YouTube and The Democratization of Nollywood

Posted on

In the early twentieth century, the Nigerian film industry was in its embryonic stage of development. Colonial filmmakers in existence at the time released films such as Palaver  (1926) and Sanders of the River (1935) which were shot in Nigeria and featured Nigerian actors in narratives that belittled the African country and promoted the imperialist agenda of the British colonial overlords. With the rise of local mobile theater groups, such as the Yoruba traveling theater called Alarinjo, it seemed that Nigerians were beginning to build a creative industry that reflected the effervescent identities of Nigerian audiences. In 1945, Hubert Ogunde launched the first professional theatrical company in Nigeria, the African Music Research Party, which he rebranded two years later as Ogunde Theater Party. Other popular theater practitioners, such as Ola Balogun, Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala) and Eddie Ugboma joined in fostering the transition from theater to film and television, bringing professionalism to the craft of filmmaking and establishing themselves as pioneers of the Nigerian film industry.

Home videos became popular in the 1990s and 2000s at a time when the Nigerian film industry was taking a definite identity. Kenneth Nnebue wrote and produced classics like Living In Bondage (1992/93) and Glamour Girls (1994), while Amaka Igwe wrote and directed Rattlesnake (1995). In 2002, a certain New York journalist, Norimitsu Onishi, coined the nonce word “Nollywood” which became the all-encompassing nomenclature for the various Nigerian film and television productions rendered in English and other indigenous languages like Hausa and Yoruba spoken in the country. 

The explosion of digital technology has broadened the scope of storytellers and practitioners in the entertainment industry worldwide. In Nigeria, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, filmmakers like Kunle Afolayan, Obi Emenloye, and Jeta Amata began shooting with enormous budgets, making optimal use of the digital camera, and exhibiting at cinema multiplexes. In 2009, Afolayan released The Figurine, marking a turning point in the evolution of modern Nigerian cinema, and repeated his genius on October 1 five years later. But not too many people could marshal the same budget and clout as the likes of Afolayan who, apart from having a father who is widely considered one of the important figures in Yoruba theater, had already announced himself to the world as far back as Tunde Kelani’s 1999 film, Saworoide, where he played Arese Jabata. So, as the internet and social media gained more traction in Nigeria, people turned to mediums like YouTube and Instagram for affordable creative opportunities. 

Having joined the Nigerian market on December 7, 2011, YouTube grew to become a veritable video-sharing platform for Nigerians who wanted to express and explore their creative instincts. The platform gave rise to digital content creators and skitmakers, such as Craze Clown, Twyse Ereme, Mark Angel, Brodda Shaggi, Taaooma, Brain Jotter, Mr Macaroni and Shank Comics who leveraged it to create short, funny videos that not only appealed to the local audience but also created some international clout. In 2017, YouTube recognized Mark Angel as the first channel in Nigeria to surpass a million subscribers. Shank Comics recently linked up and shot videos with popular American YouTuber Kai Cenat in Lagos. 

YouTube became a leveler, affording viable chances to those who sought a place in the saturated Nigerian film industry. Some skitmakers amassed popularity and fanbase through the platform, which enabled them to maximize their acting and filmmaking potential and establish themselves in mainstream Nollywood. Samuel Perry, known for the character of Brodda Shaggi in his skits, has starred in films like Namaste Wahala, Dwindle (which won him Best Actor In A Comedy at the 2022 AMVCA), Chief Daddy 2: Going for Broke, King of Thieves and Inside Life (which earned him Best Actor In A Comedy at 2023 AMVCA). He also co-produced Love In A Showroom with Tolu Lord Tanner in 2023. Adebowale Adedayo, known as Mr. Macaroni, is remembered for his roles in blockbusters like Ayinla, Brotherhood, Gangs of Lagos, and Jagun Jagun. Sabinus released his debut feature film Sabinus (The Best Man) in the cinemas in December last year and recently played the lead role in a romantic drama Dead Serious

In 2020, Netflix established a formal relationship with Nollywood, four years after frolicking with the Sub-Saharan African market. Two years earlier, the streaming giant had acquired the rights to Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, making it their first original film in the country. Amazon Prime Video posed an immediate rivalry when they introduced their local operations in Nigeria in 2021, with Gangs of Lagos becoming their first African Original film. While the subscription-based international streamers have warmed their way into the hearts of local cinephiles with the production of quality content, the dismal cost of living of many Nigerians who are film lovers makes the streamers unaffordable and unsustainable. It’s no wonder that Nigerians still look to internet sites and Telegram platforms for illegal downloads of trending films.

