The movie industry has apparently grown over the years, but it has largely been through the huff and puff of individual efforts. Though the lack of a viable structure is one of the heaviest albatross around the neck of the industry, it is hard to deny that by sheer dint of hard work, persistence, and ingenuity, Nigerian filmmakers have over the years built a vibrant creative ecosystem that has churned out several works; albeit under excoriating conditions.
However, with the world even now more of a global village than it used to be, the country’s movie industry is gradually opening up to international investors and audiences; just like many stakeholders had hoped and prayed for.
The presence of global video streaming platforms in the country has undoubtedly raised the stakes, and is contributing to the growth of Nollywood. Indeed, it is a new and exciting vista of boundless possibilities.
Video streaming platforms to the rescue
Founded in 1997 by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph in California, United States of America, Netflix has since grown into a global streaming giant. As of January 2023, it had over 230 million subscribers worldwide, including 74.3 million in the United States and Canada; 76.7 million in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, 41.7 million in Latin America; and 38 million in the Asia-Pacific region. It is available across the globe, except in Mainland China, Syria, North Korea, and Russia
The organization started as a video rental company, but its founders forecasted that streaming videos on the Internet was the future of the industry, and they focused on that. Indeed their projection turned out to be accurate, as video streaming now generates revenue in excess of $1bn.
Netflix Nigeria invests N9bn in six years
In 2022, Netflix revealed that since it got into Nigeria in 2016, it had invested N9bn in the creative sector between then and 2022.
While speaking at the second Nigeria Digital Content Regulation Conference held in Lagos in November 2022, the company’s Director of Public Policy for Sub-Saharan Africa, Shola Sanni, stated that it had ‘converted’ many local film titles, held capacity-building sessions, and committed to infrastructure development in the industry.
She went on to say that the streaming platform had invested in over 200 local licensed titles, as well as co-produced and commissioned original film content. According to her, as of November 2022, 125 Nigerian films and television series were available on Netflix.
Explaining the reason for the investment, Sanni said, “We love Nigeria and believe in it. That is why we are investing in the film industry to entertain Nigerians and the world, with the best-in-class stories from the country.”
“We are poised to tell stories that are not only interesting in Nigeria, but in the 189 other countries where we are present,” she added.
Beyond acquiring movies from producers, streaming platforms also commission and fund the production of certain films. On one of such platforms, such productions are called ‘Netflix Originals’.
The streaming giant’s Nigerian original movies and series include, ‘Anikulapo’ ‘Lionheart’, ‘Blood Sisters’, and most recently, ‘Shanty Town’.
All the movies and series listed above were successful on different levels, but what is not in doubt is the fact that they attracted and are still enjoying massive viewership.
The movie, ‘Anikulapo’, produced by Kunle Afolayan, actually broke a record, when just a week after it was released on September 30, 2022, it became the most-watched non-English movie on the platform, amassing over eight million hours of screen time.
The epic fantasy film, which was set in the 17th century Oyo Empire, tells the story of Saro (Kunle Remi), who had daring affairs with different women, including Awarun (Sola Sobowale), an older and wealthy businesswoman; and Arolake (Bimbo Ademoye), the wife of the Alaafin of Oyo. When the monarch got to know about the affair, he commanded that Saro should be killed. He was eventually lynched, but with the help of a mysterious bird and Arolake, he came back to life and got a potion that he could use to bring people back to life. However, as his fame and wealth grew, Saro also developed an insatiable appetite for more women. He cheated on Arolake on different occasions, and, as it was to be expected, all hell was let loose. She ended up destroying the mysterious bird’s gourd that contained the potion Saro used in raising the dead.
The cinematography, set and costumes used in the series were positively appraised by fans and movie critics alike.
Revealing the efforts that went into making the movie, Afolayan stated that the filming took place in his film village in Oyo State for about seven weeks, and involved approximately 300 people. The production set was built from scratch.
He added that except for colour correction and grading, which were done in the United Kingdom, the post-production process was completed in Nigeria.
On the other hand, ‘Blood Sisters’ is woven around two close friends, Kemi (Nancy Isime) and Sarah (Ini-dima Okojie), whose friendship and loyalty got tested severally, while fighting for their lives.
Isime, who was hitherto known as a talk show host, was applauded for the way she portrayed the character. Undoubtedly, that singular series pivoted her career over several steps.
It was a collaborative work between the streaming platform, and media personality, Mo’ Abudu’s EbonyLife Studios.
Just like Afolayan, Abudu stated that emphasis was placed on delivering quality work. She said at the time, “It is a crime thriller, which is a new genre for us, so the prospect was challenging but very exciting.
