Nigeria is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to produce itself the pictures it consumes. As it happens, South Africa, the only potential competitor, has a cinema and television market very largely dominated by US films and series. For all that, we are entitled to ask whether the performance achieved by Nollywood deserves any celebration. It ends up with such an inferior level of quality that it is no exaggeration to say that the country produces fifteen hundred expendable films every year. One might ask: “For what?” And one might also say: ”Why not?”
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A system crippled by the laws of the market

Entirely oriented towards the sale of video material (above all VCD –Video Compact Discs – and occasionally VHS or DVD), Nollywood pitches its films neither at the large screen nor at television. The producers make do with very low technical quality standards (faulty sound recording, virtually non-existent mixing, tacky camera-work, poorly lit and never calibrated). Television broadcast standards are unknown and the requirements of the cinema ignored. The technical defects are such that is practically impossible to show Nigerian films, however interesting, at festivals. As for television operators wishing to show them, they have the greatest difficulty in finding acceptable masters (sometimes there is no longer any master as the cassette has been recycled after the video release!).
 
This lack of technical quality culture is compounded by economic and commercial constraints. On  the one hand, frenzied competition makes for very low VCD prices; on the other, the star system organised by the producers pushes the leading actors’ fees way up. To get round the problem and maximise their profits, the distributors and producers organise crazy shooting schedules: rarely more than ten days for an hour-and-half film and sometimes only three! Additionally to these constraints, which are disastrous in terms of quality, there are the effects of commercial formatting. A promising film can be sliced up into two or three parts to increase the profits. The ingredients deemed to pay off (violence, expletives, witchcraft) are exploited ad nauseam. As for aesthetic considerations, they are mostly ignored, as  audiences are considered to be impervious to anything unrelated to the plot and the characters.
 
Nollywood is essentially under the domination of the marketers (the distributors) who don’t bother with technical or aesthetic subtleties and who are just after a quick profit. As a result, they stop at nothing in terms of plagiarism in order to court popularity. Despite an often pernickety Censors Board in terms of nudity and coarseness of language, the most extreme violence is to be found in Nigerian videos: murders and suicides galore while infanticides are commonplace. This is the result of a mercantile logic but it is also tied to the system of distribution: unlike the television viewer who has no control over the programmes on offer, the consumer of videos is free to choose his films and is assumed to decide to whom they will be shown. For this reason, the Nigerian video producers have developed an attitude of irresponsibility towards the content of their films. They do not hesitate to display the worst horrors and if children are exposed to them it is none of their business, it is a matter of parental responsibility. They ought not to have allowed their children to watch material of this nature.
 
Amongst the adversaries of Nollywood, some have no hesitation in making this form of production responsible for the death of Nigerian cinema. But this is a grievance without foundation. The cinema scene was already dead in Nigeria[+] NoteFrançoise Balogan, in “Cinema in Nigeria “(Harmattan), was already referring in 1984 to a cinema industry that “had hardly emerged before it showed signs of withering on the vine.“X [11] when video developed. There were no more films being produced and the movie theatres were being made over into evangelical churches or warehouses. Nonetheless, it was not Nollywood that was able to fill the vacuum left behind[+] NoteUntil 2004 there was not a single cinema complex in Nigeria. Only the North of the country kept one or two major theatres, usually open air. Then Nigerian, South-African and Lebanese investors set up small complexes of two to six theatres, first in Lagos, then in Port Harcourt and Abuja. This network of theatres, very limited considering the size of the country, was open to a small, well-off part of the population and showed mainly American films.X [12]. With its tight budgets and its insane production conditions, the Nigerian video scene was not capable of handling any really ambitious projects. No major historic or political topic could be forthcoming, with the breadth and aesthetic dimension that characterise the cinema and which a country like Nigeria nonetheless deserves.

