Africa: Nollywood Holds Its Own During Covid-19 and Filmhouse Launches New App to Give Offline and Online Benefits to Cinema-Goers

London — It's been a tough year for Nigeria's Filmhouse whose activities span cinemas, film distribution and production. But as a sign of its confidence that cinema-going will hold its own despite lockdowns, it has launched a new app. Russell Southwood spoke to Moses Babatope, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Filmhouse and Segun Oni, Group Business Intelligence and Project Manager.

The founders of Filmhouse in 2012 wanted to create a "multi-faceted company covering the whole value chain." The idea was to provide their users with the content they wanted delivered in the way they wanted. In 2017 it launched its first online platform MyFilmhouse in partnership with Blue Sky Media.

"We wanted to provide value to customers beyond the cinema." It offered pay-per-view content:"The long and the short of it was that it didn't quite work. We didn't have as much say on the tech as we would have liked." It reached a couple of thousand users." Filmhouse decided to re-launch with a very different proposition:"We were thinking during lockdown, we can't just be a traditional, offline business. We realized that (the first iteration) was not catering to the needs of the market in terms of poor infrastructure and the cost of data."

The idea for the new version was to have an app that "congregates our cinemas goers" and provides a form of loyalty scheme, giving points for visiting the cinema. It offers two levels of subscriptions (N6,000 and N9,000) that allow users to book films and earn points. The lower price tier offers access to film screenings at regular cinemas and the higher tier gives access to premium cinemas (IMAX, DBox and the MX4D screen). Both plans offer ticket discounts but the higher tier offers an additional 5% discount.

Alongside there is free-to-access, VoD content that it sees as a "value-add" and additional retail offers. At present, the booking has to be physically redeemed at the cinema but it is looking at a second stage where there will be self-service machines and eventually a third stage, at the entrance to the cinema.

It was launched in beta at the beginning of June and has had 3,000+ downloads, of which there have been 100 subscribers, 75% of whom have bought the higher tier plan. It has also had a 10% increase in use over its previous web platform.

Covid-19 has meant that the supply of blockbuster films from the Hollywood majors dried up:"There has been a growth in appetite for local content, even on Netflix, during the lockdown period. Branded Nigerian films worked well for cinemas. The quality of the films improved and cinema-goers were able to see them before their diaspora counterparts." It did particularly well with Omo Ghetto: The Saga, a gangster comedy co-directed by Funke Akindele and J.J.Skillz, which turned into the highest grossing Nollywood film.

But the long-term impact of Covid-19 is unclear: 2020 was a six-month year with more limited access to international films. This limited access has shifted the balance of revenues from 72% from Hollywood in 2019 to 45% in 2020 to more like 40% in 2021 so far:"The jury's still out. We'll have to see by the end of the year. The latest Fast and Furious has opened well and there's still an appetite for Hollywood blockbusters. We're all optimistic. We've not seen the doomsday scenario of everybody moving to streaming en masse because of issues around internet reliability and costs. Local cinema has shown a lot of resilience."

Babatope says that three and half months of the six operating months in 2020 were strong:"The Cinema Association of Nigeria was in dialogue with the Government and we were really at the precipice at some points. There have been no palliatives for smaller cinemas not able to meet their bills. There also continue to be piracy risks as there are a lot of people ripping off online streams. The streamers themselves are buying branded content that might have come into cinemas. We need to get the streamers to understand it's complementary."

In terms of the film productions it is financing, it will produce a total of eleven across the year, four of which have already been released:"There are some big, ambitious projects with US$250,000-400,000 budgets." These include: comedy with an A Y production currently shooting in Miami with an international cast; a film reboot of the Aki and Popo franchise; and a production with Basketmouth:"We take a bullish position on product."

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