“It was also a particularly unique and intense experience as we shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we remained committed to the vision we share with Netflix – to tell authentic and exciting African stories with superb production values.”
Amazon wants a piece of the juicy pie too
Amazon Prime Video, which was established in 2006, describes itself as a ‘subscription video on-demand, over-the-top streaming and rental service’. It is part of the Amazon Group, which is owned by the former richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos.
The service primarily distributes films and television series produced by Amazon Studios and MGM Holdings or licensed by them, as Amazon Originals.
As of September 2022, it had a total of 200million subscribers. With the coming of the conglomerate to Nigeria, it had certainly had a positive impact on the filmmaking industry.
On August 4, 2022, the streamer announced that it had launched a localised version of its service in the country.
And, seemingly, the company is hitting the ground running with the feature film, ‘Gangs of Lagos’; and the comedy series, ‘Last One Laughing Naija’.
A new Nollywood emerges
A veteran actor and filmmaker, Antar Laniyan, noted that the presence of streaming platforms in Nollywood was a positive development. He told our correspondent, “They are contributing to the growth of Nollywood. If one takes a good look at the productions they have been associated with, one will see that they have a standard. If one takes a job to any of the streamer and it does not measure up to their standard, they will not accept it. That is undoubtedly contributing to the growth of the industry.”
Laniyan was also of the opinion that Nollywood practitioners were taking due advantage of the opportunities provided by the streaming platforms. He said, “Yes, I feel that they (actors and filmmakers) are measuring up to the standard that has been set. However, the industry can still do with more investment. If people know that they will make their money back plus profit, they will be more open towards investing in the industry. Films such as Toyin Abraham’s ‘Ijakumo’ and Kunle Afolayan’s ‘Anikulapo’, are making a lot of money; and it is proof that one can make profitable investments in the industry.”
While acknowledging that the streaming platforms had been a positive addition to the industry, a popular actor and broadcaster, Patrick Doyle, wondered if they were investing as much money in Nigeria as they were doing in other places. He said, “The additional funding from the big streaming platforms is welcome as it has catalysed creativity and given expression to ideas that had hitherto been stunted as a result of budget considerations. However, what is unclear is whether our productions attract competitive budgets, compared to other territories. Truth be told, Nigerian motion picture creatives have never had it so good. That said, there is the issue of the emergence of gatekeepers who have inserted themselves between the platforms and the wider creative community. I am aware that Netflix initially intended to have direct relations with Nigerian moviemakers, but along the line, some persons became aggregators and more or less control access to those platforms.”
Another veteran actor, Akin Lewis, espoused the view that though the streaming platforms were contributing their quota to the growth of the industry, opportunities for filmmakers needed to be more balanced and equitable. He said, “Though these streaming platforms are doing a lot, I do not think it is everybody that has access (to them). They need to be a lot more open for people to know what they want (in terms of production). Nigeria is big, so they need to throw their doors open to more people. But, there is no doubt that some people are profiting from the little they are doing so far.”
On her part, actress, Etinosa Idemudia, maintained that stakeholders in Nollywood were making the best use of the opportunities, but there was still room for more platforms. She said, “Yes, I feel filmmakers are maximising the opportunities. There are very good contents coming out of the Nigerian movie space these days; and it is indeed nice to see.
“However, I desire even more distribution channels, because the opportunites are endless.”
Nudity in art is by no means a new development. It has existed for centuries. However, as a result of cultural factors, it was not pervasive in Nollywood, which is regarded as the third biggest movie industry in the world; following the United States of America’s Hollywood, and Bollywood of India.
However, there have been criticisms of the sexual content in some of the movies promoted by the streaming companies.
Recent movies and series such as ‘Elesin Oba’, ‘Anikulapo’, and ‘Shanty Town’ have a generous display of nudity.
Laniyan, who has spent over four decades in the industry, was of the opinion that even if nudity needed to be used in telling a story better, it should be tastefully done. He said, “Some people will say it is bad. I do not subscribe to it or encourage it; but even if the story requires one to go naked, some areas of the body should be covered, because human dignity should be respected.”
For people complaining about nudity in films, Lewis maintained that movies were often classified because not all films were meant to be watched by all categories of people. He said, “It is because of things such as nudity that films are rated. People should look for what they like and watch it. One does not have to watch content that one does not like or find suitable, then start complaining after watching it.”
