In the beginning, there was Hollywood. Then Bollywood, the Bombay (now known as Mumbai) based Hindi language film industry, which is the largest film production centre in the world. And then Tollywood cropped up, the term used to designate the not insubstantial Telagu language film industry in south India. And now there is Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry.
While there is no agreed upon definition of Nollywood (does it include just English language films or local language films as well?), it is generally agreed that the industry began with amateur and low budget films back in the 1990s, and that the term “Nollywood” was invented by the New York Times back in 2002. The first major hit was the film “Living in Bondage” produced in 1992 by Director Chris Obi Rapu. Most films are released direct-to-video owing to a severe shortage of cinemas and big screens, a situation driven by economic and historical factors, including lack of safety at night. For a country with a population of close to 200 million, it is hard to believe that until the mid-2000s, the number of cinemas in Nigeria could be counted on the fingers of two hands. To say that Nigeria is seriously under-screened is an understatement, although companies like Filmhouse Productions have built 25 outlets over the past three years with a target of 50 by the end of 2016.
Fortune Magazine reports that as early as 2009 Nollywood had surpassed Hollywood as the world’s second largest movie industry by volume, right behind Bollywood. This number has to be taken with a note of caution, however, as many of the productions scarcely qualify as movies. UNESCO, in a recent cinema survey analysis (2013) did not place Nigeria in the top 10 producing countries but noted that,
“Nigeria has a very high number of audiovisual productions…on average releasing 966 films per year between 2005 and 2011 – but they are semi-professional/informal productions, most of them almost artisanal with limited or no theatrical release.”
If counted as films, these numbers would have put Nigeria firmly into second place after India and just ahead of the US. I note that UNESCO in its most recent survey has created a new category, “production in video format”, that includes Nigeria and parts of West Africa, as well as Cambodia. Video format or not, by 2014, the Nigerian industry was reported to be worth $3.3 billion, according to government data. However less than one percent of that $3 billion value came from official ticket sales and royalties. The remaining 99% came from pirated reproductions sold by unauthorized vendors for the equivalent of roughly $2 each. Clearly someone is making money, but not the producers.
While Nollywood got started on cut-rate, amateurish productions, things are rapidly moving upscale. However as production values improve, production costs increase and this is posing new challenges for the industry. While the previous low-budget format allowed producers to cover costs and turn a profit even based on a $2 price for a VCD or DVD, it is much more difficult to recoup the higher costs of a full-fledged production on the basis of the existing business model. According to one report, “90 percent of the DVDs in circulation in Nigeria are illegal copies, with new releases enjoying just a two-week window before pirated versions flood the market.”
One would have thought that with this level of piracy, Nigeria would be high on the list of transgressors identified by the Washington, DC, based International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) in its annual submission to the US Trade Representative’s (USTR) Special 301 process, but the last year that Nigeria was named was in 2009 when it got a “special mention”. (“Special mention” is a negative assessment but not a recommendation that a country be placed on USTR’s “Watch List”, an official list of designated countries whose policies are deemed to provide inadequate protection for US industries dependent upon intellectual property rights).
Despite the almost 100% piracy rate, Nigeria is not a market where US studios see large losses, if only because so much of the market is focussed on local content and consequently the focus of piracy is also local rather than international. Not only did Nigeria not make the IIPA list, it was not on USTR’s Watch List last year either, although it did get a couple of mentions in the 2016 Special 301 report, and was included in a separate USTR report on “Notorious Markets” (the Computer Village Market in Lagos). In its compilation of the “Watch List” (countries where IP protection is considered to be lacking in one or more areas), USTR pointed a finger at developed countries such as Canada, Switzerland and Greece, not to mention “in between” countries like China, India, Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Turkey etc., and some developing countries, but Nigeria was not on the list.
Even though Nigeria has largely escaped the scrutiny of the US industry and government, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t piracy problems. In fact, Nollywood shares the piracy problem with its industry cousins in other countries, only in spades. A large part of the problem has to do with the distribution network. An article by Nigerian criminologist Dr. Oludayo Tade shines a light on “insider connections and clandestine networks” where “associates” appointed by copyright owners to distribute films in actual fact are often the source of master copies used to make multiple pirate versions, dubbed into regional languages.
The pirate versions are on the market quickly, in some cases the same day as the legitimate version is released. While distributors play both ends against the middle, making money on both legitimate and pirated products, the producers are the ones who are seriously short-changed. The usual problems found in many developing countries with regard to IP protection, such as lax enforcement, corruption, early tip offs of raids, penetration of security etc. also exist, further complicating the situation. There is no denying that Nigeria faces many challenges, particularly in its northern areas where dissident groups like Boko Haram have wrought havoc and parts of the country are facing the threat of famine. While lack of commitment to protecting the output of Nigerian creators is perhaps a natural consequence of a nation under stress, long-term nation building requires nurturing and protecting national cultural expression and output. With regard to the crisis facing the film industry, Dr. Tade concludes;
“If there were a real threat of arrest and prosecution, these clandestine networks would be more likely to break down. This would allow intellectual property owners to have access to their legitimate gains. Until then, Nollywood may continue to grow – but at a cost”.
It is remarkable that the industry has been so resilient and has developed to the extent that it has. Clearly there is a demand for this cultural product that develops local artists, provides outlets for local writers, and tells local stories or at least stories that appeal to Nigerian consumers. Developing the local entertainment industry provides important economic and cultural benefits, just as it would in any other country. Now that Nollywood is shedding its “wild west” image and is becoming a legitimate centre of film production, the rampant piracy problem that has been tolerated and internalized until now will have to be dealt with if the industry is to move to the next level. Until it is, the true creative potential of the Nigerian film industry will not be fully realized.
© Hugh Stephens, 2017. All Rights Reserved.