I came into Nollywood more than half a decade ago with nary an idea of what the Nigerian filmmaking industry at the time entailed. Years later and while my role is clearer to me the industry defies being identified by any other means beyond the abstract. It is not a conventional location in the same way Hollywood is - if it were we would call it Surulere, or probably 'woodify' it and have something along the lines of Suruwood. As an industry it is inchoate
It is not a distinct filmmaking style either and while in recent years foreign observers have studied Nollywood as a distinct business model that churns huge volumes of content under the constraints of a low budget like available time and finances, to reap huge profit margins, films like Kunle Afolayan's October 1st, Half of A Yellow Sun directed by Biyi Bandele and Izu Ojukwu's 76 are eager to shrug off that description and aspire to more than that.
This year at TIFF, Nollywood made a strong case for itself as Lagos, arguably Nollywood's home was chosen for this year's City to City Spotlight. With Nigerian talents from Uzo Aduba to David Oyelowo and Chiwetel Ejiofor having gained international visibility, surely the film industry of the Nation that birthed these talents had come of age and was about to be known for just more than smash and grab type returns on low budget films. Nollywood didn't disappoint and coupled with the Nigerian abililty to not be ignored we made our voices heard, and these voices were distinct. From Steve Gukas' 93 Days, Abba Makama's Green-White-Green to the Judith Audu produced Just not Married, the Niyi Akinmolayan directed The Arbitration, Nollywood broke the yoke of monotony and showed a diversity that up until this moment had admittedly been lacking. A monotony that had been perpetuated by the gatekeepers; movie marketers who prevailed in the Direct to DVD market(Nollywood's biggest revenue earner) and placed premium on the staples such as romance, comedy and tales of evil relatives who employed withcraft against unsuspecting family members(let's call this drama). Nollywood's showcase at TIFF showed that the headwinds are in favour of a shift from servicing only certain sections of Sub Saharan Africa and Africans in the Diaspora to providing content that can be consumed globally, ingested and appreciated by people whose culture and realities differ from ours.
However, let us realize that next year, Nigeria, or more specifically, Lagos' Nollywood will not have the opportunity of being the focus of TIFF's City to Citiy Spotlight and as such the upward trajectory the industry has momentarily found itself on will be put to task. Will Nollywood be able to draw attention on the international stage yet again, and not as a witty Felix Clay article on the Cracked website or as the perfect guerilla filmmaking hack. will Nollywood, to paraphrase the slogan, rise?
The answer to this seems an obvious yes, and while I am optimistic about it, a more pressing matter would be the rate at which Nollywood rises. As art that was born out of entrepreneurship according to the myth of the trader who imported a container load of empty video cassette recorders and figured a way to sell them was to put locally made movies on them, Nollywood remains at its heart a massive commercial engine that is averse to change, especially when it seemingly does nothing to the bottom line in the short term. Hence while a few forward thinking people have embraced cinema, bigger budgets and exposure on the international filmmaking community, a lot more have stubbornly dug in their heels and refused to move. A classic example is the conversation a director relayed to me about his experience with an executive producer/marketer who told him that they basically mint money of the backs of the creatives and actors and saw no need for funding films with cinematic distribution in mind or increased spending on productions and raising production quality overall and his claims are valid. While we celebrate the return of cinemas to the Nigerian environment, we must realise that the multi billion dollar industry that is Nollywood does not generate beyond ten percent of it's revenue from cinematic distribution, the market is still driven by physical DVD sales and VOD coming in at a close second and when the consumers are yet to demand higher production standards why change a winning formula or risk shrinking profit margins by increasing cost of production? There's already the risk of piracy eating into your earnings on the one hand. Are we trying to increase cinemas' share of that pie or raise value overall?
