Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nollywood: The Nigerian film industry without an industry

With budgets as low as a few thousand dollars, a digital camera, a laptop, and no sets, Nigeria's filmmakers have created the second largest film industry in the world. This means Nigeria is a bigger producer of movies than the U.S. and is second only to India's Bollywood in terms of number of productions per annum. And I should mention that while the film industries of India and the U.S. are each about 100 years old, the Nigerian film industry is a youthful 20.

We'll dig into these, and many other scintillating statistics in today's post. So grab your wheelie suitcase and climb aboard, because today on the blog, we're headed to the heart of the Nigerian film industry, aka Nollywood.

First, an overview of the Nigerian film industry:

  • On an annual basis there are between 1000 and 2000 new productions, with as many as 200 new productions per month 
  • Average budget of a Nollywood film: US$17,000 - US$23,000
  • Average number of copies sold (on DVD): 50,000
  • Average price per DVD: $3 - $6
  • Average Nollywood shoot is one week, with all shooting done on video, all on location (no sets, no studios)
  • Movies considered to be hits sell a few hundred thousand copies and can sell up to 150,000–200,000 units nationwide in one day.
  • Value of Nigerian film industry in 2013: $590M, up from $250M in 2010
  • Over 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria, but the dominant language is English and the majority of productions are in English

Much of what I'm reporting here was gleaned from a presentation I attended a few weeks ago by the Berkman Center's Colin Maclay and Aimee Corrigan, a writer and producer who splits her time between Boston and Nigeria, where she runs a program called Nollywood workshops. Aimee's program provides technical training and aims to build a community among the approximately one million people involved in film production in Nigeria (it's the second largest employer in the country, after the oil industry). The idea of a film industry is a new concept to the locals, as the system of filmmaking in Nigeria basically created itself, from the bottom up. There are no studios. There are no film schools. Everyone is self-taught. People use online tutorials or figure out how to use programs such as Avid and Final Cut Pro themselves. The industry started digital and remains digital. Everything is shot on video, and edited on desktops or laptops. The films are generally narrative/fictional films (vs. documentaries or non-fiction) and it is a truly national cinema, with Nigerians telling Nigerian stories. The environment is one in which the independent, self-financed spirit has been key to the growth of the sector, and where the prevailing idea is that anybody can do it. This is, perhaps, the ultimate creative democracy. And though barriers to entry are low and supply is high, the economics seem to be working. This is largely because rather than thinking of filmmaking as an activity carried out by an elite group of artists and producers, it is something that people believe can be done by anyone, financed with modest funds from personal contacts, and completed in the space of one week.

Market stalls as distribution & retail outlets
There are, of course, other key differences between the Hollywood market that most people are familiar with and the Nollywood market. For starters, Nollywood is 90% a DVD market. With broadband Internet penetration reported to be between 4% and 6% in Nigeria, downloading and streaming is not really an option within the country. Even more interesting is that piracy, in the form of pirated DVD's, is said to have contributed to Nollywood’s growth and success. Some say that without the unsanctioned copying and sale of counterfeit DVD's, Nollywood would not exist. This is because filmmakers can generally only make a small initial run of the discs, financed with 'friends and family' money. The pirated copies are said to be critical in growing the film's audience outside of the large production centers, such as Lagos, and ultimately to other countries with sizable Nigerian populations, and therefore an audience for the films. With virtually no budgets for marketing, the piracy, in essence, becomes the marketing. And to keep things tidily under one roof, the pirating often takes place in the same facility that did the run of the original DVDs; they just send 100,000 copies out the back door onto trucks, where they are later sold in other regions and countries for about $1, or less than one third of the price of the legally produced DVD. More distribution, whether legal or not, appears to be good for everyone. On average each film is seen by approximately 10 million people within the country, and another 8 million people outside of the country. To put these numbers into a bit of perspective: the city of Lagos has a population of 21 million, the country of Nigeria has a population of 169 million, and London, in particular South London, sometimes referred to as "little Lagos", has a Nigerian population of more than 1 million.

In terms of budgets and box office (if the term can be used, seeing that these films generally do not receive a theatrical release), as mentioned above the average budget for a Nollywood film is ~$20,000. By comparison, the average Hollywood film budget is $100 - $150 million. And realize that a marketing budget of tens of millions is not unusual for a Hollywood production. An example of a high budget Nollywood film is Last Flight to Abuja, which cost approximately $500,000 to make, or 20x the average budget. Atypically, this film received a theatrical release in England, -- with its sizable Nigerian community -- in the hope of recouping the larger outlay for production.

Of the approximately 1,000 films produced in Nigeria annually there may be about 20 made at this budget level. Though a budget of $500,000 sounds small, if not miniscule, to Western audiences, bear in mind that no Nollywood movie has yet generated revenues of $1 million. Also worth noting is that the average middle class Nigerian income is generally about $500 per month, so an expenditure of $3 to $6 on a non-pirated DVD is proportionately much higher than that of a U.S. consumer, where the average income hovers around $40,000 per annum. 

And though there is no centralized industry or studio system there is a star system at work. Actors such as Desmond Elliott and Genevieve Nnaji are prominent personalities, and generally appear in the films with the larger budgets in the low six figures. Genevieve's national stardom is such that multinational consumer goods company Unilever made her the face of their popular Lux soap product and Range Rover selected her as a celebrity endorser. Western culture may have its own foothold, but large brands are said to prefer to use Nollywood spokespeople whenever possible.

As the Nigerian diaspora grows so do new distribution channels for the films, such as online and mobile, via companies such as IrokoTV, AfriNolly, and Jumia. But how might the industry apparatus develop alongside these social and technological changes? Will new forms of financing emerge, will higher budget films necessarily yield higher quality, or more popular, films, and will the grassroots system through which Nigerian film has flourished for the past 20 years be replaced with a more industrial model? In other words, will Nollywood go Hollywood, or will it more or less stay true to its industry-without-an-industry configuration?

And for the extremely interested in this topic: An in depth look at the Nigerian film industry can be found in the full length documentary Nollywood Babylon, which can be seen in its entirety here.

Related Post: YouTube as a new platform for film & filmmakers

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