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After 55 years, the movie industry still crying for help

By Benjamin Njoku

When the likes of Hubert Ogunde, Jab Adu, Ola Balogun, Moses Olaiya (Baba Sala), Eddie Ugbomah and other great filmmakers of yesteryears began what is today known as the Nigerian movie industry, otherwise called Nollywood in the 60s, not many people envisaged the boom that greeted the industry over the years. But it was the production of the film, “Palaver” by the British government that actually set the pace for the evolution of the nation’s movie industry.

The production of that first ever film in the country, which premiered at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos, 23 years after the film was shot in 1926, marked a new dawn in the nation’s movie industry. That success story of the film paved the way for the emergence of indigenous film makers like Herbert Ogunde, Dr Ola Balogun, Eddie Ugbomah among others who moved from the then vibrant theatre tradition to the big screen. It also put paid to the “hitherto monopoly enjoyed by two film redistribution organizations of the Federal Film Unit – W. Hewston in 1961, shortly after independence.

Hubert Ogunde
Hubert Ogunde

However, despite the initial challenges faced by the early film makers which bothered on high cost of producing films, lack of exhibition centres and funding as well as the unending political and economic crisis that was the order of the day then, the industry has over the years grown in leaps and bounds. It is not only reckoned today as one of the fastest growing sectors in African economy, but also, it’s a major player in generating employment for the teeming population of youths as well as boosting the once battered image of the country at the international scene.

But even in the face of despair, the early film makers maintained a unique standard by telling the undiluted African story using their various works.
Ogunde, who wrote both in English and in Yoruba, more than any one else, created the awareness of the modern theatre tradition in Nigeria, operating a travelling theatre company, and taking his plays to various parts of the country, via cinemas and also to other West African countries, particularly Ghana and Sierra Leone, for about 40 years. He was referred to as the father of the Nigerian theatre because of his great contribution to the birth of the Nigerian film industry. But the nation’s film industry could not take off properly until 1970, when the first indigenous feature film, “Kongi’s Harvest”, written by Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, was produced in the country.

Directed by an American with many of its crew members being foreigners, the production triggered off a momentous revolution in the Nigerian movie industry.

This effort saw more talented Nigerians who had their training during the CFU era, getting involved in the production of indigenous films.

Between 1962 and 1977, films such as “Born in Lagos”, “Child Bride”, “Son of Africa”, “Golden women”, “My Good Friends”, “Count Down at Kusini and Shehu Umar” were produced. Others were Ajani Ogun and Ija Ominira by Ola Balogun, Aiye Jayesimi and Ayanmo by Ogunde, The Rise and Fall of Dr Oyenusi and Death of a Black President by Eddie Ugbomah, Kadara by Ade Love, Orun Mooru and Mosebolatan by Moses Olaiya, Efusetan Aniwuray by Ishola Ogunshola and Ireke Onibudo by Ayo Rasak among others.

Though these films were not commercially successful, they were indeed excellent productions which the producers used then to mirror the Nigerian society.

The new dawn in Nigerian movie industry!
But many make reference to the 1992 release of “Living in Bondage”, a film about a businessman whose wife died due to his dealings with a money cult, as the first Nigerian blockbuster. Since then, thousands of blockbusters have been released into the market.

One of the early movies to hit the international market was “Osoufia in London”, released in 2003, and starring Nkem Owoh (Ukwa), the popular comedic actor. Since then, the Nigerian film makers have not looked back in their quest to produce quality films. In recent years, Nollywood had set its standard to meet other film sectors in the world with the emergence of notable film makers such as Kunle Afolayan, Tunde Kelani, Lancelot Imasuen, Zeb Ejiro, Zik Zulu Okafor among others.

The late 90s and early 2000, saw the industry producing films that mainly celebrated such bizarre themes as violence, witchcraft, nudity, rituals, and other themes that portrayed Nigeria, and indeed, Africa in a negative light before the international community. But this ugly trend was quickly addressed with the emergence of firebrand filmmakers in the late 2000, who were eager to produce bar-raising films that are speedily making inroads into the international film market. These emerging film makers did not only raise the bar, they also rescued the industry from the stranglehold of mediocrity by returning to the cinema as it was the tradition during the time of Hubert Ogunde.

However, the boom recorded in the industry started few years ago, precisely in 2009, after Kunle Afolayan released his award-winning classic, “Figurine” which starred the likes of Ramsey Nouah, Omoni Oboli, Funlola Aofiyebi, Jide Kosoko, Wale Adebayo, amongst others.

The movie gulped over N50 million in the cinemas. It also received 10 nominations and won five awards at the African Movie Academy Awards in 2010, including the award for Best Picture, Heart of Africa, AMAA, Achievement in Cinematography and AMAA Achievement in Visual Effect. This was followed by the production of the blockbuster, “Ije: The Journey by Chineze Anyaene, starring Nigeria’s two leading actresses, Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jolade-Ekiende, Jeff Swarthout, Clem Ohaneze and Ulrich Que. A Nigerian-American drama film, Ije received several nominations and awards including the awards for Best Editing and the Treasure Coast International Film Festival and Best International Student Film at the Swansea Bay Film Festival 2010. The film gulped N70 million during first 12 weeks of its showing in the cinemas to become the highest gulping Nigerian film.

