From million-dollar budgets to Netflix partnerships, Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, has burgeoned in the past decade. Nollywood films have dominated international film festivals, making the industry a creative force to be reckoned with.
But with more movies being made abroad, funded by foreign investors or directed by Africans in the diaspora, it’s no wonder there’s a growing debate in and outside the industry on what exactly counts as a Nollywood movie today?
“It’s not a term that’s as simply defined,” said 31-year-old Nigerian-American filmmaker Faraday Okoro. “One person’s criteria may be different from the next.”
Okoro is the writer and director of the heist thriller Nigerian Prince, the first movie to win the AT&T/Tribeca “Untold Stories” initiative, an inclusive film program run by AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute that helps diverse filmmakers and awards $1 million in funding to the winning script.
Nigerian Prince with its diasporan lens and plot about the notorious 419 phenomena, particularly the popular email scam that targets Westerners, represents an emerging crop of movies that are expanding the scope and definition of the Nollywood film. For Okoro, the movie, like him, has a dual citizenship as despite its foreign funding, Nigerian Prince was set mainly in Lagos with a majority Nollywood cast—except for its leading stars, the African-American Antonio Bell who plays a Nigerian-American, Eze, and the Nigerian-American, Chinaza Uche.
In the past, the term Nollywood did not just refer to a direct-to-video filmmaking industry but also the guerilla filmmaking process where movies were made with any and all tools available. Nollywood has since matured into the tiered million-dollar industry it is today featuring both the low-budget movies that paved the way for its success and high-budget ones, made locally and abroad, that signal its future.
And that future is looking increasingly bright owing to the growth of Nollywood’s two sizable markets: Africans on the continent and Africans in the diaspora—with the latter wielding more economic power than the former on a per capita basis, especially as more Africans migrate to the West. The diaspora’s financial clout is evident in their high remittances back to the continent , estimated at $37.8 billion in 2017. And the rising appetite among Africans back home can be seen in investments in movie theatres and calls for more.
Nollywood was built on the idea of Nigerians telling Nigerian stories for Nigerians, and that broadened to storytelling by Africans for Africans as Nollywood collaborated with and recruited talent from other parts of the continent. As such—through its filmmaking process and range of stories—the industry has long reflected the lived experiences of its audience thus necessitating its wider definition today.
One particular trait that is endemic to the industry is the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit and that is seen in the evolution of distribution channels from the inexpensive VHS tapes and players to movies on low grade video-CDs and now to streaming platforms such as iROKOtv, SceneOneTV, Netflix and YouTube; all of which allow Africans in the diaspora with better internet connectivity to access them.
For this fast-adapting industry, evolution is also about responding to the demands and realities of globalization as the industry sets its distribution sights beyond the West, seizing opportunities wherever they rise. China-based Pay-TV operator StarTimes, for instance, is working with movie distributors in China to export Nollywood content to the Chinese market.
“Nollywood isn’t looking into getting into Hollywood. They’re more interested in their work getting beyond the shores of Nigeria…and to get some monies back for the industry,” explains Shaibu Husseini, a Nigerian Nollywood film critic and jury member of the African Movie Academy Awards.
Contrary to other film critics who see the emergence of high-quality cinema from Nigeria as a deviation from an old “stigmatized”Nollywood or the rise of a “new Nollywood,” Husseini asserts it is simply an inevitable evolution with the times as the idea of Nollywood grows into an umbrella term for films produced by Nigerians.
Husseini says an entirely Nollywood film is a movie by a Nigeria-based filmmaker, produced and shot on the continent with a relatable narrative, predominantly Nigerian cast and local/industry-driven funding.
Nonetheless, films like Nigerian Prince by diaspora-based Nigerians will still get due recognition back home. Africa-based awards like AMAA have special categories for diaspora films and storytellers. This addresses any concerns from domestic filmmakers regarding competing with non-local players in the industry on an uneven playing field.