However, actress and filmmaker, Ini Edo, felt that people were being hypocritical about nudity in productions such as ‘Shanty Town’, which she co-produced and acted a co-lead role in. She said, “Some Nigerians can be hypocritical when they want to be. We are trying to shine the light on a societal ill going on in the country, by letting people know that there are many children who are trained to become armed robbers from a very young age. Most of them are taken away from their parents; and some women are deceived into such a lifestyle. It is a fundamental problem that is happening, and some people are bothered about nudity? How does one talk about prostitution rings and not show nudity? It makes no sense. However, more people can understand; and the few who don’t will eventually come around.”
The Executive Director of the National Film and Video Censors Board, Adedayo Thomas, also noted that nudity was only displayed in movies or shows that were classified for adult viewing. He said, “If there is nudity in a Nigerian film/TV show, it can only be watched by people who are 18 years old and above. And even at that, they won’t be shown on terrestrial stations. If parents don’t want their children to watch such films or other content they deem inappropriate, they should not subscribe to them.”
Telling the right Nigerian stories
With global attention on productions from Nigeria, Lewis advised that only the good parts of the country should be projected through movies and soap operas. He said, “Common sense should let us know that it is the good part of us that we should project and market. Everywhere in the world, they have their bad sides, but it is only the good parts they put out there, because that is what people like to see.”
In a similar vein, Laniyan noted that filmmakers should prioritise telling stories about the country’s cultures. He said, “We should talk about our cultures and tradition; especially stories that people can relate with. It is not about holding guns and shooting…how many people do we see in Nigeria doing things like that. If we tell our stories the way we should, the world will love it and want to know more about us. We have our way of doing things here, and that is what we should be showing the world.”
Commenting on the quality of storytelling in the industry, Doyle said, “I am not quite sure that our film industry has got global attention just yet. We seem to be well on the way, though. Notwithstanding, our stories are better themed and are approaching global appeal. Our filmmakers have mastered the art of visual presentation pretty well. What is lacking is the conscious infusion of African ethos in a manner that it strikes up a conversation with global thematic concepts of life and living. What we see mostly are very well-shot movies with Western themes, using African actors. ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ (Elesin Oba) might have broken that jinx if it had been shot with a ‘Woman King’ (an American film)’s budget.”
Sharing similar opinions with Doyle, a veteran actress, Hilda Dokubo, noted that the streamers could do better than they were currently doing. She said, “The streaming platforms have been a positive development in the industry, but I feel it is not time to get excited just yet. If we do a comparative analysis of how much they spend in other countries compared to Nigeria, I am sure we will find that there is a huge difference.
“We (Nollywood) have to get out acts together, and sign the right deals. We need to stop the culture of going cap-in-hand to beg for funding.”
Popular actor, IK Ogbonna, also emphasised that originality should never be compromised in storytelling. He said, “We should tell our stories as original as they are. We can never tell the white man’s story better than he would do it himself. We should not try to compete with them in that area. However, I also feel that the industry is large and dynamic enough for us to tell any kind of story. Movies are not just for entertainment; they should also be educative and informative. They should be relatable as well. The films and shows that go viral on streaming platforms are the ones that many people can relate with.”
He who pays the piper calls the tune?
There have been insinuations that when streaming giants finance a production, they tend to dictate the terms, and essentially seize creative control from the filmmaker. Observers point to the copious display of nudity, and other Western themes as evidence.
For Antar Laniyan though, he maintained that as the director of a movie, no one could dictate to him what to do. He said, “I do not think that is right. I do not even think that happens because it has never happened to me. When you (investor) put money down, you have to give me the freedom to make the movie. You may have provided the money, but it remains my movie.”
“For a long time, I had always felt pained that Nigerian movies were not advancing in the same way that Nigerian music (afrobeats) had become the toast of the world,” were the words of Tosin Ajayi, a movie buff.
He told our correspondent, “Over the years, there have been quite a number of successful cinema movies, but I felt things could still be done better, especially in the areas of cinematography and storyline.
“With the incursion of global streaming platforms into the country, I am positive that there will be a lot of dramatic changes. Few of the movies I have seen on those platforms show me that it is possible. They just need bigger budgets and more in-depth stories, and Nigerian stories will be enjoyed all over the world.”
A movie enthusiast, Nduka Ukor, also stated that it was indeed a golden era for the industry. He said, “This is actually a great evolution, and the present crop of Nollywood practitioners should make the best use of it. The streaming platforms, including YouTube, are opening up the industry to the outside world in a way that had never been done.
“Now, there is a lot more money to be invested into quality productions. That means creatives will earn better pay for doing what they love. This also portends more visibility because content can now be accessed from anywhere in the world.
