My name is Ekene and I am a filmmaker.
Whenever I introduce myself like that, it elicits different reactions from people. But amongst Nigerians, you can see it on their faces when they smile and say “oh! You are amongst those people that make those juju films” or they call them ‘substandard’ or ‘terrible quality’ or ‘poor story telling’ movies. I can understand what they are trying to say and I forgive them. That was me a few years ago until I got more information. They are comparing our movies with the Hollywood movies, which is what they watch at the cinemas. About 90% of the movies screened at Nigerian cinemas are Hollywood movies. So I hear some of them ask me “when will you guys start making movies like the guys in Hollywood do?” Or they ask me when we would be like Hollywood.
I deal with a lot of people in the middle and upper class (which is about 15% of the population of the country) in the Lekki suburb where I live in Lagos and I realized that a lot of them don’t watch Nigerian movies. This could be due to the fact that their only thinking of Nigerian movies comes from what they used to see years ago when they last saw one, without realizing a lot has changed. They prefer to watch American series and movies and wonder why we can’t make it like they do. You have to realize that the American film industry is over 100 years old and they also had a time when they made movies that people felt were not that good. Lets me also say that the average amount it takes a studio just to market a movie in Hollywood is about $40 million, without production cost (Source: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com). So it’s not right to expect that a house built with that amount and the one built with $20,000 would look alike. The reason why we can’t spend beyond what we spend now is also because we know how much returns it would make. Isn’t it unwise to make a movie for $100,000 when the average amount a Nigerian movie makes in returns is less than $40,000? Americans did not start that industry by spending millions on a movie. They grew to where they are. So today, Americans can afford to spend 100 million to make a movie because they know the movie would open in over 100,000 screens with different slots per day and about 200 seats per screen you do the math, compared to about 20 cinemas here. We know we have a passion for filmmaking but it’s also what we use to feed our families, send our kids to good schools and pay the bills. That we don’t knot a tie in the morning and go to an office by 8am does not mean it’s not a business that should make a profit. I know you must have heard of some Nigerian movies that they claim to have made with about $100,000 and how they grossed close to a million dollars. Well, that is story for another day. But as the saying goes ‘don’t always believe the hype’. There’s a whole lot to those figures and you also have to realize how a few of those movies are also funded. Though a couple of Nigerian films have made a lot of money as reported. But that is not what this write-up is about.
As they ask why we can’t be like Hollywood, what they fail to realize is that I don’t plan to be like Hollywood. It makes no sense for us to try and copy Hollywood. It’s not good for us at all. I know a few filmmakers in Nigeria have this ambition and make their films to fit this purpose and we wish them all the best. By the way, only about 1% of movies shot outside America or by non-Americans make it to the US cinemas. If there’s anything we want to be like that resembles Hollywood, it’s their distribution network and how they have been able to get their movies to all ends of the earth, which is responsible for how much money they earn each time they make a movie. Nothing else! So the question is, why don’t I want us to be like Hollywood? . Because we can never be as good as they are in their game, talk less of being better. Why should we try to play in a game we can never win? Imagine the Super Eagles (Nigeria’s football national team) about to play a match and we already know they have lost before the blast of the first whistle. Doesn’t make any sense.
You have to understand what Nollywood is to understand my reasoning. Nollywood is not a product but a system. The word ‘Nollywood’ was coined by a foreign journalist who came to Nigeria and saw a group of people who were telling their stories in a unique way, who used little resources and a short time to make a movie that was been consumed by a large part of their population and in other parts of the continent. He was amazed at the turn around time of investment in our movies and saw how these ingenious people were able to make something out of nothing. So the ’Nolly’ came from the word ‘nothing’ and ‘wood’ to have a semblance with the popular film industry, Hollywood. That’s how the name ‘Nollywood’ came about. What makes us unique is how we have been able to tell our stories in a distinctive way and have gotten the attention of the whole world. If an American made a feature movie with $5000 in 4 days, he would have been on the front pages of their newspapers and magazines but because Nigerians did it, we don’t see anything special about it. Hence the skewed way they world sees things. In this space, we would beat Hollywood any day and twice on Sundays.
By the way, it is vey important to note that with these ‘rubbish’ and ‘low quality’ films, we have been able to get Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, Asia, and other parts of the world watching our movies. With this ‘lackluster’ way of making movies, we have been able to build a film industry that has grown to become the second largest film industry in the world currently. For the first time, about two years ago, it was captured in our GDP, the entertainment industry generating close to 1% of it. It generated 1.47% the first quarter of 2016. So I find it a little out of place when my banker, engineer, lawyer, etc friends make mockery of our movies when they haven’t been able to take anything they have done across our borders and improve our balance of trade or earn foreign exchange for our economy talk less of building an industry that’s in the top 10 in the world, not to think of a far cry of second. I was in South Africa for a workshop a few days ago. I stayed with a family in a village called Makuleke. It’s beside Kruger National Park, just by South Africa’s border with Mozambique. I was amazed that when I returned by 8pm everyday till about midnight that they went to bed, they only watched Nigerian movies. I was in a plane to Nairobi from Johannesburg and as I walked down the aisle from the toilet to my seat during the flight, I was surprised that most of the passengers including some white people, were watching Nigerian movies. My experience in Nairobi was amazing because at a time I felt I was in Nigeria. While we we’re here despising our movies, a Nigerian based in the UK came with a white partner to just deal with Nigerian movies. Based on his experience with Youtube and the lots of views, he started buying rights to them and started an online TV platform and within months was worth lots of millions of dollars. You think Africa Magic on DSTV would grow that channel to about 10 channels from one if people were not watching? By the way, those are their most viewed channels. I went to film school in Hollywood some years ago and I know how my lecturers were in awe of what we have done with our industry. They all knew of Nollywood and would call me ‘the Nollywood guy’. Our Nigerian actors are amazed at how they are treated as demigods when they visit other countries especially other African countries. Some can hardly walk on the streets as everyone wants to catch a glimpse of them. An African president even used it as one of his manifestos to bring a Nollywood star to their country if elected and he won. Our films have penetrated into different parts of the world despite its poor distribution network. We see foreigners buying our movies at Alaba in bulk to take back with them when they come to Nigeria.
