From Living in Bondage to Lionheart: Nollywood’s Thorny Path to its Digital Future

Posted on

In January 2019, American media giant, Netflix, made a splash by premiering Genevieve Nnaji’s directorial debut, Lionheart, exclusively on its streaming service. In a deal brokered by Funa Maduka, months before, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Ms. Nnaji became the first Nigerian filmmaker to debut their project to an international audience in this way, paving the way for the flurry of Nigerian films that would follow in the coming months and closing the circle of digital distribution for online content that began exactly 10 years before with a little show about sexual awareness. To understand how Nigerian media made the leap from video clubs and viewing centers to a winner-takes-all streaming war, we need to go down a tunnel of tax havens, gambling banks and the rise of social currency.

The Internet knocks but once

The first media wave began in 1992 with Living In Bondage (which 27 years later has been revived with a second installment). There are many accounts of how the film was made, but what was not in contention was how successful it became. Funded almost entirely by businessmen turned financiers, the first iteration of Nollywood was almost entirely profit-driven and rode the direct-to-video wave for most of the 90s churning out the bulk of content that today has a second life as Tumblr memes and the subversive work of the sisters behind Instagram account Nolly.Babes. The mass of films from that era eventually led to the rise of the first generation of Nollywood A-listers, whose ascension led to controversies like the G8 ban of 2004, and set in motion the eventual decline of the O.G Nollywood marketer and the rise of what we refer to today as ‘New Nollywood.’ That decline was marked by a decided shift in the viewing habits of Nigerians. 

There are many reasons for this decline. The first generation of Nigerians raised on some form of cable television came into adolescence hungry for global content. Piracy soared in response to their demand, competing with and eventually decimating Nollywood pulp cinema.

A presidential order by Olusegun Obasanjo in 2001 led to the introduction of Global Systems for Mobile (GSM) Telecommunication networks into Nigeria. New licenses and impressive waivers on operational taxes drew major South African players MTN to invest in the Nigerian markets and usher in privatised, profit-focused mobile telephony. By 2005,  MTN, Glo and Econet had introduced mobile internet services to the media market. A direct consequence of this was that it became significantly easier for young people to not only curate the content that they consumed but to also seek out niche content that was either unavailable because it was currently out of syndication or unavailable because terrestrial television stations could not afford to license them. Hunched over desktop screens and cheap Chinese disc players, Nigerians gorged themselves on content. 

The second major catalyst was the Blackberry Internet Service (BIS). A unique feature of the Blackberry Service Suite, created specifically as a business tool for Blackberry, a major mobile player in the 2000’s; the BIS was a closed Internet Service Provider network that clients could access for a certain fee and it offered a heavily discounted alternative to the exorbitant data charges of the mobile networks offering similar services at the time. While created primarily for businesses, the BIS network’s significantly cheaper data services encouraged early experimentation with streaming and downloading of digital content for entertainment. Websites like NotJustOk and Jaguda were the first to capitalize on this new craving for digital media created by Nigerians for Nigerian consumption. Early P2P sharing platforms like Limewire were all the rage.   

The third and most influential catalyst was social media. Before the advent of Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, it was incredibly difficult to build local communities around media interests. Fandoms were rare in Nigeria, and it was difficult and expensive to organize or participate in events that celebrated mutual interest in any kind of activity. Yahoo Groups and Yahoo 360 had offered rudimentary versions of fan-based platforms but they had been targeted primarily to Western audiences. Facebook groups, however, were easier to navigate and provided a neat and impersonal solution that simply allowed fans of a TV show or musician to ‘opt-in’ to groups and pages that had relevant information about these interests and allowed fans to find each other virtually.  By 2010, it wasn’t uncommon to find fan-managed celebrity Facebook groups and pages with 100,000 fans. Twitter would accelerate the process through live-tweeting, real-time reviews and analysis of shows as they aired. Combined with the ‘opt-in’ feature of Twitter’s follow model, fans were incentivised by social currency to offer their opinions on digital content and media companies were more likely to create content that would trigger that kind of engagement. 

Social media, in combination with cheaper mobile internet, meant there was a steady stream of conversation happening at any point in time in already segmented audience groups. All that was left was to create media content that specifically catered to the needs of these groups and a pioneer to get things started.

Media moves online

That pioneer turned out to be MTV. The product was MTV Shuga, a YA-oriented television show that drew from the true-grit model of Western tween television shows revolving specifically on how a group of teens and young adults dealt with the fallout of either living with or interacting with people with HIV. The hysteria around HIV was at its peak in 2009 and MTV Shuga was one of the first shows that did an excellent job of destigmatising the condition. The show also launched the careers of Lupita N’yongo and Nick Mutuma. Released originally only to Kenyan audiences, the enduring buzz around the show led to an online release on YouTube and its second season in 2012. The concurrent release of the show online opened MTV Shuga to an otherwise ignored demographic and most likely inspired the showrunners to move the show West to Lagos for a follow-up season. It seems too much of a coincidence that Ndani TV, Guaranty Trust Bank’s innovative media offshoot, was launched in the same year. 

MTV Shuga Naija was a runaway success. Like it had with Lupita, the show launched the careers of Dorcas Shola Fapson and Timini Egbuson, proving unequivocally that there was an audience for content accessible only by streaming. There was an audience, primed for conversations, looking for content to engage with. 

Until that point, Tajudeen Adepetun of Consolidated Media Associates and AlphaVision Productions had been the only showrunner to find a sweet spot between accessible storytelling and passable execution. He had conquered television with shows like Everyday People & Treasures, and engineered Nigeria’s enduring obsession with Mexican telenovelas but seemed unwilling to expand into digital. Even his archive of beloved television soaps remained in syndication on terrestrial television. It would take the intervention of Nigeria’s banks to change things.  

