Nollywood welcomes influx of streaming investment

Eyimofe: This Is My Desire, the debut film by Nigerian brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri, is a poignant tale of aspiration thwarted by reality. Its lead characters, a factory technician and a hairdresser, dream of leaving Lagos for a new life in Spain or Italy. By the end, they have gone nowhere.

The film, itself, has travelled much further: it scooped five awards, including Best Director, at last year’s continent-wide Africa Movie Academy Awards; it has been screened at film festivals including Berlin and London, and it won favourable reviews from the New York Times, Variety and others.

It is also a nominee in the Outstanding International Motion Picture category at this month’s US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Image Awards.

Yet, for decades, much of Nigeria’s film production has, like Eyimofe’s protagonists, remained close to home. Its business model was focused on serving the local and African markets; its international audience primarily among the diaspora. Also, while Nollywood may be a powerhouse — pumping out 50 movies a week, according to a recent Unesco report — it perennially attracts complaints about quantity over quality.

That, though, may be about to change as streaming services, such as Amazon and Netflix, start to invest in the country. With an influx of money and story development knowhow, the argument goes, more Nigerian films will follow in Eyimofe’s footsteps.

“The business model is changing in that, while we are also catering to a local market because we are local first, we are also looking at . . . the opportunities to build global IP [intellectual property],” says Naz Onuzo, co-founder of Inkblot Studios, which recently signed a multiyear licensing agreement with Amazon.

Naz Onuzo, co-founder of Inkblot Studios
Naz Onuzo, co-founder of Inkblot Studios: ‘There are certain films. . . you cannot do at certain budget levels’

For Amazon and Netflix, ever hungry for subscribers, Nigeria’s appeal is obvious. Not only is its film industry prodigiously productive, with annual revenues of up to $1bn, according to trade finance body Afreximbank, but it is also potentially a huge streaming market. Internet penetration is rising, data costs are falling and the young population — median age 18 — is used to accessing entertainment via a mobile phone.

Last year, Netflix released its first Nigerian original series, King of Boys: The Return of the King, a sequel to the commercially successful film King of Boys. A seething political thriller, it created a buzz among viewers across the continent and stirred hopes among some Nigerian producers that Nollywood might one day emulate South Korea and score a global hit, such as Squid Game.

“There are certain films, ideas you cannot execute, you cannot do at certain budget levels,” Onuzo says. “[Investment] allows you more play . . . in telling Nigerian stories.”

Film financier Adesegun Adetoro sees a precedent in South African-owned pay-TV company MultiChoice, which entered the Nigerian market in the early 1990s. It invested significantly in local Nigerian content, nurturing a new generation of writers and creating shows with pan-African appeal — notably its flagship soap opera Tinsel, a tale of rival film companies that launched in 2008.

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Similarly, Netflix is not only licensing and commissioning shows, but also investing in screenwriting talent. It is partnering with Realness Academy, a South Africa-based film training organisation, to select six writers from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa to take part in an “episodic lab” later this year. Supported by a monthly $2,000 stipend, each will have three months to develop a story idea that they can pitch to Netflix.

Adetoro welcomes such investment, and thinks that, as film-makers see better-scripted shows delivering higher returns, the industry as a whole will develop. “Nollywood has to increase in costs across the board, and returns across the board, for it to be able to move to another level, he says.

The country’s rich literary culture is a bonus. Last year, Lagos-based EbonyLife Studios signed a deal with Netflix to film adaptations of Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen.

Sefi Atta’s Swallow is currently screening on Netflix, though it has received a lukewarm response from critics.

But some Nollywood insiders doubt that the streaming giants’ arrival will be a new dawn. Among the sceptics is film producer and director Mildred Okwo, who created a streaming platform to distribute her last film, La Femme Anjola.

“In the time that Netflix has been here, I feel like we should have had one or two global hits,” Okwo says. “I mean, if you look at Spain, South Korea — how they’ve grown since Netflix started investing in them — the stories we tell with Netflix’s investment should be making an impact here and around the world.”

The fact that Netflix does not necessarily have a golden touch was demonstrated by the reception given to Chief Daddy 2, licensed from EbonyLife. Released last month, the film prompted such a negative public and critical reaction that EbonyLife chief executive Mo Abudu appeared in a video to acknowledge the outcry and urge viewers to give feedback “respectfully”.

Adetoro warns that streaming investment must not be seen as a saviour. “There’s this idea that something external needs to always come and save Nollywood,” he says. “But I believe the industry can only be saved by those in it.”

Mo Abudu, CEO of EbonyLife Studios, which has signed a deal with Netflix
Mo Abudu, CEO of EbonyLife Studios, which has signed a deal with Netflix

For Okwo, that means filmmakers and production companies learning to negotiate better deals. “The best of us must demand decent budgets and licensing fees or our industry will be sentenced to low wages for creatives forever,” she says.

Others point to problems with distribution. According to a report by distributor and producer FilmOne, Nigeria had only 77 cinemas for its 200mn population in 2020 — a woefully low ratio. Data provider Statista puts the figure for the UK, for example, at 843 cinemas for 67mn people.

Producers complain that the dearth of cinemas limits the revenue that even the most popular films can achieve, which in turn reduces their prospects of international success.

Onuzo speculates that there is untapped potential in traditional broadcast TV. Nigeria used to have a rich local TV culture, with stations commissioning soap operas, comedies and dramas, some of which went on to enjoy success nationally or even across Africa. But, as digital content and pay TV became more popular, local stations commissioned less and less.

“What I expect to happen over time, as the value of Nollywood becomes more demonstrable globally, [is that] we will start to see more commissioning locally, and will unlock a significant part of the potential of our industry,” Onuzo says. If we get our TV right, the impact will far exceed streaming.”

According to a Unesco survey of Africa’s entertainment media, over 74 per cent of Nigerian households own televisions. While internet usage is growing fast — with Statista finding that just over half the population were using it in 2021 — Onuzo thinks it would be a mistake to overlook traditional TV.

“Figuring out how to deliver content at scale to them [TV-owning households] that they watch and value is a billion-dollar opportunity,” he says. “Nothing drives advertising dollars like 10mn people tuning in to watch something.”

hello, I am Flora Khan and i work journalist in allnewshouse website i work in other sites like forbes and washington post with 5 years in experience.

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