It’s worthy to note that I am not saying there’s nothing to improve in our industry. We still have to look for more effective ways to generate our content and build a structure that would make distribution functional. One thing people talk about a lot of time when referring to Nigerian movies is quality. But you must agree that looking at our movies a few years ago and now, there are remarkable improvements. We have to realize that quality in itself is relative. Like I learnt from Charles Igwe recently, there are two element of quality in filmmaking. Picture quality and sound quality. Once we can take care of these two, we would be just fine to tell our own stories. If you played Mr. Bean side by side with Mr. Ibu in Sweden, the Swedish people might prefer to watch Mr. Bean and you would say it’s because of its quality and universal appeal but lets take the same scenario to Malawi or the Caribbean and see which they would prefer. We have to understand that how you choose to tell your story does not make yours inferior to the other person. Just like we are beginning to learn in Nigeria that English is a language and medium of expression not a measure of intelligence. So the fact that I can communicate effectively in English and the guy beside me can’t but can do it better in Ibo doesn’t mean I am more intelligent than he is. We can see this in our everyday life as we see Ibo traders who hardly went beyond primary 6 in school build businesses and understand that business better than some who went to business schools. So when a few of them come from abroad and tell us that they want to teach us filmmaking, we often tell them to first go and make a film with $10,000, finish it within the time we do and if it’s a better product, you can then teach us filmmaking.
Nollywood was started by a group of people who just wanted to tell their story and one that their people could identify with. Unlike our other African brothers (especially the Francophone countries) who would not be able to make a film until they got grants from Europe or America who will then dictate how the film will look. These people were able to build the industry with the little money they had to where it is today without support from any government and NOT even the Nigerian government. It’s sad that the government has failed to realize the potentials and influence that the film industry has. The number one branding tool of the United States today and has been for about a hundred years is Hollywood. What most people know of America comes from what they see in the movies. It’s the reason we believe when aliens come to invade earth, the FBI or US military will always come to our rescue and save the earth (on a lighter note, haven’t you ever wondered why it is that the only country aliens visit when they come to earth is the US). They have put their ideology of world domination in their movies that we have bought it hook, line, sinker, boat and sea. Same goes for Nigeria, as I travel different countries, I meet people who have never been to Nigeria tell me things about us and even use words we commonly use that there learnt from our movies. Someone once told me of how at the airport in America, a white immigrations officer looked at his passport and asked him for his surname. He replied that it’s stated there in the passport, Igwe. The officer then said he thought that was a title as it’s how chiefs or kings are called in our movies. I have heard of people who say they don’t want to visit Nigeria because they don’t want to be killed by juju. As hilarious as it may sound, it’s true.
Let me tell you another reason why we shouldn’t try to be like Hollywood using the Brazilian case. A fellow Nigerian filmmaker told me recently that he was invited to Brazil by their filmmakers who were concerned about what had happened to their industry and wanted him to speak about how Nigeria has been able to make it’s film industry continue to produce local content and remain relevant. Many years ago, Brazil had a very vibrant local industry that produced good local content. They produced many movie channels and their contents even often times infiltrated our airwaves here in Nigeria. They then opened their arms to the Americans who saw a wonderful opportunity. That industry today has been americanized. What you have today are studios with American influence that would always have an American element to their contents. So, the American film actors are more popular than their local stars. This is exactly how we lost our appetite today for many things like our local football league to the European leagues. I remember growing up, when Abiola Babes was playing against Stationary Stores or Iwuayawun National was playing against Enugu Rangers in the challenge cup, the markets would close early because they were going to watch the match. Each stadium was full to capacity. I remember vividly, those days when the Super Eagles played at national stadium, Suru-Lere. If you didn’t get there before 11am for a match that would kick off at 4pm, you were guaranteed not to get a seat. We can’t even name a first eleven for our team today and the same thing has happened to all other sports. So do we want to allow the same thing happen to our film industry?
I know some people would ask why I decided to go to film school in Hollywood after all. Well, I first learnt filmmaking in Nigeria from the legendary filmmaker, Amaka Igwe who gave me fundamental knowledge. I just wanted to know what it was like over there and get the exposure. Just like there are some PhD thesis in America on Nollywood. As a matter of fact, I met someone last December who was paid a lot of money by Columbia in the US to come study Nollywood and its system. So it’s just a way of getting knowledge. This write-up is not about getting the middle and upper class to start watching Nigerian movies, No! We just want your money (Lol). But it’s for Nigerians to know that there’s an untapped goldmine and we have something that the whole world has embraced that we have to be proud of. We love to copy the Americans, their accent and lifestyle. Lets also copy how they are always proud of their own and believe in it. And as we talk about ‘Buying Nigeria to grow the naira’, we should also give more publicity and slots to Nigerian films in our cinemas and not just carry it as a mantra. Lets invest more in this industry as it has proven to be a worthy investment.
Written by Ekene Som Mekwunye.
Ekene is an award winning filmmaker and an Executive MBA student at the Lagos Business School, PAU. He is based in Lagos, Nigeria.
E: firstname.lastname@example.org, T: @ekenem I: Ekenemekwunye