Security fears, a lingering recession, and continuing uncertainty surrounding a stalled reform agenda have made for tough times in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and second-largest economy. Across the country, consumers have felt the pinch as the currency has lost more than 50% of its value in the past year.
But while it might hardly seem like a time for celebration, that hasn’t stopped audiences from turning out in record-breaking numbers for “The Wedding Party,” a romantic comedy that’s spent seven weeks at the top of the box office and become the first Nigerian film to pass the 400 million naira (around $1.3 million) mark.
“It has surpassed all our expectations,” says executive producer Mo Abudu. “It’s been an incredible ride.”
“The Wedding Party” capped a record-setting year for the Nigerian box office, which grossed 3.5 billion naira (around $11.5 million) in 2016, with nearly 30% coming from local pics, marking the first time Nigerian films have crossed the billion naira threshold.
At a time of steady declines, it’s been a rare sign of resilience from the Nigerian economy.
“Cinema has become…a safe, fun, friendly outlet to ease the economic pressure,” says Kene Mkparu, CEO of Filmhouse Cinemas, which operates 11 theaters across Nigeria, and which co-produced “The Wedding Party” through its distribution and production arm, FilmOne. “It helps people deal with the challenges that we’re facing.”
The record-breaking B.O. is the latest hopeful sign that an industry built on the back of its low-budget Nollywood film biz – famous for slapdash storylines and straight-to-DVD releases – can mature into a cinematic powerhouse.
To succeed, Nigerian helmers face an uphill climb. The West African nation has just 28 cinemas servicing a population of nearly 180 million, though the number of screens has continued to rise since the first multiplex was built just over a decade ago.
The steady growth of the exhibition industry has in turn fueled a rise in the number of filmmakers who are upping the ante with big-budget, big-screen releases. “The mindset of a lot of producers is that they want to make films that go straight to cinema first,” says Mkparu.
Across the country, 50 local films had theatrical releases last year, an all-time high. Both literally and figuratively, says Mkparu, local filmmakers are starting to see the big picture.
“Historically, the Nigerian film industry has grown from television,” he says, noting how the industry’s propensity for cropped shots and extreme close-ups is suited to small screens. “Now they’re beginning to give a cinematic look and feel to their films.”
The results were on display in Toronto last year, when Lagos was featured in the festival’s annual City to City program. Among the eight films selected were many that would go on to have strong showings at the Nigerian box office, such as courtroom thriller “The Arbitration” and historical epic “76.”
But it would be City to City opener “The Wedding Party” that would make the biggest splash back home. Following its Toronto world premiere, the film arrived on Nigerian screens just weeks after comedian A.Y.’s “A Trip to Jamaica” had itself become the highest-grossing Nigerian film of all time.
Over the holiday season, despite stiff competition from the likes of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “The Wedding Party” continued to break records. Mkparu notes that the film’s success was just indicative of a broader trend, where “audiences are starting to choose Nigerian films as their first choice at the theater.”
Partly that owes to savvier filmmaking. While budgets have risen in recent years, so has an awareness that selling a film begins with scriptwriting and casting. “You can’t just wake up and say, ‘I’ve produced a film,’ and take a very ad hoc approach to how you promote it,” says Abudu.
Along with an aggressive social-media campaign and slick corporate tie-ins, the producers of “The Wedding Party” cast the film to appeal to a broad swath of a large, fractious country, going beyond the prime 18-35 demographic to target older audiences as well.
Ultimately, though, at a time of political and economic uncertainty, “The Wedding Party” might have succeeded because of a simple, powerful theme.