Nollywood the movie – How the money makes it happen
Next week Italian-American filmmaker Franco Sacchi’s This is Nollywood is being shown at the Abuja International Film Festival before coming to the Raindance Film Festival in London in October. Sacchi’s film uses the making of Bond Emeruwa’s film Checkpoint as the core of a look at Nollywood’s actors and producers. Russell Southwood spoke to Franco Sacchi about the money behind the movies, the origins of Nollywood and the desire to raise production standards.
The tale that claims to be the founding story of Nollywood sounds both apocryphal and very Nigerian. A distributor of blank VHS tapes had a container load of them and they were selling very slowly. He decided to spend US$2,000 to make a movie on one of them: Living in Bondage was created and it has sold over 1 million copies.
Nowadays the money to finance Nollywood films comes either from local business people or the diaspora. Historically, films have had budgets of $5-10,000 but more recently some film makers have been pushing that up to US$20,000. As Sacchi told us:”The film we follow in the documentary – Emeruwa’s Checkpoint – had a budget of N6 million (US$46,000). Films have been made that cost much more than that but they don’t seem to sell well”.
The films are generally shot using DV cameras and cut using digital, non-linear editing. As a result, films are made in an incredibly short period of time, usually 7-10 days. A system of “stars” has developed and as emerges in the documentary, many of these stars are making up to three movies at any one time. To outside eyes, it may seem held together with paste and string but an economic ecology involving producers, directors, crew and actors has developed.
Nollywood films are little bit like the old Hollywood B movies. They tell stories of crimes gone bad and passions with disastrous consequences:”Nollywood film makers have stories to tell and they have no fear.” The films are made at feature length (90 minutes) or sometimes in two volumes of 2 hours each.
Whilst much of Africa is used to seeing Nollywood movies on TV, very little revenue is actually generated from these sales:”Producers sell to TV for visibility. The real sales come from sales of DCDs and videos.” A successful production will sell 30-50,000 copies and there is a highly organised distribution system that had its origins in the selling of pirate versions European and American films. In the large cities like Lagos there are large official film markets and even video shops in up-market shopping malls on Victoria Island will have a full wall of Nollywood. But it’s not just in the cities for even the smallest villages will have a video shop.
The films are made for immediate consumption because as with its older brother Bollywood, piracy is an enormous problem. No sooner is a film out and on sale before it becomes pirated and some part of the revenues begin to drift away from the official distributors. The films are either produced on video or DCDs. The latter are more basic and rugged than DVDs but play on almost any DVD player. Picture quality is comparable to that seen on VHS tapes.
When Sacchi was making the film two years ago, films were selling for as little as N12. However, if this proved too expensive, then people can rent or view movies in a “video parlour”. The latter is rather a grand term for a set of people sitting round a television in a room. These exist even in the villages. It is little wonder that Nollywood has been so successful at this price as what it competes with is priced at a completely different level. On a trip to Abuja last week, we saw pirated American DVDs selling for N300 and a visit to the cinema in a shopping mall to see The Simpsons cost N1500. With cinema seats costing this price in these kinds of markets, it is little wonder that traditional cinema is not growing.
The continent’s francophone film-makers are extremely sniffy about the Nollywood upstart. Whereas they make beautifully filmed and scripted movies that are critically acclaimed, they are rarely seen widely by African audiences. By contrast with Nollywood, it’s a case of “never mind the quality, feel the width”. As Sacchi puts it:”These films are part of a wave that is about belief in the future rather than artistic films. But they will make artistic films in the future. Nollywood is a grassroots movement. Francophone films are culturally important but their makers are not a grassroots movement. One of these days one of these film makers will come out with something brilliant. They have given Nigerians a way to look at themselves differently.”
Sacchi has discussed running training for the film-makers seen in the documentary:”We’re going back to see if we can establish some kind of training. They feel they need training at this stage and need to improve the film language. They are starving for new equipment and ideas.”
Nollywood is an interesting contrast to the more conventional film industry found in South Africa that turns out a relatively small number of films with much larger budgets. Perhaps it needed Nigerian ingenuity and complete self-belief to take the business model and turn it on its head. And Nollywood probably has more teach Africa as the future of movie making outside of Hollywood is more likely to favour Nigerian film-makers. They have capacity to make a film like Hong Kong produced gangster trilogy Infernal Affairs that was turned into the Hollywood movie The Departed. If they can tighten up their skills, perhaps anything is possible on a low budget. For as Spike Lee once rather acidly quipped:”What’s a US$50 million budget movie? A US$10 million budget movie once everyone got through stealing.”