With the release of the film “Half of a Yellow Sun” in late 2013, Nigeria’s film industry, collectively known as “Nollywood”, saw what may serve as a watershed moment. The movie was adapted from a novel of the same name by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and was filmed at Tinapa Studios, in Calabar, Cross River State. With a reported budget of around $9m-10m and major Hollywood star power to boot – including Oscar-nominated British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and actress Thandie Newton in leading roles – upon its release “Half of a Yellow Sun” was the highest-profile Nigerian film project to date, and was also both filmed in Nigeria and directed by a Nigerian, Biyi Bandele.
While reliable data on the segment is currently hard to find, by most accounts Nollywood is one of the country’s major employers, with the Ministry of Finance estimating the overall film sector workforce at around 1.2m people in total in 2013. Similarly, the industry is the second largest in the world by number of films produced (after Bollywood, India’s film industry). According to Iroko Partners, a Lagos-based media distribution company, Nollywood pulls in around $800m in revenues on an annual basis, which pales in comparison to the US and Indian film industries, for example. However, this figure is expected to jump dramatically in the coming years.
While the segment has grown quickly over the past two decades, major challenges remain. Despite the low average cost of producing a film in Nigeria – around $40,000 as of August 2013, according to data from Iroko Partners – many filmmakers have trouble sourcing financing. Distribution is also a major hurdle to the long-term development of the industry. Nigeria is currently home to only a handful of cinemas, and digital distribution is still in its infancy in the country.
Consequently, most Nollywood films are distributed primarily via DVD and other physical media. This situation has contributed to a booming film piracy market, with pirated DVDs of popular Nollywood films turning up throughout Africa.
In 1903 a Spanish production company screened a series of short films in Lagos, making Nigeria one of the first sub-Saharan African countries to host a screening. The nation’s local film industry dates back to the 1920s, when colonial filmmakers began to produce short movies for domestic audiences. In 1939 this activity was formalised under the umbrella of the Colonial Film Unit (CFU), which was set up by the colonial government to produce educational and instructional films for local audiences on a wide variety of topics, including farming techniques, sanitation, community development and health care, among other topics. In general, colonial administrators held most of the high-level positions on CFU-related productions. Regardless, a considerable number of Nigerians received basic training in a variety of film techniques during this period. Some members of this early generation went on to play a role in establishing the country’s indigenous film industry in the years to follow.
Nigeria’s modern private film industry can be traced back to the early 1990s, when a handful of local filmmakers and producers began making movies on the cheap. Keeping costs down has remained a defining characteristic of Nollywood through today. Unlike Hollywood and Bollywood, both of which tend to make use of expensive sets and equipment, Nollywood filmmakers rely on inexpensive off-the-shelf equipment and amateur actors. Both the filming and post-production process are generally extremely brief, with an average Nollywood film taking eight to 12 days from the beginning of shooting to the release. Some film projects cost as little as $10,000-15,000 in total. Estimates of total films produced in Nigeria on an annual basis range from 1000 to 2500, the great majority of which are released straight to DVD. Nollywood films are distributed throughout Africa, where many Nigerian actors and directors have a large fan base. According to estimates from Iroko Partners, an average Nollywood film sells around 50,000 DVD copies throughout Africa as a whole.
In 1979 the federal government established the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC), a para-statal housed under the Federal Ministry of Information and charged with “planning, promoting and organising an integrated and efficient film industry in Nigeria” with the overarching objective of leveraging film as “a means of communicating, informing, enlightening [and] educating the populace”, “projecting the richness of the nation’s art and culture … to the outside world” and “serving as a source of wealth creation and employment generation.” Since being reorganised in 2013, the NFC has focused on improving access to training and funding in Nollywood. More broadly, the NFC is working to play a major role in the ongoing professionalisation and formalisation of the industry.
Despite the rapid growth of the industry over the past two decades, and in keeping with its informal, low-budget origins, Nollywood remains largely unregulated today. Most filmmakers are not concerned with securing shooting permits or licenses, for example, as there is currently no formal legislation in place requiring these documents. This is not for lack of trying. Indeed, the NFC has been working to introduce a comprehensive regulatory framework since at least 2006, when the corporation introduced the draft Motion Picture Practitioners Council (MOPICON) bill. As of early 2015 the legislation was still making its way through Nigeria’s National Assembly. When it is eventually passed, MOPICON is widely expected to introduce best practices to many aspects of filmmaking in the country, which, according to previous governments, will likely serve to make the industry more attractive to foreign investors.
In the meantime, many of the recent developments in the industry have been driven by the private sector. A handful of Nigerian directors, perhaps most notably “Half of a Yellow Sun’s” Bandele, have made a concerted effort to boost the quality of output in Nollywood. Given the relatively low level of return on most Nollywood films, this is a major challenge. Nigerian director Lonzo Nzekwe spent $200,000 – an exorbitant sum by Nollywood standards – making his 2010 film “Anchor Baby”, which went on to win awards at festivals around the world. Despite this international acclaim, according to Nzekwe the film barely pulled in more than it cost to make. “Last Flight to Abuja”, an action film that cost $250,000 to make, brought in $350,000 in total when it was released in 2012, making it the single highest-grossing film from West Africa of the year.
It is important to note that all three of these films – “Half of a Yellow Sun”, “Anchor Baby” and “Last Flight to Abuja” – are very much outliers in Nigeria in terms of cost of production, and all three benefitted from the involvement of foreign financing of some kind or another, either via foreign direct investment or the contribution of expatriate Nigerians. “Half of a Yellow Sun”, which was the most expensive film made in Nigeria to date by a considerable degree, as of time of publication, was funded primarily by private investment. According to local media reports, around 70% of the film’s budget came from Nigerian investors, while the remaining 30% was sourced from the UK, including a sizeable chunk from the British Film Institute.
While some local financial institutions have expressed an interest in supporting Nollywood in recent years, loans are generally only awarded at extremely high interest rates and for very short spans of time. While some domestic corporations have put money into Nollywood films, the lack of a comprehensive and enforceable regulatory framework means that the industry is still widely regarded as a risky investment.
The government has launched a variety of initiatives aimed at improving transparency and boosting investment in the sector in recent years. In addition to MOPICON, for example, in early 2013 the federal government announced the formation of an N3bn ($18.3m) film fund, which is expected to primarily go towards training and education. Additionally, authorities recently put together a tax incentive package for filmmakers that work in Nigeria, with the objective of attracting foreign productions.
As financing options continue to expand in the coming years, and Nollywood production value rises, ambitious Nigerian directors are expected to continue to up the ante in terms of production values and content. “The future of Nigerian film is very rosy,” Bandele, director of “Half of a Yellow Sun”, told foreign press in May 2014. “In the next decade, the world is going to be hearing a lot from Nigerian filmmakers, young filmmakers who grew up within the Nollywood tradition and then went to film schools. I am really excited about the prospect of Nigerian cinema in the next decade, thanks to Nollywood.”