Nollywood rising: Low cost, high volume film industry entertains Africa

Lights, camera...budget action! Image courtesy 'This Is Nollywood'
Lights, camera...budget action! Image courtesy 'This Is Nollywood'
Here’s a general knowledge question: Everyone knows India’s Bollywood is the world’s largest producer of movies (by number). Which country’s movie industry comes second?

If you said Hollywood, that’s a dated answer. America’s movie industry used to be the second largest in the world — until an unlikely contender turned up from…Nigeria!

India remains the world’s leading film producer but Nigeria is closing the gap after overtaking the United States for second place, according to a global cinema survey conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

Bollywood produced 1,091 feature-length films in 2006 compared to 872 productions (in video format) from Nigeria’s film industry, commonly referred to as Nollywood. In contrast, the United States produced 485 major films.

The three heavyweights were followed by eight countries that produced more than 100 films: Japan (417), China (330), France (203), Germany (174), Spain (150), Italy (116), South Korea (110) and the United Kingdom (104).

Nigerian filmmakers rely on video instead of film to reduce production costs. And as the survey points out, Nigeria has virtually no formal cinemas. About 99% of screenings occur in informal settings, such as “home theatre”.

This is Nollywood
This is Nollywood
The UNESCO survey reveals another key element of the Nigerian success story: multilingualism. About 56% of Nollywood films are produced in Nigeria’s local languages, namely Yoruba (31%), Hausa (24%) and Igbo (1%). English remains a prominent language, accounting for 44%, which may contribute to Nigeria’s success in exporting its films.

Nollywood’s rising has been chronicled in a 2007 documentary by Franco Sacchi and Robert Caputo. Called This is Nollywood, it tells the story of the Nigerian film industry – a revolution enabling Africans with few resources to tell African stories to African audiences. Despite all odds, Nigerian directors produce between 500 and 1,000 movies a year. The disks sell wildly all over the continent – Nollywood actors have become stars from Ghana to Zambia.

Says Zambia-born director Franco Sacchi: “When I first read about Nigerian directors producing hundreds of feature-length films with digital cameras, a week, and a few thousand dollars, I found the subject irresistible. Here was not only a rare positive story about Africa, but one that embodied the egalitarian promise of digital technology—anybody can make a movie. And Nollywood was virtually unknown.”

This is Nollywood takes us behind the sets and scenes in one Nigerian movie being made on the cheap — and fast. Acclaimed director Bond Emeruwa sets out to make a feature-length action film in just nine days. Armed only with a digital camera, two lights, and about $20,000, Bond faces challenges unimaginable in Hollywood and Bollywood.

Emeruwa says: “We are telling our own stories in our own way, our Nigerian way, African way. I cannot tell the white man’s story. I don’t know what his story is all about. He tells me his story in his movies. I want him to see my stories too.”

Watch This is Nollywood: Movie Trailer

I then came across this TED Talk by Franco Sacchi, where he takes us through Nollywood (at the time he gave his talk, the world’s third largest and now second only to Bollywood). He talks about ‘guerrilla film-making’ and brilliance under pressure from crews that can shoot a full-length feature in a week.

Welcome to Nollywood is another 2007 documentary film, directed by Jamie Meltzer, that looked at the Nigerian film industry. Its findings were similar to those of This is Nollywood. Traveling to the country’s chaotic capitol, Lagos, Meltzer spent ten weeks following three of Nigeria’s hottest directors, each different in personality and style, as they shot their films about love, betrayal, war, and the supernatural.

At around US$250 million per year (and rising), Nollywood’s capital outlay is far below that of Hollywood and Bollywood. For perspective, that’s a bit less than what it cost to make Spiderman 3 in 2007 (budget: US$ 258 million) — the second most expensive film made. See list of most expensive Hollywood films.

Telling their own stories....
Telling their own stories....
But what it lacks in capital, Nollywood more than makes up in numbers and mass appeal. As the Wikipedia notes, Nigerian directors adopt new technologies as soon as they become affordable. Bulky videotape cameras gave way to their digital descendents, which are now being replaced by HD cameras. Editing, music, and other post-production work is done with common computer-based systems.

As Colin Freeman wrote in the Daily Telegraph, UK: “While the likes of Serpent in Paradise and Evil Finger may not be as slick as their Hollywood counterparts, they offer one thing that the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt can never provide: characters and stories with which an African audience can identify.”

And according to The Economist, it all started in 1992, when Kenneth Nnebue, a Nigerian trader based in Onitsha, was trying to sell a large stock of blank videocassettes he had bought from Taiwan. He decided that they would sell better with something recorded on them, so he shot a film called “Living in Bondage” about a man who achieves power and wealth by killing his wife in a ritualistic murder, only to repent later when she haunts him. The film sold more than 750,000 copies, and prompted legions of imitators.

The rest, as they say, is now Nollywood history.

Read my August 2007 blog post: “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”