Streaming will help Nigeria’s film industry, Africa’s most vibrant, reach a much wider audience.
In December 2018, EbonyLife Films, a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, premièred “Chief Daddy”, a feature-length drama about an eccentric billionaire who dies suddenly, touching off a madcap scramble among his relatives over his estate. The movie was an immediate hit with audiences in Nigeria. By the end of the month it had emerged as the country’s most popular theatrical release of the year.
Not long ago the economic life cycle of “Chief Daddy” might have ended there. Nollywood, the nickname for Nigeria’s robust film industry, has long been hamstrung by piracy. For years, filmmakers have watched with frustration as swarms of illegitimate DVDs quickly overwhelmed their promising cinematic efforts, slashing potential profits and making it difficult to raise money to produce future films.
But in the spring of 2019 the makers of “Chief Daddy” managed to cash in on a new window of opportunity, this time online. EbonyLife sold the movie’s global streaming rights to Netflix Inc., for an undisclosed sum. In March the streaming service made the movie available to 149 million customers in 190 countries, most of whom live well beyond the reach of those pirated DVDs.
“As a continent, Africa has remained creatively silent for centuries. Our stories are seldom told outside of our families and villages and often from the perspective of someone looking in,” says Mo Abudu, chief executive officer of EbonyLife.
The arrival of streaming technology has the potential to upend that dynamic and introduce Nigerian films to a much broader market on both sides of the Atlantic, she says: “Now is a good opportunity for more capital to be pumped into Nollywood.”
Netflix first launched its service in Africa in 2016. Since then the streaming giant has been ramping up its investment in African productions. Last September, Netflix acquired its first original film from Nollywood, “Lionheart”, a drama about a woman who steps into the male-dominated transportation industry when her father falls ill. This April, Netflix announced its first African animated series, “Mama K’s Team 4”, a futuristic tale about four teenage girls in Zambia who are recruited by a former secret agent to save the world. It’s being produced by Triggerfish Animation, a studio in South Africa. While declining to say how many subscribers Netflix has in Africa, a spokesman for the service pointed to several other African movies and series that it has in development.
That’s welcome news to the Nollywood community, which since its inception in the 1990s has emerged as a promising source of growth within the Nigerian economy. According to a 2017 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Nollywood is the second-largest producer of films in the world, trailing only India’s Bollywood.
Nigeria’s arts, entertainment, and recreation sector, of which Nollywood is a significant part, generated 239 billion naira ($664 million) in 2016 and is projected to continue growing.
Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board estimates that the number of West African films released annually between 2015 and 2017 more than doubled to 87.
In the past, Nollywood movies have been heavily consumed across Africa and rarely seen outside the continent. But the industry’s boosters point to the recent success of several Western movies — including Walt Disney Co.’s Black Panther (which grossed $1,3 billion globally and was the top-selling movie ever in West Africa, according to Nigeria’s film board) and Beasts of No Nation, the critically acclaimed film distributed by Netflix about a boy soldier fighting in a civil war in West Africa — as evidence of growing demand among US and European audiences for stories rooted in African culture, traditions, and mythology.
While Nollywood films typically lack the kind of big-budget production values that US and European moviegoers are accustomed to, creators in the region say the industry has gradually been shifting from mostly low-quality DVD releases toward slicker productions for both home video and cinematic release. To make more big-budget films, the industry will need to attract deeper, more reliable pools of financing.
In May top Nollywood producers, filmmakers, and executives travelled to France for the Cannes Film Festival’s first “Pavillon Afriques”, a series of sessions and screenings highlighting the opportunities and challenges facing filmmakers from across the continent.
Their goal: raising visibility for Nollywood and participating in discussions about financing, dealmaking, and the expansion of distribution. Inya Lawal, founder of Nigerian production house Ascend Studios, hopes the focus on African filmmaking at Cannes will show that programming can be done on a global scale.
“It’s been a process to get here,” she says.
Nollywood creators continue to grapple with less than ideal conditions at home. Kunle Afolayan, a Nigerian director and producer, says that while the arrival of streaming and video-on-demand services has made monetising Nollywood movies easier, piracy is still “eating deep into the industry”. He has four films slated for DVD release but is having trouble “because nobody is willing to take the distribution responsibility” given the likelihood that pirated copies could hit the streets the very next day.
Still, Nollywood veterans are hopeful the industry is poised to prosper in the emerging era of globally connected home entertainment.
“We have an enabling environment,” says Afolayan.
“The content makers are hungry for work. Anybody who comes in now is coming in at the right time.” — Bloomberg.