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Exhibitors Filmhouse and Silverbird Flex Their Plex Muscles in Nigeria

For the past five years, an Islamist insurgency has shaken northern Nigeria, claiming several thousand lives and putting the government in its crosshairs. But while the ongoing violence might rattle the nerves of some, Kene Mkparu looks at the region and sees opportunity.

Mkparu, CEO of Filmhouse Ltd., is traveling north this month to open a new multiplex in Kano, the region’s largest city and economic hub. It’s one of five plexes his company is rolling out in a recent blitz that will more than double its presence in Nigeria after just two years.

The rapid expansion is part of an ambitious effort to grab a commanding share of the growing exhibition market in sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation. It is a way, as well, to build confidence in that market’s mostly untapped potential.

“Nigeria does a lot of talk,” Mkparu says. “We want you to see.”

Netflix, Hulu and other online VOD platforms might be disrupting traditional movie theaters across the world, but in Nigeria, as in China and other developing nations, the future — for now, at least — is in brick and mortar.

By the end of January, Nigeria will have just 23 cinemas across a country of 177 million, with nearly half those concentrated in Lagos, the country’s biggest city. While such numbers for exhibitors might seem bleak, that figure has more than doubled since Filmhouse — which will now have nine plexes across the country —opened its first theater in the fall of 2012.

At the time, the company set a target of 25 new theaters in its first six years. But according to Mkparu, it should meet that goal by early 2017, with plans to build four new movie houses per year after that. While Mkparu is mum on the company’s financials, he says that Filmhouse investors are happy.

And Filmhouse isn’t alone in its focus on the region. Silverbird Cinemas, the country’s largest exhibitor, is also pursuing aggressive expansion plans, with half a dozen theaters expected to open this year.

“There are still untapped areas,” says Ayo Sewanu, the group’s general manager, while describing the company’s move into underserved areas in Lagos; the capital, Abuja; and three other cities.

Yet Sewanu added a word of caution, noting that in a country with Nigeria’s complicated demographics — where despite a rapidly growing middle class, most of the population still lives below the poverty line — exhibitors have to have new theaters “in the right location, where it makes sense.”

It’s not the first time Nigeria has looked to grow its moviegoing culture. For decades, the country had a thriving cinema industry, with dozens of colonial-era movie theaters screening the latest spaghetti Westerns, kung-fu movies, Bollywood pics and local films.

But when the Nigerian economy tumbled in the 1980s, the cost of producing movies soared. Local filmmakers suddenly found themselves out of work, while growing insecurity made many people fearful to leave their homes at night. Soon, theaters began shutting down; many were converted into evangelical churches.

The current renaissance — which began with the opening of the first Silverbird multiplex in 2004 — coincides with a growing trend toward bigger-budget, higher-quality films from local filmmakers than the Nollywood industry has traditionally been known to produce. According to Silverbird, whose distribution arm is the country’s biggest, local theatrical releases have climbed from just seven in 2010 to between 15 and 20 in each of the past four years.

“They’re aware of the cinematic market,” says Sewanu of local helmers, while noting that the improved quality has been a B.O. boon for Nigerian films. “They can actually compete with the Hollywood movies at the box office.”

The numbers don’t entirely bear that out: According to the company’s figures, the top Hollywood earners typically outperform their Nollywood counterparts by three- or even fourfold.

But this year has found some breakout hits, with the likes of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” the adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel, and “October 1,” by Nigerian helmer Kunle Afolayan, both topping the N50 million ($270,000) mark, placing them among the five top-grossing Nigerian films of all time.

And in December, “30 Days in Atlanta” — a romantic comedy starring Nollywood icons Ramsey Nouah and Desmond Elliot alongside American stars Lynn Whitfield and Vivica Fox — became the highest-grossing Nigerian movie ever, with exhibitors expecting it to soon top N100 million ($540,000) at the B.O.

Those numbers might not raise eyebrows in Hollywood, but local exhibitors maintain that American blockbusters pull in better averages at the Nigerian box office than they do in many other countries. And as more plexes continue to rise across a vast, rapidly growing country, ticket sales are bound to rise, too.

“Cinema is a volume game,” Mkparu says. “If Nigeria can get to 100 cinemas … that’s when we’ll get the attention of the world.”

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