The rapid rise and teething problems of Africa's answer to Bollywood
Nollywood is about to turn 20 yet in spite of its relative youth it is already a global phenomenon. A bustling industry that has reshaped African popular culture, it is second only to Bollywood in terms of the number of films released each year.
The context in which Nollywood has flourished is astounding. The early 90s saw the collapse of Nigeria's economy. The naira was on a downward spiral amid profound political instability and the sense of insecurity was overwhelming, with many Nigerians not feeling safe enough to go out at night.
People preferred to hunker down at home with their families. Cinemas had been converted into evangelical churches, markets or simply abandoned. At the same time the few soap operas produced by national TV stations started losing money and were cancelled.
Zeb Ejiro, a founding father of Nollywood, described the situation. 'We [writers, TV producers] were pushed against the wall. We had nowhere to go. Something had to be done,' he said.
The spark that ignited Nollywood was a film in the Igbo language called Living in Bondage, a drama thriller directed by Chris Obi Rapu under the pseudonym of Vic Mordi. The impulse to make the film was the need to put to profitable use a cargo of blank VHS tapes. In 1992 the director and two other producers gathered the stars of a famous TV series and, with a micro budget of a few thousand dollars, created the first blockbuster in Nigerian history.
Living in Bondage was an instant success and sold close to a million copies on VHS cassettes. The film brought to light an insatiable appetite for locally produced African stories. Within months the experiment had been replicated over and over.
The existing infrastructure for the distribution of pirated Western, Chinese and Indian movies was swiftly co-opted by a new breed of producers and marketers, as the impresarios who commission and distribute films in Nollywood are called.
The production of feature-length films made on shoestring budgets for the video market went from a few titles a year in the early 90s to several dozens a week by 2005. Against all odds a vibrant creative industry had taken off in the midst of economic instability. But as this rapid growth started to catch the attention of international media, it brought Nollywood to the brink of collapse.
With new films coming out each week, plots started to become repetitive and the image and sound quality suffered because of meagre budgets and insanely short production schedules. Rampant piracy exacerbated the problems. By the end of the decade, Nollywood producers were finding it difficult to reap any significant reward even from a successful release. Nollywood was trapped in a low-budget financial model that relied too heavily on the informal economy.
Today, Nollywood is still at the crossroads but in the past few years there have been some encouraging developments. In September the Anglo-Nigerian production, Half of a Yellow Sun, adapted from the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a love story set against the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Directed by playwright Biyi Bandele and with a budget of $8 million - the biggest in Nollywood history - it has established a new benchmark of production quality.
Cinema-going culture has made a remarkable comeback and most cities in Nigeria now boast several multiplexes. Today a theatrical release in Nigeria represents a tremendous incentive for talented and motivated film-makers who are willing to make movies with higher production values.
Directors such as Kunle Afolayan (The Figurine, 2010, Phone Swap, 2012), Mahmood Ali Balogun (Tango with Me, 2011) and several others are deeply committed to making better quality films and are creating new forms of financing. They are experimenting with product placement and making efforts to bring more transparency to revenue streams to reassure investors. Some are calling this new wave of films the New Nollywood.
Another promising trend is the transnationalization of distribution. As the domestic home video business model is imploding due to piracy and corruption, Nollywood film-makers have rediscovered the importance the diaspora and their higher disposable incomes.
In some instances Nollywood films have limited theatrical releases first in London and in New York and only then are they distributed in Nigeria and Ghana. By creating live events at which Nollywood superstars trip down the red carpet it has become possible to charge a premium for these tickets.
The popularity of Nollywood among Africans in the diaspora has spawned online platforms to stream films, adding another revenue line. One of the most successful is IROKOtv.com. But producers have little negotiating power and command only meagre licence fees for online distribution.
In the past Nigerian film-makers have shown that when things fall apart they are able to turn events to their advantage. In the next few years Nollywood will have to keep evolving. Stricter accounting and the growth of overseas audiences seem fruitful paths towards survival.
Nollywood has stirred the imagination of an entire continent for two decades. It is unlikely Africa will give up this powerful voice.
Franco Sacchi is a documentary film-maker whose work includes This is Nollywood (2007) and Waiting for Armageddon (2009)