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Nollywood’s evolution from VHS tapes to streaming success

From VHS tapes to global streaming fame, Nollywood's journey is a remarkable tale of resilience and innovation, one that keeps the cameras rolling.

The 2006 blockbuster Games Men Play 4 starts with a simple premise that soon escalates into a complex web of deception, betrayal, and violence. By the time it climaxes in the third instalment, the audience has witnessed the stories of a serial cheat, a catfish, a deluded lover, and a man who hired his friend to rape his wife. 

You can sense the relief in the final scene, one I assume the cast and crew felt, too. Why else were they dancing?

Part 1: The Golden Era. 

In the early 2000s, most Nollywood movies were like this: two to four parts, each over an hour long. The storylines were often simple – a wealthy prince meets a poor girl. They fall in love. Mother-in-law hates the poor girl. She makes her life miserable. Something climatic happens. Mother-in-law turns a new leaf. They live happily ever after. Yet somehow, the filmmakers always found a way to stretch it out. And it did not matter how long or poor the quality was; the viewers patiently watched. “The scenes may not have been perfect, but we made sure every production told stories that resonated with the audience,” said Games Men Play director Lancelot Imasuen.

Imasuen has always been passionate about making films that stand the test of time. His 2001 hit crime movie Isakaba explored topics on insecurity that are still as relevant today as it was 22 years ago. “I tilt towards culturally oriented and relevant works. I think it is the bane of societal peace,” he said. “That is why I am always sensitive to what is happening in my environment. I want these important stories to get captured in motion picture.”

As a filmmaker in the early 2000s, Imasuen understood the limitations of the industry. It was not uncommon to have subpar-quality movies. The movies were often produced with low budgets and limited resources, which resulted in poor-quality video, audio, and editing. A scene could have such inconsistent lighting and camera angles that the viewers could see the shadows of the crew. “In those inadequacies, I was conscious of the desired results. I have always been my biggest critic. My motto is, if the quality is lagging, my name will never be on it,” Imasuen said.

Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, Nollywood film director and producer.

The audience did not mind. They could rent the films from home video stores for anything between 50 – 100 naira, the same amount it costs to buy a small packet of biscuits today. Sometimes, they did not have to rent them. They would borrow these videotapes or DVDs from their neighbours as long they returned them in time to make it back to the rental store. Consumers could access and afford entertainment better than they could basic amenities.

The first time these low-budget home videos bypassed the formal cinema system and catered to the local market was in 1992 when the film Living in Bondage was released. The movie sold over a million copies on VHS tapes. This was a milestone for the industry. A few years prior, sometime in the late 1980s, when the industry was relatively new, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had imposed measures to curb Nigeria’s political unrest. These measures led to economic downturns that made filmmaking prohibitively expensive. It stifled filmmakers’ ability to profit from their films. 

Living in Bondage broke that spell. Filmmakers could now benefit from videotape sales. And they relied mainly on the massive sale of those tapes to make a profit. Film distributors who had to negotiate with various stakeholders, such as VHS retailers, marketed the films. Most movies sold more than 20,000 units. And if they were successful, over 200,000. 

It would take another few years for Nollywood to transition to digital operations. And when it did, the industry was not technically equipped for it. “For the kind of stories we wanted to tell and the kind of visuals we wanted to create, we didn’t have that many people on the technical side that could handle it,” recalled Niyi Akinmolayan, founder and creative director of Anthill Studios.

Niyi Akinmolayan, Nigerian filmmaker. Founder and creative director, Anthill Studios.

Akinmolayan’s first encounter with the industry was working behind the scenes and postproduction, mastering everything from visual effects to editing and graphics. He loved his job. He had worked with top filmmakers in the industry, learning and garnering tricks on the job. “You get to that point where you want to tell your own stories. Because you have particular kinds of stories that nobody wants to tell,” he said. 

Some people had different ideas. Many filmmakers started exploring little storytelling and a profit-oriented model. The money-making process remained the same. The marketing and distribution were controlled primarily by a cartel of Nigerian film marketers, with names like Emeka and Sons. They used informal networks to sell their films on VCDs to local retailers, street vendors, and consumers.

Nollywood’s bright light.

In 2012, ex-President Goodluck Jonathan referred to the industry as the country’s “shining light”. It was during a presidential dinner hosting Nollywood’s stakeholders to mark Nollywood’s 20th anniversary. The statement was not to compliment the glittering dresses that the stars had adorned themselves with that night.

