Occasionally, Nigerians vent about Nollywood’s colorful but shallow comedies centered around upper-class Lagosians. I’m tired of them. You most likely are. Even Mo Abudu, the mind behind the most successful of these celebrity vehicles, is tired, too. “Six years in, I think it is time we started telling real stories,” she told The Times in a recent interview. That’s why she made Oloture, a gritty film with a serious theme—human trafficking. She reiterated this desire to pursue non-comedy stories while promoting the film on Instagram. “Hello, beautiful people. Thank you all so much for making our comedies no.1 in the box office,” she started. “However, our storytelling is expanding to include compelling and dramatic tales that reflect some of the harsh realities of Nigerian and African life.”
It is easy to see why Abudu is tired of these stories that have brought her tremendous success. She is pursuing international acclaim and the superficial storytelling of comedies won’t cut it on the global stage. For the critics and cinephiles, it is lazy filmmaking and the soullessness of these films. When last did a big Nollywood film make you wonder, cry, or think? Also, they have deprived the audience of iconic characters and performances. Where is contemporary Nollywood’s Aki and Pawpaw, Karishika, Andy Okeke or Sharon Stone? We can’t find them because our popular films lack depth and are, ultimately, forgettable.
New Nollywood and Comedy Blockbusters
New Nollywood started with non-comedy blockbusters: Kunle Afolayan’s Figurine (2009), Ije (2010), Last Flight to Abuja (2012) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2013). In 2014, AY debuted Nollywood with 30 Days in Atlanta, a bombastic comedy with two famous leads— AY and Ramsey Nouah. The film had a terrific showing at the box office and became the then highest-grossing film in Nigerian cinema history. AY returned with the sequel, A Trip to Jamaica, in 2016 and it did ₦50 million better.
That same year Abudu’s Ebonylife Films collaborated with Koga Studios, FilmOne, and Inkblot—The ELFIKE Film Collective—to produce The Wedding Party. The film redefined blockbusters in Nollywood by becoming the first to gross a million dollars. And that began the Nollywood-comedy conundrum: everyone wanted to make the next Wedding Party.
So, between 2016 and 2019, Nollywood pursued this formula: stories centered on crazy rich Lagosians and featuring famous faces became popular. The exhibitors supported the trend—films that did not follow this formula didn’t get great showtimes or were not accepted even if they were of superior quality. The audience backed it, too. “For one reason or the other, Nigerian movie-going audience tend to get excited about stories of the fabulously wealthy,” film critic Wilfred Okichie writes in his review of The Bling Lagosians.
Comedy became the face of Nollywood, eight of the ten highest-grossing films as at February 2019 were comedies, and filmmakers defended making comedies using box office sales. But like Martin Scorcese pointed in a New York Times op-ed: “If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course, they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”
The Trend Buckers
Some filmmakers bucked the trend and focused on original, non-formulaic storytelling and managed to win at the box office. Afolayan’s October 1, which arrived before the comedy obsession, was a box office hit. Izu Ojukwu’s war drama 76 grossed ₦70 million in 2016. Steve Gukas’ 93 Days made ₦50 million. But while these films made decent gross (and are some of the best performing films of the last decade), they didn’t make a convincing case to abandon comedy. Some of them even reported losses.
It was Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys that changed the game by grossing ₦245 million. Like most commercially successful Nollywood films, Adetiba’s audacious sophomore had a star-studded cast, but there was nothing merry or formulaic about the storytelling – it was a sociological exploration of Nigeria’s underworld and politics. Adetiba could have had it easier with another grand comedy following the mega-success of her directorial debut, but she took a risky artistic approach and it paid off handsomely. King of Boys is a Nollywood blockbuster that’s entertaining, nuanced, and can boast of memorable performances and iconic characters: Makanaki and Eniola Salami. And that’s the thing about drama: it allows writers, directors, and actors to dig deeper and increase the stakes.
Shortly after King of Boys’ release, Up North went head-to-head with an Ebonylife Films’ comedy, Aquaman, and some other Nollywood films in Nigerian cinemas’ busiest period—December—and came out with ₦94 million at the box office. Then in 2019, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, a horror flick, made ₦163 million. Interestingly, all three films were produced and conceptualized by new players: Kemi Adetiba (as a producer), Charles Okpaleke and Editi Effiong.
So between 2018 and 2019, the industry witnessed three massive drama blockbusters, a crucial development if we must escape the comedy trap. “The fact that dramas can make over ₦200 million means more big dramas will be made,” screenwriter and film executive Naz Onuzo says. Genre filmmaker C. J. Obasi shares similar thoughts, “film business is not rocket science—if genre films make money in Nigeria, then more genre films will be made in Nigeria.”
If you saw and enjoyed LIB Breaking Free, then you need to get your friends and family to go see it as well. This film business is not rocket science – if genre films make money in Nigeria, then more genre films will be made in Nigeria. Let’s get to it.
— C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi (@FieryCJ) November 10, 2019
This year, Kemi Adetiba is returning with King of Boys’ sequel while Charles Okpaleke is remaking Amaka Igwe’s Rattlesnake. Adetiba will be counting on the prequel’s immense popularity while Okpaleke will be banking on nostalgia to sell tickets. Will one of these gritty non-comedies top the year as Nollywood highest grosser—the second non-comedy to do so in seven years? We will have to wait to see, but the future of Nollywood’s storytelling looks diverse.