It is certainly no secret that the proud nation of Nigeria, a major oil producer and Africa’s leading economy, has recently experienced its share of problems. President Muhammadu Buhari’s two-month absence due to an undisclosed illness has heightened concerns for a country already reeling from a shrinking economy and spiraling inflation. In such an environment, it would be easy for Nigerians, as a people, to turn to hopelessness and despair.
Instead, many have turned to film. As a government-promoted sector and the country’s second-largest employer, the Nigerian film industry — more commonly known as “Nollywood” — is buoying the country’s economy amidst its current recession. The $5-billion sector has significantly contributed to Nigeria’s GDP and, according to the United States International Trade Commission, created jobs for over one million people. And the 2016 release of the popular comedy “The Wedding Party” grossed over 450 million nair ($1,429,709), making it the most profitable film in Nollywood history.
“Nollywood, from my perspective, has come of age,” says Teco Benson, a veteran filmmaker based in Lagos. While granting it has a long way to go in comparison to Hollywood, Benson feels the industry’s growth and success is “advancing media democracy” while “contributing daily to the national, continental and international public sphere.”
With such success — and a relatively low cost of production per film estimated between $25,000 and $75,000 — it’s natural to question how Nollywood could have an even broader impact in terms of both revenue and reach. For some Nigerian filmmakers, the answer lies halfway between Nollywood and Hollywood.
“There is nothing like amalgamating the African culture and the American culture in film,” says Houston-based director Don Okolo, noting it is “a beautiful thing and, if done successfully, you can reach both audiences.” Okolo, who teaches writing and film at Texas Southern University and has been directing for two decades, feels this is best for the African movie industry as its filmmakers work at raising their production values. “By inculcating in American viewers an appreciation of the stories we tell, we can expand just like Bollywood did and create more openings and opportunities for all of us.”
Over the past five years, Okolo and Nigerian producer Nkem DenChukwu have collaborated on numerous feature films, shorts and TV projects aimed at bridging the gap between Nollywood and Hollywood while accessing audiences in between. Among them, “Gem of the Rainforest” (2013) starring Nollywood megastar Ramsey Nouah and “Pound of Flesh” (2014) netted several major awards for the pair from the likes of the popular Nollywood & African Films Critics Awards (NAFCA). The prolific duo recently launched GoldenEyeTV, an on-demand movie platform, and are currently shooting “The Candidate,” with popular veteran Hollywood actor Eric Roberts.
“I think everything boils down to the story,” says DenChukwu, who was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and relocated to the U.S. in 1994. An author, journalist and producer, DenChukwu was named one of Africa’s Top 40 Women in Films and Television by FilmBiz Magazine in 2013. Whether making film in the U.S. or Africa, she says, you can have the “best director, producer and all the resources you need to make a movie,” and you can “even put Denzel Washington in your film, but if your storyline is crap, you have nothing.”
Nigerians have been telling stories on film for more than a half century. In the 1960s, two production companies, Latola Films and Calpeny Nigeria, began making films, the latter adapting “Kongi’s Harvest” from a 1965 play written by Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka and directed by Ossie Davis. Stage-to-screen adaptations would continue and, through the 1980s, the industry would expand despite a common lack of resources and equipment.
In 1992, producer Kenneth Nnebue capitalized on both the popularity of the video cassette market and its simultaneous decline as the global move toward digital technology made discarded VHS cassettes abundant. Further buoyed by the availability of human resources from the Nigerian Television Authority’s earlier decision to stop producing national media content, Nnebue produced the seminal film “Living in Bondage” and inexpensively distributed it to the masses using the unused VHS cassettes. Rapid sales would inspire other filmmakers to follow suit and, by 2002, the explosion of filmmaking in Nigeria would prompt New York Times columnist Norimitsu Onishi to label the industry “Nollywood.” The heightened activity and shifting technology spread Nollywood films to audiences abroad and made it possible for the African diaspora to access films of its own making on an international scale. Other African countries would emulate and a growing global audience now exists for films as exemplified by the healthy return on investment of such streaming Nigeria-serving providers as iROKOtv and the dedicated Nollywood film section on Netflix.
While DenChukwu and Okolo are banking on GoldenEyeTV to make them competitive in this worldwide digital space, the economics of sharing their art with an audience still dominated by home video in their native land are not in their favor. They’ve been approached several times by Nigerian-based companies to distribute their films on the continent.
“You might spend $100,000 to make a movie and they’ll offer you $5000 to distribute your movie for three years and then turn around and give it to Netflix,” laments DenChukwu. “I have no idea what Netflix pays them, but you’ve already signed your movie over after putting out $100,000 to make it. It makes no sense.”
What does make sense to DenChukwu and Okolo is to keep telling strong stories with high production values and relatively low production costs while using their online platform to further bridge the gap between Hollywood and an increasingly digital Nollywood.
“We are not trying to tailor our films to a particular audience or share of the market,” explains Okolo. The veteran filmmaker feels “the broader the viewership, the better for us.”
While their stories certainly contain a number of African characters and cultural elements, and likely always will, Okolo clarifies, “We don’t have to label it as a Nollywood or Hollywood thing.
“We can just call it film.”