That year, the film industry produced up to five films daily for an estimated audience of 15 million locally and 5 million in other African countries. That same year, a Euromonitor report projected a 5.2 per cent GDP growth rate due to the Nigerian film industry. After working with little stories and a profit-oriented model for a long time, Nollywood was experimenting with new genres, styles, and techniques. It was the year Kunle Afolayan released Phone Swap. This romantic comedy explored the concept of two strangers swapping their phones and lives by accident. The film was a commercial and critical success. It won the Golden Jury Award at the 2012 Africa International Film Festival.

A year later, the United Nations called the industry a potential goldmine. Over a million people had been employed by the industry, making it the country’s largest employer after agriculture. The impact was necessary. The African Development Bank declared that the job shortage for Nigeria’s increasing youth population was a growing concern.

Alas, the excitement started to wane in 2014. Nollywood lost about 82 billion naira to piracy. That year, many Nigerians first experienced Afolayan’s film October 1 through hawked copies from street producers and vendors. Afolayan was upset. He had always been vocal and active in the fight against piracy. He led a protest against piracy with other Nollywood filmmakers. They marched from Ikeja to the governor’s office in Alausa, Lagos state, seizing and destroying pirated copies of his films from street sellers. “It was unacceptable and unfair,” he said. “It undermined our efforts and profits. Filmmakers put in all that work, yet there is little to protect their intellectual property. The hope is that one day, piracy would significantly reduce.”

Kunle Afolayan, Nigerian filmmaker

Part 2: Nollywood’s big break?

The Korean film industry got its big break in 2003, two years after the Korean Film Commission implemented the screen quota system, which required cinemas to show Korean films for at least 146 days a year. In 2016, the Korean film industry reached a new peak of 217 million admissions, with a revenue of $1.4 billion. But it was not until 2020, when Parasite became the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and three other Oscars, that the industry got its big break.

The film industry attracted over 1.5 million tourists to South Korea. 28.8 per cent of the tourists in 2022 said they chose to travel to South Korea for culture and art, and 13.4 per cent said it was for entertainment. The industry exported products and services worth 1,050 billion Won to other countries, mainly China, Japan, and the United States.

Filmmaking is a big part of many economies. Not only do they influence pop culture, but they are also a feasible means of achieving economic growth. Koïchiro Matsuura, former director-general of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, once said, “Film and video production are shining examples of how cultural industries, as vehicles of identity, values, and meanings, can open the door to dialogue and understanding between peoples, but also to economic growth and development.”

Nollywood strove to embody the spirit of this quote in 2016. The industry looked to the cinemas to increase profitability. “The moment you are doing cinema, two things happen. You’re demanding people’s time, attention, and money. When you do that, it doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re trying to tell; it has to be worth their money,” said Akinmolayan.

Star-driven marketing was a viable approach. The strategy uses the popularity and appeal of famous actors and actresses to promote and sell films. By casting well-known and well-liked stars, the filmmakers hoped to increase the visibility and profitability of their movies. Cinema exhibitors understood the power of this all too well. They had the figures to prove it. In 2016, Kemi Adetibas’ The Wedding Party became the highest-grossing Nigerian cinema movie of the decade. The romantic comedy featured a star-studded cast, from Richard Mofe Damijo to (then) R and B star Banky W. It proved the cinema’s theory. The audience was ready for new themes but loved seeing big names and familiar faces.

It did not matter what you tried to do; you always needed that magnet to draw people. For filmmakers, it became a battle between maintaining artistic vision and meeting the commercial demands of the industry. “As filmmakers, we spent a lot of money making these movies. We needed high returns, else all that spending made no sense,” said Akinmolayan. There was little choice since the industry had struggled to find a profitable distribution channel for a while. 

Part 3: Remake(s), stream and chill. 

I first saw the 1992 Nollywood blockbuster Living in Bondage in 2020, twenty-eight years after the movie debuted. The Nollywood classic transcends generations. So here I was in 2020, pJs and popcorn in bed, streaming it for the first time on YouTube. For many reasons, I must add. First, the lockdown had given us so much time to explore lost treasure. But it was also the year the remake Living in Bondage: Breaking Free debuted on Netflix.

Netflix’s entry into the film industry was strategic. The streaming giant was losing numbers. Nollywood offered a development potential that the company hoped would reassure investors. In 2016, Netflix acquired local theatrical releases, collaborating with established filmmakers to produce high-budget indigenous content. Amazon Prime Video followed suit, launching a localized version of their service in Nigeria called Prime Video Naija.

The first pioneer of this innovation in Nollywood was Irokotv. In 2011, IROKO launched as a subscription-based platform, negotiating distribution deals with local movie producers and offering a wide range of films. By 2016, they had raised $19 million in a series E to invest in producing 300 hours of original content. Soon, the online streaming service was dubbed the ‘Netflix of Africa’. According to Irokotv’s founder, Jason Njoku, his early investors made a whopping 3,000 per cent profit on their early investment.

