During a visit to the South American country of Belize, whilst the managing director of the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala would have assumed that anyone coming up to her was intending to engage her on the global economic climate and its effect on growth in the developing world. But no. “People stopped me on the street and said, ‘Are you Nigerian? We love your movies’,” Okonjo-Iweala revealed recently. With a reputed turnover of 40 film productions a week and reported sales of $250m per annum, the Nigerian film industry, with very little encouragement from the government, has become one of the country’s main non-oil foreign exchange earners.
“They employ our young people, so it is perfect. The appeal is worldwide. Where you have people of African descent they love this stuff,” Okonjo-Iweala observed. “The thing is not [for the government] to interfere – it has grown on its own. To help it improve, two things are needed.
Improvement in quality – that takes building capacity and having access to finance. Second is intellectual property. We need to regulate this, because part of the problem is they are not realizing value because things are copied (pirated).”
Now that Okonjo-Iweala has returned to Nigeria, at the behest of President Goodluck Jonathan, to again take up the job of finance minister (which she also held under President Olusegun Obasanjo), the creative industry expects to get real and meaningful support from her office.
Okonjo-Iweala is also in full charge of the economic management team, which has caused many to give her the unofficial title of “Prime Minister”.
Just before the 2011 presidential election, President Jonathan pledged a $150m loan fund for the use of people in the “creative industry”, which is to be managed by the Bank of Industry (BOI).
Whilst the money has been released to the BOI, for disbursement to recipients that meet its qualifying guidelines, it remains to be seen whether it will be a lifeline for those in the industry, who have complained, with good reason, about the consistent lack of organised government support for the sector.
That lack of support is not stopping Jason Njoku from carving his own niche. He is the founder of “Nollywoodlove”, an online entertainment company based in Lagos, making Nigerian cinema readily available on the internet.
Since December 2010, it has been buying up the rights to Nigerian movies and uploading them onto its dedicated YouTube channel.
“I was swept away with this wave of amazing content, which when I looked at ways to actually consume it, there weren’t any – the legal distribution infrastructure just wasn’t there, so I thought, let me just try it and add some value,” Njoku told CNN.
Njoku’s company now employs more than 40 people and the movies on its internet platform reportedly attract over 2.5 million views around the world each week.
It makes money by showing advertising before its films and is targeting over $1m in profits in its first full operational year. “We try to keep it as non-intrusive as possible, so we explain to people that you just have to watch a few adverts to watch the whole movie.” Nollywoodlove became profitable after just two months of operations, by selling advertising space alone, Njoku claimed.
The most popular movie, according to Nollywoodlove’s subscribers, is currently “BlackBerry Babes,” a comedy series about women obsessed with their BlackBerry phones. The first instalment of the four-part drama has been watched over 650,000 times, according to Njoku.
Besides football, literary icons like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and, of course, the late musical megastar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, there is no question that Nigerian movies have become one of the country’s top cultural exports, as they have become hugely popular in Anglophone African countries, with the creation of the “Africa Magic” channel on DSTV, the continental satellite network. Rita Dominic, one of the major actresses in Nollywood, was taken on a tour of Malawi in May 2009, signing autographs for her large following of fans in Lilongwe and Blantyre. And as the Kenyan journalist, Kevin Mwachiro, admitted, the influx of Nigerian movies into Kenya has changed, positively, perceptions about their West African brothers. “What changed it all for us in Kenya was Nollywood. Nigeria became real and we were exposed to Nigerians telling their own stories and not us being told stories about Nigerians.
All of a sudden, there were VCDs and DVDs being sold of Nollywood blockbusters. For a long time, the only export Nigeria provided Kenya with was bad news.”
It is not surprising that the growth of the Nigerian film industry has attracted serious attention from the diaspora.
The annual African movie awards, AMAA, which acknowledge the best actors and actresses around the continent, has become an important fixture on the entertainment calendar.
Academia has not been left out of the Nollywood phenomena, as scholars from around the world continue to take an increased interest in the cultural influence of Nigerian movies. The inauguration of The Centre for Nollywood Studies at the School of Media and Communication at the
Pan-African University in Lagos, on 23 July 2011, attracted film scholars from several countries, including the USA, Barbados, Italy, India and South Africa.
According to the university, it has constituted an advisory board for the centre and taken other preliminary steps, aimed at ensuring the smooth running of the centre. With requisite partnerships and public/private support, the school hopes to have a film scholar in annual residence to carry out substantial research work. But the expected metamorphosis of Nollywood into a world-class industry that can effectively compete with America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood, will still take some time to come.
Nollywood is yet, for the most part, unable to produce movies with the technical competence and sophisticated plotlines of their international competitors, as a result of the dearth of top-range equipment and experienced scriptwriters, directors and producers. Once those hurdles are overcome, in addition to funding challenges, the Nigerian film industry will be well on its way to the top.