Nigeria’s film industry, or Nollywood, has gone through a few clear-cut eras since its inception, but they have not all enjoyed the same publicity and acceptance. The early days of Nollywood’s popularity can be traced to the days of Kenneth Okonkwo and Nnenna Nwabueze starring in the original Living in Bondage (1992). Built on the premise of “blood money” and the lengths people go to acquire wealth, which could take the form of the sacrificing of a loved one’s life, complemented by the introduction of direct-to-video (DVD and VCD) means of distribution helped signal a seachange in the means of media consumption in Nigeria. The concept, however tackily viewed as it was, helped drive the sales of CDs. The film industry, particularly participants of South Eastern origin, would go on to develop a cottage industry of movies hovering around the subject of making human sacrifices for the acquisition of wealth. As much as these movies were retrogressive in theme and sometimes setting, their acceptance and enjoyability were never in doubt.
To work, the original Nollywood producers had thin budgets, passable direction, and above-average cinematography, but these tools proved more than enough in not only holding in thrall an entire country, but soon Nigeria made a name for herself exporting film to neighboring African countries. This led investors and the government to recognize the big money potential in our movie industry and began to offer support. This came first in the form of grants and loans designed to alleviate the cost of production of these films, most notably the promise of N3bn by then president Goodluck Jonathan. President Buhari’s administration also followed with the institution of Nollyfund by the Bank of Industry in 2015 and the disbursement of 1.8 billion to over 100 producers between 2017 and 2018 But to compete with Hollywood, America’s premier movie industry, and the many “woods” emerging from other countries that were fast outpacing our own in countries with government backing, a lot more money was needed, especially as several producers decried the difficulty in accessing these government funds. This would come much later in the form of film companies and private investments in the industry, with the entry of companies like Mo Abudu’s Ebonylife studios (that brought movies like Fifty, The Wedding party 1 and 2 to life) and Filmone studios, (behind titles like The Arbitration and A trip to Jamaica) that would later ink deals with Chinese and South African investors in an international capital fund. iROKOtv’s 2013 $8m funding round, and the subsequent CANAL+ acquisition of its ROK studios to develop African content are some other investments in the movie industry worthy of note.
This big money moves into the Nigerian film industry, however, could not immediately halt the decline in the popular appeal of Nollywood movies, especially among the Nigerian youth. With the infiltration of foreign films into Nigerian homes made easy by roadside DVD sellers, there was a loss of appeal to the youth, who gravitated towards the allure of foreign content – the big CGI production of American superhero movies, the lovestruck heartiness of Korean rom-coms, and the pulsating action of Chinese martial arts movies. Nollywood continued its existence, on African magic channels on DSTV dedicated to it, and on CDs and DVDs rented by nostalgic adults, but most of the glamour was no longer there. It made for a baffling conundrum, that the greater exposure and financing that the industry enjoyed could not surpass, or even replicate the sheer enjoyability of the “home videos” many families enjoyed all those years ago as an evening treat. The increased budget given to these producers was obvious – in the long cast lists, more impressive stunt work improved directing and sound, and the inevitable big money owambe scene (think The Wedding Party, Chief Daddy). Translating this into a better culture around Nollywood, however, appeared tumultuous. That is, until recently.
Modern-day Nollywood is currently experiencing a renaissance. The years of work are beginning to pay off. A look at the highest grossing Nigerian movies can show, in monetary terms, that Nigerians have started investing a lot more – via cinema tickets and streaming subscriptions – in Nollywood. The fact that nearly all of the highest grossing Nigerian movies are from the last 7 years, coupled with the entry of streaming giants like Netflix (through Ebonylife Studios) and Amazon Prime Video (via Inkblot productions and Anthill studios) is measurable proof that the Nigerian movie industry is picking up steam. But who do we have to thank for this uptick? What factor can we attribute this upward momentum to? Well, a look at the current movie scene reveals multiple reasons for this growth, and some are more obvious than others. First, and most glaring, is the increased investment in the industry.
Another crucial, yet easily overlooked piece of the current Nigerian film scene is the relatability of its characters and stories. The pandering to foreign audiences through fake accents and the obsession with the high-class areas of Lagos is beginning to wear off. If films are created for the entertainment of all Nigerians, they must be relatable to everyone, and not just the elite. Scenes shot in sprawling mansions in Lekki, in the towering skyscrapers of Victoria Island, and of course, of the everpresent Ikoyi Link bridge make for good eye candy, but they push away the audience from properly connecting to the stories they portray. Especially when nearly every big movie is the same. These days, there’s been a bit more diversification. Kayode Kasum’s This Lady called Life portrays romance in a middle-class setting, Biodun Stephen’s Breaded Life placed two faces of Lagos side by side as a young man loses his silver spoon and has to navigate through the lower stratum of society. This diversity in setting helps capture a larger audience.
One more factor responsible for Nollywood’s renaissance, and perhaps the most important of all, is better storytelling. Make no mistakes, there is still a lot of room for improvement in scriptwriting, but the winds of change cannot be ignored. As interesting as they were, the old Nollywood movies had the most predictable storylines you could think of. The casting lists were all the clues you needed to know the characters in the movie and how they would end up. Patience Ozokwor, the wicked stepmother, would eventually be disgraced. Kanayo O. Kanayo, the human parts dealer, would have to die for his sins, or perhaps lose his sanity. But he could never win. These storylines kept things uncomplicated, choosing to remain morally upright and rewarding all parties with the fruits of their deeds. Of course, in the real world, there are no clear-cut good and bad guys, and there is a lot more layering to every person and to every story. The Nollywood of today features a few complex characters, a standout being Eniola Salami from Kemi Adetiba’s King Of Boys. While a lot of the industry is still yet to catch up, the more convoluted story seen in a movie like Jadesola Osiberu’s Sugar Rush and the mature themes being tackled in the Kunle Afolayan – directed Citation shows the industry is ready to turn a new page in the quality of story writing.
As streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon ramp up investment in the Nigerian film industry, the opportunity is here to showcase the world’s second-largest film industry on the global stage. If our filmmakers continue on the trajectory they have set in recent years, then it wouldn’t be long before our film industry catches up to the music industry to become a source of pride and joy to Nigeria and the toast of the whole world.
Patrick Ezema is a creative writer with interests in music, film, and pop culture, with bylines in Clout Mag and The NETng. When he’s not writing about these subjects, he’s a high-functioning Twitter addict getting his daily fix. Catch him on @ezemapatrick.