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A popular success calling for respect

As we have seen, Nollywood has its defects; however, its expansion continues relentlessly not only in Nigeria but throughout sub-Saharan Africa[+] NoteSouth Africa, largely free from the informal distribution circuits that made the fortune of Nollywood, is relatively spared.X [13] for one simple reason: these films are tremendously successful with the public. They therefore have some assets. Firstly, even if they are bad, they are rarely boring. Nollywood gives priority to effective scenarios and has been able to develop stories with great dramatic intensity. One of the reasons is the exceptional freedom the industry enjoys. While it is subject to enormous commercial constraints, it escapes the many other constraints that weigh on television programmes. There is no reason for home video to address in a consensual way some “overarching” subject for reasons of audience ratings or national unity[+] NoteLike all African public stations, the Nigerian Television Authority is rendered insipid and enervating by the political dead-weight to which it is subject.X [14]. To find a place in a gigantic market under attack from hundreds of operators, you must avoid being reassuring, as is the case with many African television stations, but shocking, surprising, stupefying and hypnotic. The Nigerian screen-writers are all the more successful at that because they escape the pressure of the advertisers[+] NoteThe situation may change for part of the production because major brands (beer, soft drinks, mobile telephone networks) have realised the impact of home video and some are commissioning films under their own label.X [15]. Unlike television programmes, the video films address most of the distressing topics: corruption, violence, religious fanaticism, social scourges. Instead of being an instrument of propaganda featuring mind-numbing political or economic slogans, Nigerian production is – for the most part – the reflection of a society in flux. It can, of course, be exploited[+] NoteBy the authorities, the evangelical churches or commercial interests.X [16] but this has never been more than partially the case  because Nollywood is not a homogeneous entity that could easily be manipulated; it is a myriad of uncontrollable micro-companies whose operation seems anarchical. In Nigeria there is no major studio, no leading producer, nothing that might resemble the Hollywood major companies or the big studios producing the Latin-American telenovelas. All Nigeria has is the small artisan fighting for his life because he is never sure of survival.

[+] NoteThe Campus Queen by Tunde Kelani features a corrupt governor and students either manipulated or lusted after.X [17]
 NoteThe Campus Queen, de Tunde Kelani, met en scène un gouverneur corrompu et des étudiants manipulés ou conv[18]
  

The result is inevitable: Nollywood is gradually invading all the markets in Africa south of the Sahara. The English-speaking countries, starting with Ghana, were the first affected. Subsequently there was a mass influx of Nigerian VCDs and VHSs in the markets of the French-speaking countries, usually pirated. At the beginning of the 2000s, before the onset of the rebellion in Cote d’Ivoire, a cassette seller in Abidjan revealed to a Nigerian journalist[+] NoteJahman AnikulapoX [19] that he had sold respectively 8000 and 10,000 copies of the Nigerian Films “Blood Money” and “Iwayo 

 

 

 

Alhadji”, clearly pirated. Later on, the private French-language TV stations started broadcasting Nollywood films in the original language, at best with a simple voice-over. Today a further phase is    being entered: pirates are taking on the dubbing of the films into French, allowing them to flood  those shops and cinemas that had been left unscathed. No doubt the next move will be an offensive by Nigerian distributors to better gain control of these new markets and guarantee the securing of earnings.

Whatever the disdain one may feel for most of these films, it has to be acknowledged that the public likes them. And if it takes 1500 expendable films to make 50 reasonably good films[+] NoteRegarding authors and films that stand out, look at the site of Changing Faces and the statement by the director,Jimi OdumosuX [20] and five fascinating ones, who is to complain?[+] NoteAs Thierry Michel, the documentary maker, reminds us, in movie-making, quality may come from quantity but the contrary is not possible.X [21] Certainly not the hundreds of thousands of people for whom this business provides a job.

True, one should not expect from a production system like Nollywood what one expects to find in cinematographic works. The artistic dimension is almost totally missing from the Nigerian video scene. The cinema is generally associated with notions of culture, remembrance and heritage, but Nollywood’s films, for the most part, have no concerns of that kind. Has the cinema ever played that role in a country like Nigeria? The answer must be no. The only Nigerian movie-maker who is not forgotten – Ola Balagoun – has suffered the same fate as many of his African counterparts. He has not made any films for some time and it is practically impossible to see them in Nigeria. At the same time, several outstanding home video films have constantly been re-published over the last twelve to fifteen year[+] Note“ Living in bondage “, “ Violated “, “ Domitilla “, “ Thunderbolt”X [22] and constitute a real heritage.

