African release of Viva Riva! May be the first sign that African film is in reset mode for a more commercial future

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Nollywood is a huge continental film phenomenon but it has survived with a business model that clunks along the bottom as it is largely seen (by the yard) on television or on pirated VCDs. At the other end of the spectrum, African film is an greenhouse flower nurtured by international (mainly French) funding and seen mainly in European art-house cinemas and festivals. The release in early October of Congolese director Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s Viva Riva! in 18 African countries may be the first sign that African film is in reset mode and this time it might become commercial. Russell Southwood looks at what needs to change.

The commercial film industry elsewhere in the world – whether it is Hollywood or Bollywood – is nurtured financially by a combination of box office and DVD release. In Africa, cinema experienced the same collapse as elsewhere globally. But whereas elsewhere, new investment was made in multiplexes, African cinemas closed down and were often taken over by the evangelical churches.

Without cinema box office income, African film-makers have become largely reliant on what would be seen as secondary income in other markets: Pay TV income and a very small amount of DVD/VCD income before the pirates take the rest away from them.

The ambition of the Viva Riva! release is three fold: firstly, it is thriller genre picture that is rooted in the African realities of living in Kinshasa: its director has described it as “a mix of good entertainment with a documentary flavour.” He is that rare creature, a francophone film director whose ambitions are both commercial and artistic. For as he told online magazine AfriPOP about receiving a Nigerian film award:” …for a Congolese film to get that sort of recognition has been good, and it was with a gangster film”. And the funding for this ambition? From Canal Plus that has struggled to find an equivalent to Nollywood for its francophone African TV bouquets.

Secondly, the film is getting the closest Africa gets to a full continental cinema release, hoping to generate a continent-wide buzz, with rolling release dates. It was released in Kenya and Uganda on1 October was  South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, Lesotho and Swaziland on October 7. This is then followed by Mozambique, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and the DRC.  The film releases in Nigeria and Ghana on 1 December. Viva Riva! is distributed by Indigenous Film Distribution, a company set up by ex-Primedia/Ster Kinekor executive Helen Kuun. It will be out on DVD in the UK on October 17 2011

Thirdly, as a genre picture it has potential international appeal. It was released in the USA in June and drew good reviews. Whilst its box office is bound to be modest, it is likely to be larger than simply an art-house circuit take.

This combination of simultaneous release and the revival of African cinemas has been the missing element from commercialising African film. Cinemart’s CEO Dayo Ogunyemi is seeking to roll-out a chain of cinemas across Africa that will rely in part on local releases that have continent-wide appeal like Viva Riva! See here:
He reports good business since the film’s opening in his cinemas since 7 October.

The other missing commercial piece of the jigsaw is getting international releasing outside the continent right. Odeon Cinemas has been releasing a small number of selected Nollywood movies in cinemas that are in areas that have large diaspora populations. See here:

Mirror Boy grossed GBP40,000 from its limited release which is not enormous but if it was possible to get this sort of sum from both the UK and the USA, it would make a huge difference to the funding of future films.

The final missing piece of the jigsaw is getting online sales for African films on the continent. Because African film-makers are not part of the Hollywood studios, they could afford to offer their movies over an online platform at a price that was comparable to the pirates and still make money. Piracy simply demonstrates there is demand but the product is not yet at the right price.

These online sales can come both from the diaspora and within the continent as both online access and payment systems improve. Two African entrepreneurs are offering differing versions of how these sales might be monetised.

The first is Jason Njoku, CEO, Iroko Partners who offers a free-to-air model that is financed by You Tube advertising and is already fully functioning:

The second is Conrad Nkutu of Fast Track Productions whose pay-for model has yet to start but is pitching in the same space:
View his site here and watch this space.

If the African film industry can get all these pieces to fall into place, there will be a renaissance of African films that will actually be seen more widely by audiences in Africa and elsewhere.

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