Growth of Nollywood undermined by lack of cinemas and piracy

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This summarised version of an article by Richard Seymour in Nigeria’s Compass newspaper offers many interesting insights into the development of the continent’s largest film industry.

Nollywood owes its recent expansion to the introduction of relatively cheapo digital technology to the consumer market, which allows almost anyone who can shout ‘Action!’ to be a film director. Budgets for even the most popular locally made films are low. Many do not employ technicians and, often, the ‘actors’ are anyone who happens to be passing by at the time. In a matter of weeks, the final film has been edited and distributed, either to the myriad low-budget cable television channels of which there are now so many, or as DVDs to be sold for about $2 in crowded markets.

It is easy for filmmakers and watchers elsewhere to deride the quality of these hastily made movies, but there is no doubting the passion Africans across the continent have for them. They sell in their thousands and make money for their producers, which not every Hollywood mogul can boast. Perhaps for the first time, movie watchers in Africa are seeing themselves on screen: characters that millions of Africans can recognise themselves in, living lives which are familiar to them. And it seems they cannot get enough.

But the industry in Nigeria is now coming of age and is attempting to raise standards across the board. Unfortunately, however, as the music industry has found out, the same technology that renders it easy to make films also makes illegally copying them a simpler task. And this is getting in the way of attracting investment. After all, who would want to put their money into a venture that has little control over its product and who profits from it?

Some estimates from within the industry claim that as much as 50% of all money made from their films is lost to piracy. Many movies made today are not able to even recover the costs of production, which means there is no money to reinvest in new projects.

Part of the problem is one of infrastructure. In other countries, film lovers still mostly prefer to patronise movie theatres, despite the expense, because they either want the full effect of the latest technology, whether it be high definition, surround sound or 3D, or they do not wish to wait for the DVD to go on sale. This forms a buttress against the pirate industry.

But there are so few cinemas in Africa in comparison. Lacking a robust distribution network, movie producers are forced to release titles straight to DVD, which are then copied and sold more cheaply within days.

The problem has been made worse by the ability of pirates to squeeze several films onto a single DVD and then sell it for half the price of a single, legitimate title. And producers face the further frustration of an increasing number of cable television channels showing their films without permission with very little they can do to stop it.

As a result, the already low budgets producers have to make films are getting smaller and production values are not improving. Hence the concern that the Nigerian film industry may have peaked without ever having tapped its phenomenal potential.

The largest film industry in the world, India’s Bollywood, is taking matters into its own hands. The trend of filmmakers to remake existing films with no regard for copyright, which hardly helped their own cause, seems to be abating.

In addition, India’s film industry has entered into a joint venture with the Alliance Against Copyright Theft (AACT) – an international organisation of filmmakers and distributors – in a bid to tackle the problem. The group, supported by the Indian government, has launched raids against suspected pirates, enforcing existing piracy laws, but recognises that a change in the public’s attitude toward pirated films is needed most.

A similar initiative in Nigeria would begin to turn the tide of copyright infringement and help the country’s filmmakers continue to make the films so many Africans enjoy. Nothing can be done, however, without the political will, and the perception among Nigeria’s filmmakers is that the government is simply not taking the problem seriously enough.

Nigeria is a signatory to a number of international copyright conventions and has the laws and administering bodies to protect filmmakers if it wants to. Anti-piracy squads have the power to perform raids, confiscate materials and make arrests, but with an estimated 90% of all DVDs on sale illegal copies, there is clearly much still to do.

The National Film & Video Censors Board in Nigeria (NFVCB) is doing its best to formalise the country’s film industry. Its role of classifying films and registering and regulating all outlets is all but impossible, and will remain so, if it is not backed more forcibly by the government.

There is little freedom too in over-regulation. The NFVCB has on its ‘8 Point Action Plan’ a ‘New Direction in Film & Video Content’, which, they say, should paint Nigeria in a positive light.

That is all well and good, but will censors swoop on filmmakers who wish to pass comment on, for instance, government corruption? Would, to take but one contemporary example, Jeta Amata’s new film, Black Gold (to be released in 2011), about greed, corruption and violence in the Niger Delta, be allowed by a more powerful regulatory body?

But strict regulation of any sort seems along way off. Despite concerns, foreign investors are willing to take stake in the Nigerian film industry by investing in its most talented filmmakers. The young director, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, born in Benin City, in 2008 made Close Enemies for $300,000, still a record for a Nigerian film. But the film had to be made outside of Nigeria in Los Angeles.

The slick, high-budget movie is a world away from the shoestring productions that form the base for the industry in Nigeria and, along with its subject matter, will do much to gain the respect, and investment dollars, of the biggest studios.

Indeed, it is directors like Amata, whose critically acclaimed 2004 film, The Alexa Affair, which was filmed in Germany using a German crew, introduced methods honed in the Nigerian film industry, who are showing Western filmmakers how to cut costs and production times without compromising quality.

The advancing Nigerian economy and the construction of cinema complexes is giving the local film industry room to grow but it is not only in Nigeria that the film industry is enjoying a boom. This September, the Federation of Pan-African Filmmakers (FEPACI) announced their intention to set up African Film Cinema Fund with a $50m target, in particular, to invest in a continent-wide distribution network. Discussions are in their early stages.

In conjunction with organisations such as the World Bank, African Development Bank and other private investors, it hopes to create a framework to strengthen coproduction and distribution partnerships, and through a partnership with the International Organisation of la Francophonie (OIF) hopes to fulfil the UNESCO idea of enabling the diversity of cultural expression.

Striding toward doing so and further breaking the stereotype of African-made films is Pumzi, the 2009 production, directed by Kenyan born Wanuri Kahiu and shot on location in South Africa. The internationally funded short film is of the science fiction genre – itself so far a rarity among African films – based in the future where Asha, played by Kudzani Moswela, sets about looking for life in an otherwise lifeless, post-World War III ‘Water War’ planet.

Money for the imaginative project came partly from the Changamoto Arts Fund, which seeks to ‘liberate the artist from the pressure of creating safe work’, thus emancipating creative talent from commercial considerations and worries over piracy, and Focus Feature’s Africa First, making grants of $10,000 to short-film makers in Africa.

Such funds are as important for the development of Africa’s film industry as the injection of cash. Money cannot buy new, exciting ideas; and without those, no creative industry’ can flourish. Another film which bucks the trend and aims to establish Africa at the forefront of movie-making technology is Lion of Judah,a computer-animated 3D movie, commissioned by a US company and made entirely in South Africa using almost entirely South African animators.

The Cape Town-based studio, Animal Matters, which is making the film, has to make the most of its limited resources but hopes that investment in technology and training can help the country position itself well in what promises to be a highly lucrative 3D market.

If given the freedom and protection to work, the continent’s most creative filmmakers will give expression to Africa’s creativity, allowing it to tell its own stories about itself, and forging its own cultural identity in a environment where cultural imperialism threatens to homogenise an otherwise diverse and colourful world.