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How professionalism, and new business models, are nurturing Nollywood

The Nigerian film industry, fondly called Nollywood, became popular in the early 1990s, although with more negative attributes than positives. Over the years, the industry has attracted a lot of criticism.

Some critics believe that the industry is quantity driven, while shunning quality. Others have slated the industry for its budget restrictions, weak plots and repetitive dialogue.

But the most alarming criticism was focused on fatigue caused by movie overproduction. This fatigue was created by profit-driven filmmakers who churn out cheap, rushed movies on the regular. This wasn’t surprising, given the fast growth of the industry. In the early 2000s, Nollywood was producing up to 50 films a week, with an annual total of more than 2 500 movies.

This overproduction caused a saturation of the market and film professionals began to seek alternatives to produce quality films. Starting as early as 2006, the industry began to make movies with a new approach. Films like The Amazing Grace, Ije and Through the Glass started a change in the diaspora. On the home market, the new wave was domesticated with Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine. Some filmmakers described this as their attempt to rescue the dying industry.

Filmmakers — among them Afolayan, Chineze Anyaene, Obi Emelonye, Stephanie Linus, Jeta Amata and Mahmood Ali-Balogun — began to adopt a different marketing strategy to amplify earnings. Previously, Nollywood was largely produced for the small screen and consumed mostly straight to video on VCD or DVD. The new marketing strategy took the consumption of Nollywood back to the cinema.

The big changes

In 2013, then president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration launched a 3 billion-naira fund, called Project ACT Nollywood, to support filmmakers. The fund was to help with capacity-building and training for actors and filmmakers. It was also a vehicle for the establishment of film-distribution platforms. This rejuvenated the industry, attracting young professionals in droves.

Films such as Kemi Adetiba’s The Wedding Party (2016) grossed record-breaking figures at cinemas.

Since 2010, some dramatic developments have changed the nature of Nollywood. They include an influx of professional filmmakers, the rise in international festival and cinema tours, international premieres, collaborations with multinational companies, pan-Africanism and distribution through multiplexes. In this time, a film’s release on VCD or DVD began to happen later in its life, effectively disenfranchising Nollywood’s traditional, mass-market consumer base.

The questions I was interested in answering were: Was the industry professionalising — in other words, have Nollywood’s film makers become more specialised in their art? And was it gentrifying

The ability of Nollywood filmmakers to receive specialised training and improved knowledge meant that filmmakers’ perception of film and the creative process changed. It led to a new outlook — filmmakers became quality rather than quantity driven.

Budgets also grew bigger. Corporate funders became interested in the industry because of its increasing formalisation of practice and rising professionalism among practitioners. They also saw the potential of high profitability and return on investment. State and federal governments are also showing increased interest in the industry.

Media anthropologist Alessandro Jedlowski notes that targeting diaspora audiences was a way to overcome the fatigue in the industry, which began to manifest from 2017. Entertaining the elite, diaspora and non-African audiences came with its own activities. They include the exposure of filmmakers to film schools, international workshops and career development, and interaction with Nigerian filmmakers in the diaspora, as well as the exploitation of links and contacts.

But did these transformations result in the gentrification of the industry?

The effects soon become apparent. Producers could now hire the best cast and crew. Nollywood films appeared more often at international festivals. 

Gentrification

The use of gentrification as a metaphor is deliberate. I wanted to avoid exploring the rise in the cost of production as a result of the influx of new and wealthy film professionals, or the displacement of filmmakers or audiences. Instead, I wanted to explore whether the acceptance of Nollywood among the upper class or elite had led to a loss of dominance among poor people.

I did not find any displacement of either filmmakers or audiences.

But I did find that Nollywood had moved to catering to upper classes as much as it caters for the masses.

I concluded that gentrification in Nollywood wouldn’t lead to any permanent displacements, because two, disparate filmmaking models coexist. I anticipate a temporary displacement, if any, at the point of consumption. But, because films eventually end up on DVD, audiences that have been displaced from consuming films distributed through theatres will finally get to consume them when they’re released on DVD.

The old and the new 

Nollywood currently has two broad business models — one that has come to be called “old Nollywood”; the other, “new Nollywood”.

Although some researchers have confused these to be classifications for films and filmmakers, in reality, they are both business choices available to the Nollywood filmmaker.

The interesting question is: Can the changes be sustained?

At the University of Nigeria we’re trying to ensure that they are. We’re doing this by guiding students to create authentic African stories. Chris Obi-Rapu, director of the classic film Living in Bondage (1992), maintains that story is the bedrock, the foundation of every film. A film created from a faulty foundation is doomed, no matter how large its budget is.

As one of the recurrent points of criticism of  the industry, we are contributing to Nollywood’s transformation by ensuring that future industry players and scriptwriters are equipped with creative ingenuities to conceive and produce screenplays that are authentically African, well researched and thoroughly entertaining.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published by The Conversation.

The Conversation

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Ezinne Ezepue
Ezinne M Ezepue is a lecturer of film at the Department of Theatre & Film Studies, University of Nigeria. She has a BA in Theatre & Film Studies (Nigeria), an MA in Film and TV (Birmingham) and a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies (Birmingham). Her PhD study interrogated Nollywood’s transformations as gentrification.

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