Ghana film biz bounces back

Ghallywood's low-cost model feeds local demand

ACCRA, Ghana — Five years before “Living in Bondage” introduced Nigerians to the filmmaking style that would one day spawn Nollywood, Ghanaian filmmakers had already begun experimenting with similar video production methods in their own country.

But even as Nigeria takes credit for the low-budget, on-the-fly filmmaking methods that have caught fire across the continent, Ghana’s burgeoning film industry — affectionately dubbed “Ghallywood” — is still living in Nigeria’s shadow.

“We are doing a lot here, but people don’t know it,” says veteran helmer Socrate Safo. “It’s the Ghanaian thing. Nobody knows.”

For a prolific industry that churns out more than 300 pics a year, that might be about to change. In the last 10 years, Ghana’s industry has rebounded from the lows of the late-’90s, when movie theaters were being shuttered and Nigerian pics threatened to flood the market.

The local film biz today is vibrant, with splashy movie premieres, tabloids following the exploits of Ghallywood stars, and West Africa’s first Hollywood-style studio being built on the outskirts of Accra, the capital.

Still, money is scarce; the pace hectic. Safo, who was the second Ghanaian helmer to shoot on video in the ’80s, says he has four teams working simultaneously on each film on everything from rushes to edits to designing the posters.

“By the time we finish shooting, the film is almost ready,” he says.

Despite the blistering pace, Ghanaians are wary of going down the Nigerian path. The system is tightly regulated: just five Ghanaian and two Nigerian pics are released on DVD each week, and the system is built to balance distribution from Ghana’s two main production centers: Accra and Kumasi, the nation’s second-largest city.

Many helmers here say Nigerians are studying the Ghanaian biz to find a way to better regulate their own industry. Ghana, in turn, has benefited from Nollywood’s guerilla marketing campaigns, and its creation of a star system to lure audiences to new releases.

In recent years, competition and cooperation between the two countries has begun to increase. Worried over the growing influence of their rivals in their respective markets, the Nigerian and Ghanaian governments both have engaged in tit-for-tat reprisals in the past two years, levying fees on foreign actors and helmers working in their countries.

The situation eventually cooled; today, producers from both nations look to exploit the demand for their films in both markets, using talent from their respective countries to infuse their pics with crossover appeal.

While the Ghanaian market is small, with a population of just 24 million (compared with Nigeria’s 160 million), local helmers say their pics are turning a profit. B.O. sensations like Shirley Frimpong-Manso have even revived the hopes of the struggling movie-theater industry.

The concern now is to push the industry beyond the low-budget, rapid-release style.

“If you look at the development of Hollywood, it went through different stages,” says Nii Kwate Owoo, one of the first Ghanaians to lense in 35mm. “The movies that will really explode the whole social environment in terms of the film industry (in Ghana) are yet to be made.”

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