On Awards, Nollywood and Our Heritage of Storytelling

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Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

In the last 15 years, Nollywood, Africa’s biggest film industry, has grown at an exciting pace. The number of people going to the cinema is increasing, and the number of screens themselves is expanding. Its impact is being seen in more tangible forms too – Nollywood now accounts for 1.4% of the Nigerian economy and played a role in taking us past South Africa as the biggest economy on the continent. Investors are also staking their claim in this booming industry – Canal+ bought ROK studios, and streaming giant Netflix has increased the number of offerings it has from the country. Nollywood is playing its part in exporting Nigerian culture around the world, famed actors Osita Iheme and Chinedu Ikedieze, popularly known as Aki and Pawpaw, are famous for the memes and gifs made from their movie appearances. 

But, as the whole Lionheart Oscars debacle can attest, there are still heights for Nollywood to scale.  In this growing era of award shows and the premium placed on it – or not – by the industry, there’s more that can be gotten from this admittedly trivial, yet important fad. 

The Nollywood Award scene

For most people, the Hollywood ‘award scene’ is just the Oscars – the biggest and most popular filmmaking award show in the world. For a few more people, the scene includes the many awards that are unique to individual crafts in the filmmaking process – such as cinematographers, costume designers, actors, etc. And for a few more, who are usually in the industry, they also know about the critic awards, independent guilds and the other groups who all factor into the many awards that are given during the award scene. The awards scene is less crowded in Nollywood. There are a few to start with, and they tend to cater to all the guilds and individual aspects of the industry. So, where we have the Oscars and Golden Globes in the U.S, we have the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) and the African Magic Viewers Choice Awards (AMVCA). But the more individual niche aspects are jettisoned here. 

Another key differentiator is that while most of Hollywood’s film awards are voted upon by members of the various groups, Nollywood’s awards are largely determined by a pre-selected jury of respected filmmakers. Among the biggest are the aforementioned AMAA awards – referred to as Africa’s Oscars – and the AMVCA, whose appeal ranges from the acting categories being voted on by the public. Baba Agba, an AMAA nominee for cinematography, believes that this gives these awards an edge and lends to its legitimacy. It’s a stance similarly taken by the African Movies Viewer’s Choice Awards (AMVCA) which has seven awards that are voted by the public, but still gives the lion share of its awards (21) to those selected by a jury. Some argue that the industry itself, like the public it caters to, is yet to be able to properly differentiate between the dramas that do well at festivals and awards and the comedies that tend to dominate the box office.

But what’s the issue with awards? In an area as subjective and preferential as an artistic expression, why is there a need to present accolades and recognition? The era of shining a spotlight on a nascent industry is behind us, with the craft moving from the purview of amateur participants to more professionally-trained craftspeople staking a claim. So why is there a need for a form of recognition? The answer is insightful of how the movie industry works, and how Nollywood lags behind. 

Late last year, there was an uproar when Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart was disqualified from the Foreign Language Committee of the Oscars. But what was more interesting wasn’t the snub – even though the odds of Lionheart beating South Korea’s Parasite which went on to win the award and overall Best Picture are quite slim. What was particularly interesting was the interaction on social media over which Nigerian film deserved to get nominated, Lionheart or Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys. Both are not comedy blockbusters that repeatedly dominate the box office, but they earned critical acclaim for the acting, direction, and overall production value that Nigerians are fast demanding in their films. Whether or not this is because of the access to both films – both are now on Netflix – or the well-managed PR campaign and word of mouth move for both films, it lends itself to the reason why Hollywood maintains this drawn-out award season – and where Nollywood can tap into that.

Why Awards can Work

Let’s start with a consensual premise: awards show are prescient when we agree on the outcome, and fraudulent when we don’t. I maintain the Oscars were wrong in 2019 when Green Book was named Best Picture and was in a supposedly joyous minority when in 2015 Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) triumphed over Richard Linklater’s 12-year story Boyhood. But the magic is that they make us take note of films that we otherwise won’t. Parasite, 2020’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, reaped a monster $8.8million haul the week after it won at the Oscars – a 234% increase in ticket sales. 

