When Nigerian cinemas reopened in September after a months-long lockdown, Moses Babatope, co-founder of the distributor and production company FilmOne Entertainment, began looking ahead to a busy fall season that could get the local industry back on track.
“We were just beginning to see a recovery,” Babatope says, with “Fate of Alakada” — the third installment in Toyin Abraham’s blockbuster Nollywood franchise, directed by Kayode Kasum — bursting out of the gate after an Oct. 1 Nigerian Independence Day release. A slew of highly anticipated Nigerian titles were to follow. “Local films started driving our recovery. Whereas everybody was concerned about Hollywood films, we started seeing local films driving the return of cinemas,” he adds.
But days later, Nigeria erupted in nationwide protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a notorious police unit with a long record of brutality, eventually leading to wider demonstrations against corruption and police violence. Security forces turned on peaceful protesters, killing at least 56 people. During the ensuing unrest, three state-of-the-art cinemas owned by FilmOne’s sister company, Filmhouse, were destroyed by looters.
Babatope estimates the company’s losses at around $1.5 million. “It’s really painful,” he says. “It was the year that we were going to see a lot of capital attracted to the sector. It was a year where cinema operators were going to expand their frontiers.” He adds: “Unfortunately, it’s been anything but.”
After a string of record-setting years at the box office, the Nigerian industry has taken a hit of up to 8 billion naira ($21 million) during the six-month pandemic lockdown, a 60%-70% drop from 2019. “It’s been a tough, tough, tough year,” says Joy Odiete, CEO of leading distributor Blue Pictures Distribution. Industry groups have called on the government for support, but in spite of the dire situation, Nigerian officials “did not understand the importance of getting the cinemas up and running.”
Since the September restart, local exhibitors have been scrambling to fill screening slots, as Hollywood studios push back the release dates of tentpoles like Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” and Disney’s “Black Widow.”
Following the success of “Fate of Alakada” (pictured), the beleaguered cinema industry is hoping that Nollywood can extend it a lifeline. “We used to be a market that depended solely on Hollywood,” says Babatope. “But … this is a real opportunity for high-quality Nigerian films to stand up.”
With COVID-19 protocols in place, the cameras have been rolling on a host of hotly anticipated titles, including Kemi Adetiba’s Netflix Original “King of Boys 2” — the sequel to her 2018 blockbuster crime thriller — and superstar multi-hyphenate Ramsey Nouah’s remake of the ‘90s Nollywood cult classic “Rattle Snake,” which is slated for a mid-November theatrical release.
But with movie theaters in much of the country capped at 33% capacity, it remains to be seen if even a series of blockbusters can offset the downturn from a year of unprecedented setbacks. “Yes, we have Nollywood content that could fill the gap,” says Odiete, “but there’s [only] so much you can take as a business, as a distributor, in terms of losses.”
In a famously stoic country, however, the industry continues to soldier on. Mo Abudu, CEO of lifestyle network and production company EbonyLife, says she was encouraged by the success of the company’s human trafficking drama “Oloture,” a Netflix Original, and the growing appetite from streaming services for Nigerian content. “We’re capturing audiences even beyond Nigeria,” she says.
EbonyLife is currently developing roughly 20 projects with international partners, including Netflix, AMC Networks and Sony Pictures Television. With 2020 all but in the books, Abudu is already looking ahead to the new year, when EbonyLife will go into production on at least four projects. “That’s the thing about Nigeria,” she says. “We’re so resilient. We just get up and face the next day.”