[+] Note“Thunderbolt”, by Tunde Kelani, is one of the great classics of Nigerian video cinema. There appear a couple who aspire to a modern and independent life but who are torn apart by tradition and superstition.X [23]

If, nonetheless, video does not replace the cinema, the existence of this sector and its constant effervescence enable the apprentice directors at the Jos film school to start their career inexpensively, working with trained technicians and actors. Nollywood has also enabled authentic movie-makers like Tunde Kelani, Tade Odigan and Izu Ojukwu to build a career in video at a time when it would have been impossible to find the budgets needed for celluloid.
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The lessons of the Nigerian experience

After the Ghanaians in the 80s, the Nigerians demonstrated that there is an audience, a market and a possible profit for films made in Africa. The Nigerians succeeded in setting up a production sector based on a single method of dissemination: video.  This is both an achievement and a drawback because the lack of diversified sources of finance leads to market saturation and means that production has to operate with derisory budgets.
 
As time passed, films became a feature of national identity and pride in Nigeria. The country had been discredited by the mismanagement of oil money, corruption, fraud, organised crime, inter-ethnic conflicts and religious fundamentalism but, thanks to its film productions, managed to fascinate Africa south of the Sahara and beyond. Although the state had little to do with it,  Nollywood has become a source of national pride that Nigeria’s public institutions today seek to exploit, support[+] NoteThe Former Federal Minister of Information, Dora Akunyili, confirmed that the Nigerian government was intending to set up an aid fund for film production (Daily Trust dated 18th March 2010). But this intention first announced four years earlier had not been followed up. However, several governors of federal states invested in the production of films or the organisation of festivals. The federal government also included the film production sector in its plan to restore Nigeria’s image vis-a-vis the outside world.X [24] or defend the phenomenon. Even those who uphold Sharia law, which reigns across the north of the country[+] NoteFrom 1999, the year of the return of democracy to Nigeria, which coincided with the end of the total domination of the haoussa muslims over the federal administration, twelve federal states representing the northern part of the country decided to apply Sharia law. In these states, for ten years no execution by stoning was ever upheld on appeal but two amputations on thieves were carried out. The existence of sharia law has meant more severe censorship rules than those of federal law in terms of video production. These rules which aim to prevent “immorality“were reinforced after 2007, in particular, by the surveillance of film locations.X [25], are obliged to come to terms with the producers. In 2008, they had to lift the filming ban that had been imposed after the frolics of a haoussa video star had been broadcast on the internet.
 
Whatever their shortcomings, Nigerian films can no longer be regarded with scorn, as this scorn might well apply to the immense audience they have built up. Apart from the social and economic issues, a production sector like this has immense importance in terms of popular culture. This an area where it is as well to reflect on a remark by the writer,
 
Umberto Eco, about television programmes, that might just as well apply to Nigerian films: “Television is stupefying for those who live cultivated lives but cultivates those who live stupefying lives.”

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Selective bibliography

 
Pierre Barrot, Tunde Oladunjoye et al. “Nollywood, the video phenomenon in Nigeria”,
James Currey, Oxford; Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Heinemann, Ibadan, 2008
 

Pierre Barrot, Tunde Oladunjoye et al. “Nollywood, le phénomène video au Nigeria”, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2005
Piter Hugo, Chris Abani, Stacy Hardy “Nollywood”, Prestel pub, 2009
Jonathan Haynes “Political critique in Nigerial Video Films“ in African Affairs, vol 105, October 2006
Nollywood Boulevard : reportage by Ludovic Carème (photos) and Jean-Christophe Servant (text) 2005

For further consultation:

Films to be seen:
Two great classics:

Two French documentaries on Nollywood:
Nollywood made in Nigeria by Lea Jamet (2007), a Seafilms production
Nollywood, le Nigeria fait son cinéma by Julian Hamelin (2008) Sunset productions

(translated by Christopher Edwards)
 