Nigeria's cinema landscape is inchoate,at a time when many are asking if the cinema is on its way out due to VOD services, better internet at reduced costs it does not have enough screens to deeply entrench itself and this trend might remain so for a while given the current economic downturn. Moreso, Nollywood does not get equal standing with Hollywood at the cinemas, Hence you'd find independent filmmakers who complain about their inability to secure viable showing times for their movies or have their cinema run capped out at three weeks. The Nigerian cinema needs more screens and involuntarily, stratification to succeed. Local(community) theatres need to come into existence once again like in the late eighties and nineties (that's how I got introduced to Bollywood) whether as offshoots of the major cinema houses or independently run. Our movies need to be given priority, cinemas are yet to understand the pulse of the Nigerian consumer and how the same demographic that just saw a Matt Damon thriller would also troop to see John Okafor or Nkem Owoh display their brand of comedy. Ayo Makun's Thirty days in Atlanta gave the Nigerian cinema a taste of how well Nollywood could perform on the big screen despite dodgy production quality as seen in the first third of the film and a so-so script with a lot of slapstick comedy sequences but they have been reluctant, or at best tried to steer the movie making process with mixed results rather than focus on increasing the average number of eyeballs that gets to see movies at their theatres.
While some cinema houses wade into movie production, Nollywood has done well all by itself in raising its standards. Production value has actually gone up. We have Canon and other DSLR stalwarts to thank for this on one hand for democratising filmmaking as the cliché goes, but even more important are the set of professional filmmakers (both local and foreign educated) who circa 2007 came into the industry with all that knowledge and a point to prove. As one of them related to me in a conversation earlier in the year, they were so confident that one of them even walked up to industry stalwarts and boldly declared that he would change the industry and put them out of work, a very heady, uninformed declaration on his part. While collaboration is more desirable than rivalry especially in an industry like Nollywood, it was that need to prove a deviation from Nollywood's well worn path that set the industry on this new path.
It's not just cinematography either, Production design is no longer limited to customes,period films like October 1st and 76 attest to this. Sound design is now important enough, not an afterthought during post production. Proficiency in various aspects of filmmaking is now emphasized, platforms like the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF), Del-York among others have provided opportunities for training and retraining in various disciplines, exposing Nollywood's burgeoning crop of young filmmakers to both international standards and timeless wisdom on navigating the industry from its pioneers. From Acting, Directing, special effects make up, production design to writing, you name it. And it's paying off.
A classic example of this would be the story of one of the films that made it to TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) a film that was headed for VOD and DVD release according to one of the people who worked on it but found its way to the big screen instead and eventually TIFF, I'm talking about the Judith Audu produced movie Just Not Married which had Lani Aisida making his feature film scriptwriting debut.
So from first time feature film scriptwriters like Africa Ukoh (who has a great résumé as a playwright) on Green White Green, to Lani Aisida to Directors, new and old alike with new voices or new takes like Izu Ojukwu or Abba Makama, the trajectory of the Nigerian filmmaking scene is not hard to plot, but Nollywood is fraught with schisms. There was no clearer manifestation of this than with the presentation of the MOPICON bill at the National assembly earlier in the year that sought to put creativity in a conformist straitjacket and censor expression. The outburst from what became known as old and new Nollywood would have been humorous to watch if one's career and livelihood wasn't directly tied to the outcome of the said bill. Insults were traded, articles were written, and underneath the layer of hostility and some what mutual contempt displayed by some characters on both sides of the divide, clear ideological differences were identified.
There is only one Nollywood in the eyes of the consumer, whether local, in the Diaspora or the global community at large. Nollywood has succeeded because it was not propped up by government by rather by enterprising individuals, it will do best to not seek nourishment from the coffers of a government trying to fund it's budget but rather work towards making itself attractive, the British film industry is a good example of what happens to a film industry tethered to the purse strings of government rather than seek market competitiveness. At every turn inclusiveness should be Nollywood's goal, not alienation between the 'pioneers' and those they've decided to refer to as 'upstarts.'
Nollywood's waters are still murky to both the uninitiated and the current players alike, while we can no longer decry the existence of good stories with the same fervor as one would have years ago, or lack of technical know how for the type of stories we want to tell, film financing and remuneration for work done by creatives remains an issue. With the exception of a few major productions (thankfully the number is growing, but. It fast enough in my opinion) a major source of film financing is still FFF; Family, Friends and 'Fools' willing enough to invest. There are few dedicated models to finance movies or companies that help drive financing towards viable films. Exposure on multiple platforms seems not to have yielded commensurate remuneration to actors and behind the scenes talent have seen wages fluctuate and drop to worrying levels regardless of the scale of the project. Call it bad negotiating or whatever, but the fact that creatives would accept wages that can only be described as 'so last decade' speaks to something more. Nollywood will rise, when everyone gets an upgrade from the floor, to a seat at the table.