Moses Olaiya
Moses Olaiya

Also, Obi Emelonye’s “Mirror Boy” which was released in 2011, made similar feat in the cinemas. Starring Genevieve Nnaji, Osita Iheme, Edward Kagutuzi and Fatima Jebbe, the film, a Nigerian fantasy adventure drama was shot in England and The Gambia. It reportedly gulped over N12 million, and up till date, the movie is still winning awards and showing on AfricaMagic.

Others were “Maami” by the veteran film maker, Tunde Kelani which starred Funke Akindele, Wole Ojo, Tamilore Kuboye, amongst others with special appearance by Yinka Davies, Kayode Balogun, Fatai Rolling Dollar and released in 2012, “The Return of Jenifa” produced by Funke Akindele and Stephanie Okereke’s “Through the Glass” which was produced in 2008. “Anchor Baby,” directed produced by Lonzo Nzekwe and Jeremy Hood also was another blockbuster that helped to raise the bar in Nollywood.

Interestingly, the past few years have been eventful in the Nigerian movie industry with most of the films produced within this period making incisive impacts on the international film market. Our local film makers are equally getting involved in collaborative productions with their counterparts from Hollywood, Bollywood and other parts of Africa. From every indication, Nigerian films have become very popular among Africans in diaspora.

Till date, Lancelot Imasuen’s historical film, “Invasion 1897” which was released last December is still receiving accolades across the world, having premiered in over 20 cities of Europe and America. The same thing with Kunle Afolayan’s “Öctober 1” which was released last October to commemorate the Nigeria’s 54th independence anniversary. It has not stopped winning awards.

The big-budget film, which is unique for its historical values, has become a reference point for many historians, scholars and students of African studies. The epic movie, based on historical events in the Benin Empire in the 18th century, premiered on August 27, 2014 at the Toronto African Film and Music Festival and since then it has toured major cities in the United States including Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, New York, Dallas among others. Last year, the American government adopted the film through its agency, Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C, following its historical perspective. But like “Invasion 1897”, AY’s “30 Days in Atlanta” which was shot in the United States and starring some of Hollywood’s leading stars last year remains one of Nollywood best films . The film amazingly grossed N76million in 7 weeks of showing in the cinemas across the country. There is also this prediction that it might as well gross over N100 million after Christmas.

More and more emerging filmmakers are taking the centrestage just as our local films are getting international recognition. Our stories are being translated into film across borders. A case in point is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” which sees renowned actors such as Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, O.C. Ukeje, Onyeka Onwenu, and Genevieve Nnaji among others bringing the story to life. Jeta Amata has since hit the international scene with his “Black November”, an action drama that narrates the story of a Niger Delta community’s struggle against their government and a multi-national oil corporation to save their environment which is being destroyed by excessive oil drilling.

Being Africa’s largest movie industry in terms of both value and the number of movies produced per year, Nollywood has become a global brand, overtaken Hollywood in the number of movies churned out yearly but not in any way close to the sophistication and standard of Hollywood. It is second in number of films to Bollywood. But it is still far from the standard of Bollywood and Hollywood.

Govt support for the industry
Despite the overwhelming progress recorded in the nation’s movie industry since independence, government support for the industry has been nothing to right home about. However, the former president Goodluck Jonathan was different. His administration invested an initial $200 million loan scheme to support filmmakers in boosting the quality of their production.

However, following complaints of inaccessibility that trailed the loan scheme, the former president, in 2013, announced a N3 billion ($115 million) grant called “Project ACT Nollywood” to develop the competencies of filmmakers and actors.

But despite showing commitment towards growing the industry, one wonders whether Buhari-led administration would become magnanimous enough to sustain the legacy left behind by the past president. But there must be better monitoring to check corruption.

President Buhari recently directed the law enforcement agencies to step up efforts to curb piracy in the country’s entertainment industry.

Tunde Kelani
Tunde Kelani (left)

It would be recalled that the American government through its Assistant Secretary of State on Economic and Business Affairs, Ambassador Charles Rivkin recently announced its readiness to support the nation’s film industry, particularly in the areas of co-production treaties, protection of Intellectual Property rights and distribution, among others. This, however, shows how much foreign governments are recognizing the impact our films are making across the globe. Meanwhile, the good news is that after 55 years of achieving self rule, Nigerian film industry has recorded a significant progress and can only continue to grow.

According to Frank Ikegwuono, about 1,200 films are produced in Nigeria annually, and the average film in Nollywood costs anywhere from $17,000- $23,000 and sells up to 150,000 -200,000 units nationwide on a daily basis.

As part of the welcome development, onlinenigeria.com, at a time, was the only online portal that Nigerians in diaspora could watch Nollywood movies and for free.

But today, there are several portals like IrokoTV, IbakaTV, OgaMadamTV, even YouTube giving onlinenigeria.com a run for its money.

IrokoTV launched on December 1, 2011 and is currently the largest licensor and distributor of Nollywood movies whose founder Jason Njoku was listed on the Forbes Ten Young African Millionaires to Watch list in 2012. It’s believed that to consolidate on the progress the industry has recorded in the past 55 years, there is need for the industry operators to continue to raise the bar and insist on maintaining the reopened link between the past and the present, by taking their movies back to the cinemas as it was the case in the past.


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