Australian Outlook

In this section

Nigeria’s Nollywood: From Small Screen to Global Screen

23 May 2022
By Dr Ezinne M. Ezepue
Nollywood director Alex Mouth checking the microphone of an actress on the set of

Despite a lack of continuous government support, Nollywood has become a powerhouse of world cinema. With changes in technology and the introduction of international on-demand platforms, the industry will only expand further.

The Nigerian film industry has held a stereotypical or single definition for as long as the industry was named Nollywood in 2002. It represented an industry characterised by informally trained, semi-professional filmmakers translating poorly developed scripts into films of low production value, films which are unfit for the big screens. Hence its description as ‘small screen cinema’. Since 2009, a conscious effort, made by both existing industry players and incoming young professional filmmakers in response to these criticisms, has engendered characteristic changes in production, distribution and consumption within the industry. Convenient labels have been drawn up to capture this change in the industry like, the old and new Nollywood which has generated controversies within the industry as well as analyses within Nollywood scholarship. In recent times, the labels have become Asabawood, Kannywood, Nollywood and other sections of the industry producing in various other local dialects, like Yoruba and Bini. Recognizing the inefficiency of such separatism, industry players are advocating against such divisions, promoting Nollywood as the single identifier for the entirety of the Nigerian film industry.

Nollywood represents the significant shift from celluloid, which declined in the late 1980s, to video, which boomed in the early 1990s, in the Nigerian film industry. Embracing the celluloid once again as well as high definition digital technology, the era of making films in standard definition video format is becoming old or orthodox in the industry. And shifting from a predominantly small screen consumption back to cinema and multiplex screens and online platforms, a once old and struggling Nigerian film industry is gentrifying into a brand new, internationally acclaimed Nollywood. The suitability of gentrification as a descriptor for the changes reshaping the industry has been queried. Now more than ever, transformation of the industry is resembling gentrification. Previously, especially during the videoboom era, Nollywood films were made by amateurs, told stories of the everyday, poor masses struggling to overcome economic hardships and marketed directly to the people via video cassettes, VCDs and DVDs. Although the industry boomed in the 1990s, it became stagnated as more opportunists joined the industry, not out of creative abilities, but for profit maximization. This satisfied the entertainment needs of the popular audiences, but the Nigerian middle and upper-class elite preferred Hollywood. Hence international films fared better at Nigerian cinemas, which were and still are few in comparison to the population. The re-evaluation of the industry’s contribution to the national revenue, controversial investment of the Nigerian government in 2010 and 2013, and those of corporate organizations like the Bank of Industry, MultiChoice, ROK and currently, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, among others, have been instrumental to the gentrification of the industry.

With marked influx of young professional filmmakers, corporatization of firms and formalization of practice as well as investment from corporate organizations, gentrification appears apt at capturing these transformations especially because of the apparent displacement of the popular audiences. Like Ganti says of Bollywood, Nollywood – an industry that once produced only for the masses now produces entertainment for the popular audiences, the Nigerian and African elites, Africans in the diaspora as well as non-African audiences. Large budget films are becoming increasingly unavailable to popular audiences who have no ready access to platforms on which these films are distributed, like the cinemas, SVODs. This corresponds, quite interestingly with Netflix Africa’s tagline – Made by Africans, watched by the world. In Nigeria, satellite television service provides ready access to Nollywood films, but the bouquet subscribed to determines the quality of films accessible. This however, serves to complement the still thriving DVD distribution. Although Agina observes a rise in digital delivery to audiences and on-demand culture among Nigerian audiences, the vast population in Nigeria and indeed Africa, remains underserved, especially in terms of distribution via movie theatres. This also means that too many films are competing to be screened on Africa’s very few cinemas and filmmakers are not maximizing the profit potentials readily available to them.

Although the Nigerian government has not contributed significantly to the industry’s growth in recent years, corporate organizations and individuals are investing in Nollywood. Netflix can be considered as the most recent gamechanger in the industry. It offers Africans, especially the ever ambitious and overwhelmingly creative Nigerians the opportunity to create cultural contents. While Netflix does not commission all Nigerian contents, it acquires a large number, allowing existing and budding professionals to explore newer opportunities. This is contributing to the growth of the industry, unveiling the industry’s creative abilities further to the world and challenging filmmakers to outdo their past. In recent times, great films have emerged from the industry, distributed first on Netflix. Although the popular audience is disenfranchised, newer audiences are being created. At home in Nigeria, Nollywood films are continuously breaking box-office records, challenging Hollywood films in Nigerian cinemas. Among the long list of popular Nollywood films in recent times are Blood Sisters, King of Boys and its sequel, Omo Ghetto: The Saga, LionHeart, Amina, Òlòtūré, Fine Wine, The Wedding Party, October 1, Ayinla, Badamasi. Filmmakers as well as filmmaking are professionalizing and becoming more cognizant of the role of film beyond entertainment and profit maximization.

Misgivings have trailed Netflix’s interest in the Nigerian film industry, with the Hollywoodization of the industry and low licensing fees being the major concerns. The advantages in the short term of its existence in the industry however, outweighs the negative. Makers of high budget films distributed via on-demand platforms like Netflix, Amazon, IrokoTv, do not suffer monumental losses to piracy. With return on investment thus guaranteed, UNESCO’s estimated potential of the film industries in Africa  creating over twenty million jobs and contributing about twenty billion dollars to Africa’s combined GDP can be reached. Nollywood is arguably the largest and most popular film industry in Africa. Its industry players are dogged, resilient creative artistes who, against all odds, have grown an industry without meaningful or steady governmental support. For strategic planning towards future growth for the industry, Nollywood needs to be permanently rid of informality and piracy, and supported by functional film policies and infrastructure. These will further encourage professionalization and international collaborations, enabling filmmakers across Africa to continue to creatively express themselves, redefine Africa and create a thriving and functional creative and cultural industry. Nigeria, and indeed Africa in general, must explore the potential market its cinema has within the continent by setting the right infrastructure in place. This way, the cinema can thrive both at the home market as well as with international audiences. This creates opportunities for investors too. This is a new dawn for the Nigerian film industry. Nollywood is no longer just a small screen cinema.

Dr Ezinne M. Ezepue is a lecturer in the Department of Theatre & Film Studies at the University of Nigeria. She has a BA in Theatre & Film Studies (Nigeria), an MA in Film and TV (Birmingham) and a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies (Birmingham). Her research interest is centred around the development of emerging film economies, particularly the Nigerian film industry, using ethnography as a methodology.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.