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Piracy, bane of Nollywood growth, says Emma Isikaku

Nigeria’s huge movie industry, Nollywood, may have overtaken Hollywood as the world’s second largest producer of films, but piracy is threatening to cut the industry off in its prime.

Nollywood insiders estimate that up to 50 percent of the industry’s profits are currently being lost to Nigeria’s endemic piracy and corruption problems.

Emma Isikaku,  FVPMA president
Emma Isikaku, FVPMA president

“Piracy has dealt a big blow to the industry,” Emmanuel Isikaku, a Nollywood producer of 13 years, and president of the Film & Video Producers and Marketers Association of Nigeria, told CNN last week.

Isikaku, 42, claims he lost so much money on his 2007 movie “Plane Crash” through piracy that he failed to recover his costs, despite the film’s popularity with audiences.

“I couldn’t make anything from it,” Isikaku told CNN. “Because of piracy, I didn’t even break even. A lot of people watched the film. But unfortunately, they watched pirated copies,” he went on.

Nigeria’s huge, mostly unregulated film industry, is based in Lagos, the sprawling, frenetic, financial capital of West Africa’s largest country.

Made with a spirit of grassroots entrepreneurship, Nollywood’s video-format b-movies are vibrant and inventive, fusing traditional voodoo and magic with urban romance stories.

They are films that speak about modern life from an African perspective, driven by a narrative that is strongly rooted in the African oral storytelling tradition. Nollywood films are wildly popular across the continent and with the African diaspora all over the world.

Nollywood recently overtook Hollywood as the world’s second biggest producer of movies. In 2006, it produced 872 movies, compared with 485 major feature films in the U.S. (although for a fraction of the cost), according to a global cinema survey conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

Hollywood has started tapping into Nollywood’s global popularity. Earlier this year, “Close Enemies,” the first crossover film, was produced in LA by Prince Ade Bamiro using major Nollywood stars. It was made for $300,000 — about 10 times the average Nollywood budget — and was screened in the Nigerian Pavilion at Cannes.

But improvements in piracy technology are making the problem more acute, draining Nollywood’s coffers and confidence, and stopping the industry from making the improvements in quality it needs to cross over into the global mainstream.

Nigeria’s independent producers self-fund hundreds of movies each year. The average budget is around N3.5 million ($25,000). They make their money back by selling DVDs of their movies, which they burn themselves, on stalls in markets or in shops.

While Nigerians are wild about watching films, Nigeria has virtually no formal cinemas with 99 percent of screenings using DVDs held in informal settings, according to UNESCO.

Producers have only one distribution route, compared with, for example, Hollywood, where studios recoup production costs through cinematic exhibition — an arena currently safe from piracy — and make a profit from DVD sales and TV rights.

Most pirated movies are a victim of their own success: pirates take the fastest-selling DVDs to China to be mass produced and bring them back to Africa to sell.

According to Isikaku, piracy was eating into his profits back in 2005, when he estimates he lost N10m ($68,000) because of illegally copied DVDs. But, he says, the problem became “alarming” in 2007 when pirates started to use video compression technology.


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