Biz shifting from low-budget to competitive pics

LAGOS — “Nollywood is dead,” says a Nigerian entertainment lawyer, sipping a beer in a fashionable restaurant in the capital of the country’s entertainment industry.

It sounds like a bold statement concerning Africa’s most prolific film biz. But as a small but growing number of filmmakers look to make the jump from smallscreen to the bigscreen, a new movement is beginning to take shape.

“The whole point of New Nigeria Cinema is to put a proper structure in place … concentrating on distribution, on developing talent, and getting international recognition,” says Wale Ojo, an actor who launched the movement in 2010.

Citing a fresh crop of Nigerian helmers shooting on 35mm with budgets upwards of half a million dollars, Ojo says the industry’s energy is slowly shifting from the prolific output of low-budget, low-quality Nollywood pics to well-crafted films that can succeed in the global market — the New Nigeria Cinema movement.

It is a daunting task — only 20 locally produced films made it to Nigerian theaters last year, a number that’s unlikely to be matched in 2012.

Exhibition spaces are rare. The nation’s first multiplex was built in 2005; today, there are just nine scattered across a country of more than 160 million.

That is likely to slowly change. Industry insiders hope to see the number of theaters rise to 30 or 40 in the next five years, though the high cost of construction in country makes it difficult to judge the likelihood of that happening.

“We haven’t even begun to scratch the potential of cinemas in Nigeria,” says Kene Mkparu, managing director of Filmhouse, which is rolling out four new plexes in the next few months.

Pics that make it to the screen face stiff competition from Hollywood titles.

According to Mary Ephraim, CEO of distrib Okhma Global, the average foreign film in 2011 grossed around $32,000-$95,000, compared with just over $19,000 for domestic productions, with more than half the total domestic B.O. (about $395,000) accounted for by Mahmood Ali-Balogun’s smash “Tango With Me.”

While the numbers might look unimpressive, they represent a step forward for an industry that’s still finding its footing, says Ben Bruce, CEO of the Silverbird Group, which owns West Africa’s largest theater chain. When the first Silverbird theater opened in 2005, Bruce says the films it showed were “100% Hollywood.” Today, that number has dropped to less than 50%.

“The new movies (Nigerians) make today are a lot better than the ones they made yesterday,” he says.

For producers used to the Darwinian free-for-all of Nollywood’s straight-to-VCD market, adapting to the theatrical model still involves a learning process.

At a recent conference on intellectual property law in Lagos, the debate turned acrimonious as producers accused distribs of cheating them, and plexes of dipping into the tills.

Ayo Sewanu, head of distribution for Silverbird Film, says that for many local producers, “there’s this misunderstanding that once they go to the distributor, we’re supposed to take over the fulltime marketing of the movie.” Few will independently work to generate early buzz for films that typically get a theatrical run of only two to four weeks.

By comparison, he says, Hollywood imports arrive with a marketing budget and strategy.

Silverbird’s Bruce maintains “the (Nigerian) movies are holding their own.” The group plans to add a production arm to its media empire in the next few years — a big vote of confidence in the local industry.

As the movie biz continues to mature and expand, Bruce suggests that the time is near when Hollywood’s star will have dimmed in sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous country.

“If they pulled out of Nigeria two years from now, it would not make a difference to my box office return,” he says. Local films “would pick up the slack.”

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