The Evolution of Film Distribution in Nollywood in the 2010s

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Due to the dearth of functional cinemas in the early 80s, most Nigerian filmmakers transitioned to television. In 1980, after Jide Dosunmu’s highly-promoted horror flick, The Encounter, aired on national TV, recorded versions on video cassette flooded the streets of Lagos. The film succeeded in Alaba, signifying that direct release to video could be a more lucrative avenue for the distribution of movies. Several other television productions released on video performed well in Alaba and other markets across the country. But it was the release of Living in Bondage, filmed and released directly on video that kickstarted the boom of the home video era. As expected, other filmmakers working in theatre and television followed this format, and a new distribution system for Nigerian films emerged.

While Nollywood enjoyed unprecedented success and popularity during the release-to-video era, it was dilettantish, and the release-to-video distribution system created a thriving environment for piracy. In a nutshell, filmmakers were losing close to 80% of their profit margins to piracy. Nollywood films were on shelves across Africa and in the Nigerian diaspora, but the producers were not the ones cashing out; it was a gang of pirates. 

Jason Njoku’s Irokotv and The Death of Alabanomics

Back on the proverbial mama couch eight years after leaving for school, future IrokoTV co-founder Jason Njoku watched his mum – an avid consumer of content with a never-ending thirst for Nollywood DVDs. When she requested he found more, Njoku did what any young internet-savvy person would and went searching online. When he could not find any, he went to a brick and mortar Nollywood store and noted the distinct lack of a formal distribution system. 

It is this gap Njoku called to the attention of his friend and eventual partner, Bastian Gotter. In an opportunistic move, he rightfully envisioned that building a structure to fill the distribution hole could kill piracy and leave them at the helm of a profitable and transcendental Nollywood business. In the years after graduating from university, Njoku cut his teeth in the tough world of entrepreneurship. “I spent a good three years making every mistake there was to make about how to run a business,” he says in an interview with Forbes. These mistakes will be the building blocks for the success that was to come. Gotter advised him to travel to Nigeria to figure out everything there was to learn about Nollywood and how they could potentially tap into the market.

Njoku flew to Nigeria, studied the market, and started a YouTube page that would go on to accelerate the death of the DVD market in Nollywood. While most Alaba marketers copied films and sold in drives without paying producers, Njoku paid licensing fees and was uploading the movies on the now-defunct YouTube page NollywoodLove, recouping his investment off adverts. Producers got paid. Njoku, the distributor, got paid. 

However, he knew this model would not be sustainable and that it could be more. “Bastian and I were of the opinion that it could and should be much bigger than this,” he told Forbes in 2012. They needed a proper channel. Thus, IrokoTV was born.

As IrokoTV grew, it spurred offshoots that continue to fill in the gaps. Mary Remmy Njoku’s ROK Studios is one of them, the production company created mainly to serve IrokoTV with content instead of continued licensing quickly grew beyond the streaming platform, launching channels on DSTV and SKY. In 2016, ROK launched on SKY—Europe’s largest PayTV operator—and was playing in 10 million households in the United Kingdom. Thanks to the Njokus, viewers – like Jason’s mum -no longer needed to patronize pirate lords to watch Nollywood films.

Earlier this year, Canal+, which had collaborated with IrokoTV on Iroko+ to distribute French-dubbed Nollywood content to French-speaking countries, acquired ROK studios in a deal that will see more Nollywood films produced for the audience in Francophone countries. 

The Return of Cinemas

While Njoku revolutionized how films were being distributed outside the country, there was another change taking place in the distribution chain within. A traditional yet more efficient mode of distribution – cinemas – were influencing the consumption of local films. 

The return of cinema houses discouraged piracy and encouraged a greater sense of professionalism within the industry. Also, there was an increasing demand for movies with high production quality (which VHS couldn’t offer) that could compete on the global stage.

In 2004, Silverbird Group became the first company to launch a cinema – The Silverbird Cinema. Kunle Afolayan’s Irapada (2006) was the first Nigerian film to screen there. The movie’s relative success was a nod to the demand for high-quality products, but it did not spark the revolution—the escape from the home video era that Nollywood needed. Another Afolayan movie—The Figurine (2009) did. Unlike most Nigerian movies of its age, it premiered at international film festivals and was shown in cinemas before its DVD release. The Figurine grossed N30 million, a phenomenal amount by industry standards then.

Just like Living in Bondage with the home video era, the critical acclaim and commercial success of The Figurine highlighted the gains of film distribution via cinemas and movie marketers sensing their impending displacement in the ecosystem started to disparage filmmakers like Afolayan. But with more cinemas joining in on the party – Ozone cinemas and Genesis Deluxe cinemas joined in 2008 – it became more apparent that cinema houses were here to stay.  

For all its good intentions, theatrical distribution was and still is not perfect. Firstly, there are not enough cinemas in the country. We have about 50 screens serving a population of over 180 million people, and they must accommodate the more bankable Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Also, DVD releases aren’t as profitable as a result of piracy. It serves the filmmakers more to go the Video on Demand (VOD) route with platforms like Iroko TV and Netflix.

Genevieve’s Lionheart, Netflix, and the Future

Netflix’s flirtation with Nollywood began circa 2016 when they bought the rights to films like The Wedding Party, Flower Girl and The Visit; but it was in 2018 when the streaming giant acquired Genevieve Nnaji’s directorial debut, Lionheart, that Nollywood felt the full reach and economic power of the platform. The film’s promotion targeted a global audience. It was unlike anything Nollywood has seen before; Lionheart got coverage from publications like the New York Times and LA Times.

The Lionheart-Netflix deal signified that Nollywood’s future is all about the expansion of existing channels and more players. Netflix’s embrace of the industry has opened it to a newer audience in the US, and recently, journalist Roxane Gay tweeted of her love for Niyi Akinmolayan’s Chief Daddy. On another front, Canal Plus’ acquisition of ROK Studios will undoubtedly create a wider audience for Nollywood in the Francophone region. 

The decade launched with less than 15 cinemas but closes with over 50. An end of decade audit also reveals that the best box office performances in Nollywood history have come in the years post-2016 when the scale of distribution has improved. It goes without saying that Nollywood’s $5.1 billion valuation in 2014 will continue to rise and over the next decade, we should see the growth rate double or triple.