“However, the industry should also get its acts together. This means that they have to be intentional and strategic about the type of content they put out. It has often been said that perception is stronger than reality; Nollywood has the opportunity of shaping how the world perceives Nigeria. It is the way we portray ourselves in movies that foreigners will see us. Many people who have never travelled to the United States of America know so many things about that country simply by watching their movies, shows and other works of art. My advice to Nigeria filmmakers is to handle that ‘task’ responsibly.”
Marketers out of business?
Despite the seemingly novel development, it seems not all stakeholders in Nollywood are happy about it.
A movie marketer, Kehinde Fajobi, stated that modern technology tools such as video streaming platforms and video sharing media (such as YouTube) were constantly chasing people like him out of the market.
He said, “I have been doing this business since 2002, and by the grace of God, I have been able to manage and sustain it for over 20 years. And just like every other thing in life, there have been different ups and downs in the sector. However, what is happening now is actually very dangerous, and nobody seems to be saying anything.
“This issue of actors and filmmakers putting their videos on YouTube and other Internet platforms is not the best. What people don’t realise is that marketers are a very critical part of the industry, because they provide a lot of employment, both directly and indirectly. There are some marketers that have up to 12 shops in a single market. Now, imagine the number of jobless people such markets will take off the streets.
“These days, cinema owners and streaming platforms are the ones calling the shots. Money that is supposed to go to Nigerians is now given to those big companies that already have a lot of money and are domiciled outside the country.”
On his part, the Chief Executive Officer of a video streaming platform, Ibaka TV, Blessed Idumogie, noted that though steaming platforms were the future of the movie industry, they needed not sound a death knell for other areas. He told our correspondent, “There are different markets for different products and services. The pay TV market is a different one, and if there is a proper distribution framework, it should not affect other platforms.
“Streaming platforms make our movies more accessible; unlike going to the cinema. The cinemas in Nigeria are not even enough; there should be more.
“However, video-on-demand platforms give people the option to access content at anywhere and anytime. In that regard, they have opened up the industry and given works from the country a wider reach. Lovers of Nigerian films and shows, who are in the Diaspora, can now have access to them with ease. Before the Internet, there was only pay TV. But now on the Internet, we have subscription video on demand, transactional video on demand and advertising-based video on demand. Those three have different types of subscription for people to choose whichever they prefer.”
Speaking on the challenges of operating a streaming platform, Idumoje said, “A major challenge is the cost of content consumption, not necessarily the cost of subscription. Subscription is not as expensive as consumption. Some people find it difficult to embrace online streaming because of the cost of data. In some countries, online streaming is more widespread because their governments subsidise the cost of Internet connectivity. To adequately enjoy online streaming, the cost of Internet connection has to be affordable. The government has to invest in critical technology infrastructure. If it is only private entities that invest in it, they would eventually pass on the cost to the consumers.
“Many people cannot afford the data cost of watching a one-hour video on the Internet. That is why many of them download and ‘pirate’ (bootleg) videos from platforms that curate content.”
Another criticism that has trailed streaming platforms is that they are not well regulated.
However, Thomas, the NFVCB honcho, noted that the board was ‘in talks’ with some of the streaming platforms. He said, “Two years ago, I was able to engage Netflix, YouTube and DSTV. They were initially reluctant but Netflix, DSTV and Google (YouTube’s sister company) have started talking to us. All of them attended the digital conference we held last year (2022). Anytime we see something that is not appropriate, we call their attention to it and they always do the right thing.”
Gains, gains, gains
A financial expert, Dapo Erugbogbo, was of the opinion that Nollywood practitioners had a goldmine on their hands, and it was essential to milk it for what it was worth. He added that the development could have a ripple effect on the economy, with the many direct and indirect jobs it would provide.
He said, “The economics of it all is looking so good. The world, particularly urban areas, have moved away from buying compact discs; many people now view content over the Internet. With the coming of these streaming platforms, I believe it is a win-win situation for all parties. The streamer will make money. They will invest more money in the industry, and actors and other professionals involved in the filmmaking process will smile to the bank as well. Viewers will also get quality productions, and enjoy value for their money.”
Urging the government to harness the potential of the creative sector, Ini Edo, who is also the Special Assistant to the Akwa Ibom State Governor on Culture and Tourism, said, “It is one of the highest revenue-generating industries in the country. It provides employment for millions of youths, not to mention the number of people taken off the streets, and the huge investments. If only the people (in leadership positions) understand what the movie industry can contribute to Nigeria’s economy, I think the government will see to it that the right structures are put in place, so that the sector can thrive. It is one thing to see (potential); it is a different ball game to do something about it.”
Credit: Punch (18th February 2023)