 
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  • 1. [+] “ The Amazing Grace”, shot in 2004 by Jeta Amata, a Nollywood director, is one of the rare Nigerian films in 35mm (the previous one came out in 1992). But the film did not enjoy the same popular success as the small budget videos.X
  • 2. Unesco, using figures in 2009 that were already out of date, placed Nigeria behind India. The Indian Bollywood studios produce a little over one thousand films per year, a quantity below that of Nigeria but of incomparably higher quality, particularly because they work in 35 mm and with far higher budgets than Nollywood.
  • 3. Source : French Senate report
  • 4. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs assistance fund that preceded the Fonds Afrique Images
  • 5. 2004
  • 6. Osuofia in London is Nigeria’s most successful video production, with more than 800,000 video copies sold. This comedy relates the adventures of a womanising villager who goes to London to collect an inheritance.
  • 7. The first home video success in Nigeria was « Living in Bondage » shot in 1992 in Ibo, that sold 200,000 copies.
  • 8. The average actor’s fee is fairly low (between 1100 and 1500 euros).
  • 9. Since 2002, a score of Nigerian projects have been earmarked by the French assistance fund, where selection depends on the quality of the screenplay.
  • 10. Dangerous Twins by Tade Ogidan, is a fable about nature and nurture, the influence of the genetic inheritance and the social and cultural environment. In this film, two twins, having grown up, one in London and the other in Lagos, exchange their lives, for better and for worse. This creates a terrifying psychological drama, played by the great actor Ramsey Nouah, whose double act is impressive (electronic special effects enable him to appear twice on the screen in scenes where the twins come together).
  • 11. Françoise Balogan, in “Cinema in Nigeria “(Harmattan), was already referring in 1984 to a cinema industry that “had hardly emerged before it showed signs of withering on the vine.“
  • 12. Until 2004 there was not a single cinema complex in Nigeria. Only the North of the country kept one or two major theatres, usually open air. Then Nigerian, South-African and Lebanese investors set up small complexes of two to six theatres, first in Lagos, then in Port Harcourt and Abuja. This network of theatres, very limited considering the size of the country, was open to a small, well-off part of the population and showed mainly American films.
  • 13. South Africa, largely free from the informal distribution circuits that made the fortune of Nollywood, is relatively spared.
  • 14. Like all African public stations, the Nigerian Television Authority is rendered insipid and enervating by the political dead-weight to which it is subject.
  • 15. The situation may change for part of the production because major brands (beer, soft drinks, mobile telephone networks) have realised the impact of home video and some are commissioning films under their own label.
  • 16. By the authorities, the evangelical churches or commercial interests.
  • 17. The Campus Queen by Tunde Kelani features a corrupt governor and students either manipulated or lusted after.
  • 18.
  • 19. Jahman Anikulapo
  • 20. Regarding authors and films that stand out, look at the site of Changing Faces and the statement by the director,Jimi Odumosu
  • 21. As Thierry Michel, the documentary maker, reminds us, in movie-making, quality may come from quantity but the contrary is not possible.
  • 22. “ Living in bondage “, “ Violated “, “ Domitilla “, “ Thunderbolt”
  • 23. “Thunderbolt”, by Tunde Kelani, is one of the great classics of Nigerian video cinema. There appear a couple who aspire to a modern and independent life but who are torn apart by tradition and superstition.
  • 24. The Former Federal Minister of Information, Dora Akunyili, confirmed that the Nigerian government was intending to set up an aid fund for film production (Daily Trust dated 18th March 2010). But this intention first announced four years earlier had not been followed up. However, several governors of federal states invested in the production of films or the organisation of festivals. The federal government also included the film production sector in its plan to restore Nigeria’s image vis-a-vis the outside world.
  • 25. From 1999, the year of the return of democracy to Nigeria, which coincided with the end of the total domination of the haoussa muslims over the federal administration, twelve federal states representing the northern part of the country decided to apply Sharia law. In these states, for ten years no execution by stoning was ever upheld on appeal but two amputations on thieves were carried out. The existence of sharia law has meant more severe censorship rules than those of federal law in terms of video production. These rules which aim to prevent “immorality“were reinforced after 2007, in particular, by the surveillance of film locations.
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