Award shows like the Oscars follow set patterns. First of all, movie studios campaign for awards. The average cost is roughly $10 million for a standard ‘For your consideration’ push, where studios choose the movies they feel are more likely to get an award. It might seem like a lot, but on average Best Picture winners receive an added $19 million boost at the cinema – with the convenient prefix of ‘Academy Award-winner’ helping out. And there’s already the beginning of a correlation between awards and box office return. Living in Bondage, Nollywood’s highest-grossing film of 2019, is the joint most nominated film at the AMVCAs honoring the best films of 2019. Other top nominated Nollywood films were also among the highest-grossing movies of the year – God’s Calling (19), Elevator Baby (12) – and have continued to garner interest.

Another push is that if marketed well, they can also help Nollywood avoid the debacle of Lionheart’s Oscar snub. For all the attempts at diversity by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, there is a prevalence of white, male, old filmmakers in its ranks. A war movie like 1917 could tug at the nostalgia of the big-budget war epic, but what happens to a similar movie that looks at such an experience from a minority point of view? Notably, movies like Selma and Birth of a Nation failed to receive enough attention from award shows. Parasite is a good film, but it also benefits from a quality local cinema industry – enough that when the increasing Oscar buzz was put to the movie’s director Bong Joon Ho, he called the Oscars ‘very local’ – that has its own form of recognition but also its own validation. This is not to reject the immense aura and allure that comes with an Oscar, but it also puts the impetus on Nollywood to determine and improve how to recognize its successes and our storytelling. 

So, what if in 10 years, an article previewing the AMAAs or AMVCAs, looks at the war epics told? What if it highlights the historical drama of the Aba Women’s riot? Or what if we get a trilogy that looks at our military or even colonial past? Because another thing awards can do is help us evaluate how our cinema as grown. We’ve gone from home videos with the commensurate quality, to movies rightfully competing on Netflix and documenting interesting vistas and showing incredible production value. Next up, perhaps Nollywood should appreciate the role it has in helping curate and shape the narrative of a people yet to understand the power of storytelling. Movies like Up North helped to challenge stereotypes of an area besotted by stories of terrorism and insurgency. Lionheart showed the power of collaboration between companies of different tribes. King of Boys showed cast members in a multicultural Lagos that accurately depicts the metropolis as a melting point. These are the movies that a growing cinema culture is going to see, and what the next generation of filmmakers and Nigerians will grow up on. This could also come across in the curation of the award shows. While we have the fashion review and red-carpet style down, there’s a lot more about the production value of the award shows themselves and the chance to help showcase the work of its many, and growing, craftspeople. 

Finally, hard numbers can also pay off. Most of the top releases of 2019 in the Nigerian box office were from Hollywood – 15 of the top 20. But a growing number of films playing are from Nollywood – a far cry from a decade ago. Of the top 20 films during Valentine’s weekend, 11 of the top 20 were from West Africa, showing the approach and appeal that these films can bring when produced right. And comedies, often used as fodder to show how Nollywood still relies on time-worn tropes to get cheap laughs, are being rejigged, reworked and repackaged for a new audience. These box-office hits brought requisite funds to distributors such as FilmOne and also helps with generating more investment for other feature films and helping to keep the industry growing. Taiwo Adeyemi, a former Creative Director for the AMAA and industry expert, also highlights that awards help shine a spotlight on less popular industries like soundtrack and production design. Pending facts and a full-length discussion, the awards help promote careers and names to an audience that might not be very familiar. 

Nigeria’s award ceremonies need work. Proper curation could make the industry maximize the attention and media coverage during its biggest nights. The practice can also help curate better reels to dispel with the notion of a poorly produced Nollywood film. Events’ organizers can pivot from just having poor imitations of Oscars-Esque ‘presenter banter’. And if you don’t agree, we can debate in another article. But what’s key, and important, is leveraging on the use of awards for the culture. Nollywood is already becoming a staple and a key part of our GDP. It’s already playing a part in alleviating worry and concern in a country rife with insecurity. And it’s also helping to unify us beyond our cultural divides. It’s worth using all the tools – including award shows – to help amplify its impact. After all, we may soon live in a country where primary school Christmas play auditions are a pathway to Nollywood success. 

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a freelance writer. He has degrees in International Relations and African Politics. His current research focus is on statehood and Nigeria. 

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