Guaranty Trust Bank was the first to launch a digital media imprint. Ndani TV, its imprint, was launched early 2012 evolving from a quarterly newsletter of the same name. In its primary role as a content marketing platform for the bank, the platform was helmed by Lola Odedina and Jade Osiberu with Mohammed Attah as the channel’s first showrunner. Without any prior experience in creating content specifically for a digital platform, Ndani experimented with interview style shows, before striking gold with scripted web shows. Gidi Up, their first web show, was a huge gamble. 

The studio invested heavily in the show’s production values and hired relatively unknown actors as the show’s six leads. Even the choice to have a multi-lead cast and flesh out multiple storylines was a gamble itself. But the storytelling and Osiberu’s understanding of youth culture helped transform their ambitious ideas into a cult-making season of entertainment. Overt with their branding and ruthless with their advertising, Ndani became synonymous with new media; following the success of Gidi Up with tailored shows like the Youtube juggernaut Skinny Girl In Transit and Rumour Has It.

United Bank for Africa, (now defunct) Diamond Bank, and Access Bank launched RED TV and Accelerate TV to carve their own niches on YouTube and tap into the goodwill that Ndani extended to GTB. Emboldened by the success of Ndani’s programming, both platforms began to experiment with finding their own formats. High profile partnerships with EbonyLife’s Temi Abudu and director Kemi Adetiba led to Accelerate TV’s scripted reality TV show On The Real and their wildly successful interview series King Women. RED TV experimented with meta-comedy, hiring comedian Koye Kekere-Ekun to expand his social media shtick into a detective series called Inspector K.

Ndani has remained the front runner in the race to dominate YouTube despite tragedies like the loss of all its footage for a highly anticipated third season of Gidi Up, and scandals like its reactive decision to scrub the Ndani channel of its 2019 show Oga Pastor mid-season to avoid getting entangled in a co-incidental religious scandal involving a high-profile pastor. But it has also lost significant ground to shows like Accelerate TV’s The Shade Corner (which took three years and two seasons to find its level) and RED TV’s surprise hit The Men’s Corner

The only real contender for the Big Three on YouTube at this time is LowlaDee productions, an independent production company run by Dolapo ‘Lowladee’ Adeleke. Adeleke’s production company made its name with This Is It, a crowd-pleasing rom-com manufactured to leverage the combined West African and East African digital biomes.

 

A free for all

The big three (Accelerate, Ndani and RED) got a few years’ head start before the technology evolved enough to shed much of the prohibitive costs that had kept independent players from entering the market. Now that those barriers are gone, digital media content is well and truly anyone’s game. 

Long-time veteran Jason Njoku, in partnership with his wife and business partner Mary Remmy Njoku, were early adopters of streaming apps whose primarily sell is exclusive, locally created content. Her shows Husbands of Lagos and Festac Town helped streaming platform IrokoTV pivot away from its archive of vintage Nollywood content and build a contemporary fanbase.

The Njokus have been so successful at creating digital content and courting digital audiences that Mary Remmy was able to broker a major takeover deal with French media giant Canal+. The sale speaks to the current state of Nigeria’s digital media and the growth that has occurred in the last decade. Mrs. Njoku’s sale is phenomenal because Rok Studios is less than 5 years old and until its sale was run independent of external funding.  

There is, of course, Linda Ikeji’s attempt to expand her media empire beyond blogging with her Linda Ikeji TV streaming service that had early viral shows like King Tonto and Oyinbo Wives of Nollywood. SceneOneTV (owned by Funke ‘Jenifa’ Akindele) is a niche but self-perpetuating vehicle for Akindele’s personal projects that include the now-labored Jenifa’s Diary and a spinoff show, Aiyetoro Town. Even media mogul Mo Abudu got in on the action with EbonyLife ON (which was sold to audiences by exclusively streaming its glossy legal drama ‘Castle and Castle’ on the platform). Streaming is such a competitive market that even DSTV, feeling the burn of digital media, created ShowMax, its own answer to the streaming wars and the primary distribution vehicle, for its big-ticket show, the Big Brother Naija franchise.

An inevitable consequence of the local audiences finally paying top money for their entertainment is that they now have demands. After nearly 8 years of majorly phenomenal press, Ndani suddenly found itself in a maelstrom of bad press. Agitations have long simmered about the firm’s alleged disinterest in the fans’ concerns, as encapsulated by their refusal to release an official statement on Gidi Up, and consequently the decision to pull its preacher thriller, Oga Pastor, off-air mid-season and replace it with Phases, a show shot and released so hastily its working title was changed after the first episode had aired. Fans have openly promised to boycott and are voting with their clicks and money.

How will the next decade of Nigerian film and television media evolve?

It is hard to predict. Nigerian innovators like Joel Benson are already experimenting with 3D imaging and augmented reality in the same market, ‘Asaba Nollywood’ still coughs up enough pulp cinema to keep the poorest Nigerians entertained. However, it is more difficult to predict if the big three will stay fascinated with their content marketing platforms enough to finance them for another decade without a clear path to independence and profitability. Cheaper tools mean Nigerians are directing and attempting ambitious projects at much younger ages than we’ve ever seen; figuring out the logistics of distribution and revenue channels as they go along. 

In a nutshell, while the industry has never been this potent, it remains to be seen if this potency will lead to an expansion or an implosion.


Edwin Okolo is a journalist, fashion critic, and artisanal crocheter. He has written for the New York Times, Native Magazine, African Arguments, and Sable Lit. He is the editor-in-chief at YNaija.com

0 Comments

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.