But with the infiltration of YouTube by Nigerian filmmakers, Nollywood films are now made readily available to an audience that can gain access to feature-length content easily without the need for monthly subscriptions. Both independent filmmakers and even established mainstream professionals (such as Ruth Kadiri, Omoni Oboli,  Uduak Isong, Bimbo Ademoye and, recently, Biodun Stephen) have become patronizers of YouTube, championing YouTube channels and bringing together cast and crew to shoot films. These filmmakers do not necessarily have to get the nod of streamers or go through the tedious route of the Nigerian cinemas to churn out content and make money. Other advantages of YouTube as a video-sharing platform are the virality of videos, “increase in search engine optimization, measurement and analytics, and the ability to watch videos on the go at reduced bandwidth”.

Clinton Joshua started acting in September 2023 and came to the limelight following his role in When Angels Meet, a Nollywood film on the YouTube channel, Uchenna Mbunabo TV, appearing alongside developing talents, Chioma Edak, Precious Akaeze, and Oscar Nwabaju. It was, however, his character as Jidenna in Treasures In The Sky, another critically acclaimed film on the same channel, that cemented his position as a fan favorite among the YouTube Nollywood audience. 

John Chizoba Vincent, a music video director, cinematographer, and independent filmmaker, launched his YouTube channel The Philm Republic in 2022 and has been sharing films and documentaries on the platform since late 2023. YouTube, Vincent claims, brings him an anonymous audience and enables him to have direct access to their feedback through which he can measure his growth as a filmmaker.

“YouTube has given me access to those audiences I never knew I had,” Vincent says. “I started as a music video director and still do that up till now, but when I decided I wanted to tell my story in my way and how I saw it, it became easier for me to tell it or pass it across via that medium.”

Vincent believes that YouTube is bridging the gap between independent filmmaking and mainstream Nigerian cinema. “In mainstream Nollywood,” he says, “there are some steps you need to take or some policies which you must adhere to before your movie could get to cinemas or digital platforms like Prime and Netflix; but here on YouTube, you can get your film up there without facing most of all these processes.”

This sentiment is shared by Paul “Word” Uma, a fast-rising actor who has featured in several films on Omoni Oboli TV, the titular YouTube channel of the famous Nollywood actress. “Not everyone has the money to subscribe to Netflix or Prime, or go see a movie at the cinema; however, with just 500 naira worth of data, you can watch a movie on YouTube,” he adds. 

Uma made his first Nollywood appearance in Abigail and Family, a series directed by Uche Agbo, which aired on terrestrial stations in 2018.  Last year, a friend introduced him to Omoni Oboli, recommending him for a role in her YouTube-based film, Thicker Than Water. “It was just a scene,” he recalls, “but it had a significant impact on my career.”

“After seeing my performance, Mama Omoni Oboli recognized my talent and chose to work with me on more projects,” Uma says. “Her advice and guidance has been really helpful ever since then.”

YouTube-based Nollywood films have also contributed to the growth of Nigerian actors like Maurice Sam, Chidi Dike, Uche Sonia, John Ekanem, and Aaron Sunday, all of whom now ply their craft on the social media platform and in mainstream cinema.

The mass adoption of YouTube by Nigerian filmmakers has been met with criticisms, too. One, probably the most conspicuous, is the danger of mediocrity. Nollywood actor Jidekene Achufusi (known for DwindleLiving In Bondage: Breaking Free, Kambili: The Whole 30 Yards, and, most recently, Blood Vessel and A Tribe Called Judah where he played Emeka Judah, the ill-fated first son of the family) has mixed feelings towards the place of YouTube in the development of Nollywood. While he sees the video-sharing platform as providing a level playing field for filmmakers, he remains skeptical about how valuable it is to the industry in the long run. 

“I feel like it’s a Ponzi scheme,” says Jidekene Achufusi, expressing his wariness towards the proliferation of YouTube-based Nollywood films in a conversation with Arise TV. “But also, are we moving forward? I’d say in terms of injecting cash into the industry, we may be moving forward. But in terms of preaching quality or advocating for actual growth, we are definitely retrogressive in that respect.”

Veteran Nollywood actor and filmmaker Kanayo O. Kanayo has also expressed his dismay over the attitude of fast-rising actors towards YouTube-based productions. Many of these actors, the veteran points out, “have besieged YouTube” with the lack of “any sense of purpose to create a procedure for a lasting videography of contents”. He further states that the so-called YouTube actors often opt for one-day filmings, charging a million or more to appear in up to thirty scenes a day, a practice the veteran deems unsustainable. 

It remains to be seen how YouTube-based Nollywood productions can enforce simple professional standards for independent filmmakers even with their soft budgets and fast-paced approach to storytelling. There is also, perhaps, the the more interesting concern of whether awards like AMVCA (having, in 2021, introduced a new category for “Best Online Social Content Creator”, later modified as “Best Digital Content Creator”) will make provisions to celebrate excellence amongst Nollywood filmmakers that have embraced the YouTube film subculture.