The streamers introduced a different approach to the industry. In its early days, it looked like the platform was elitist. Only movies made up of the elites, for the elites, and by the elites seemed to cut it. “They are technology companies before anything else. They follow the algorithm. They follow what the data says, and you can’t argue with data,” Akinmolyan said. “If Netflix believes that there is a demography in Nigeria that loves films about sex, or masquerades, and they have been able to pull that data, they want to use that to influence the kind of films they make.”

Behind the scene shot from Netflix hit, Blood Sisters

It was purely business. From the history of filmmaking, there has always been a back-and-forth between what the audience wants and what is served them. Some people believe the industry should be driven by what the audience wants. Others think films should be solely dependent on the filmmaker’s inspiration. “There will never be a time where one side wins over the other,” Akinmolayan said.

In 2021, Anthill Studios signed a multi-year output deal with Amazon Prime Video. Under the contract, the creative rights for every film they make for theatrical release go to the streamer, and Anthill is guaranteed its income. That’s what the streamers brought to the table. They gave the industry money and global market access in exchange for creative rights.

Local stakeholders paid the price. In 2020, after nine years of being Nigeria’s top streaming service, IrokoTv said it could no longer run its African operations comfortably and had decided to scale them down. Nigeria’s cinema industry also struggled to keep its doors open. From 2019 to 2022, the Cinema Exhibitors Association of Nigeria recorded a 28.7 per cent reduction year-on-year.

It wasn’t all gloom and doom. The digital revolution democratized the space. For example, the themes mainstream filmmakers overlooked, Indie filmmakers explored. CJ ‘Fiery’ Obasi, Abba T. Makama, and Michael Omonua released an anthology film, Juju StoriesThe Lost Okoroshi premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Eyimofe premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020. “These Indie filmmakers have become our hope for diverse stories,” said Seyi Lasisi, a film critic whose work has closely followed the rise of Nollywood indie filmmakers. According to Imoh Umoren, the mastermind behind Nollywood’s first black-and-white movie, The Herbert Macaulay Affair, these filmmakers want to believe there would be an audience if they make these movies. “It’s the guarantee that they can afford to produce another,” Umoren said.

Part 4: Now the stars align

It is 2023, 13 years since the United Nations described Nollywood as a goldmine. The industry has done great things since then. It employs over four billion people directly and indirectly and contributes roughly 239 billion naira ($660 million) to its country’s GDP. It has attracted more investors and managed to make them fight for it. Netflix gave it another $29 million. It influences the tourism sector with its charm. Projections show that its export revenue will increase to over a billion dollars. 

Nigerians are learning to celebrate it now. They talk about it often. Nowadays, it is easy to know what young Aki and Paw would have done in any situation because their memes are a legendary part of internet culture. Everyone born after 1998 wants to be like Nollywood in the 2000s. People often throw Y2K-themed parties to invoke nostalgia and celebrate vintage fashion.

It has new interests, too. It is exploring new themes and genres. In August, Nollywood introduced the world to its first family cinema movie. It was a beautifully executed live-action animation that cost over 120 Million naira investment. Nollywood has attracted the private sector, too. The tech sector, known for attracting multiple investments, has become a good ally, collaborating to create many beautiful projects. Its latest project, The Black Book, broke records across platforms. Filmmaker Mart is building an Airbnb for the industry’s logistics.

This year, Nollywood premiered its first movie, Mami Wata, at the Sundance Film Festival. It was a black-and-white film based on the Nigerian mythical creature, the mermaid. It was a bold take. The movie won the Sundance cinematography award. “There will come a time when something will flip, and the entire world will know that Nollywood is here to stay. When the industry can get the money it needs without these players, the only thing left will be figuring out how to use it,” said Akinmolayan.

Old things haven’t ultimately passed awayThe industry still struggles with piracy. And funding. It has been a while since it received any practical support from the government. Infrastructure keeps disappointing it, too. Its cinemas have only a few screens and seats and often deal with power outages and poor sound quality. Less than 20 per cent of its audience visits its cinemas now. Still, it thrives. 

It’s surreal to think of how far the industry has come. Although it struggles, especially compared to more successful peers, the industry is better. Over the years, the little victories and challenges have led to the attention it enjoys today. 

Imasuen likens Nollywood to a young girl unemployed for a long time. When she finally got a job, she danced with joy. In the process, her wrapper slipped off. Her neighbours, who had gathered to watch her dance, saw her nakedness. By the time she noticed, her neighbours didn’t care anymore. They had become focused on her moves instead. Will she continue dancing or try to cover her nakedness?

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