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Serendipitously, my article–Nollywood as Popular Art?–has just been published in the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos newsletter one week before the Reading and Producing Nollywood: An International Symposium at the University of Lagos. I have copied and pasted the text and photos below, or you can download the original PDF here (see pg. 11).

Film marketer in Idumota Market. Photo © 2011 Bic Leu

Nollywood as Popular Art?
Bic Leu

The Nigerian film industry has become one of the principal forces of popular art on the continent. Its commercially accessible format distinguishes it from other African cinema cultures–in particular that of the Francophone countries, where filmmakers produce highly stylized “art films” driven by socio-political messages.  Francophone films are primarily funded (and thus shaped) by the French government and distributed internationally to film festivals and other noncommercial channels. On the other hand, Nollywood films are privately funded, with (until now) little government subsidy or foreign aid. While most of the Francophone products are rarely seen by African audiences, their Nigerian counterparts are characterized by their capacity to transcend local ethnic and national boundaries and be voraciously consumed by millions of viewers across the continent, the Diaspora, as well as everywhere else in between.

Nollywood production is prolific compared to its anemic Francophone equivalent. The Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board received 1,612 local films for censorship registration in 2010, which averages to an astounding 31 new releases per week. The industry’s basis in the informal economy means that this number does not include the countless scores of films released on the black market and thus not accounted for by the Board.

As African anthropologist Karin Barber (1987) observes, popular arts attempt to appeal to as large a market as possible through a system of repetition. In Nollywood films, aspirations for social mobility are addressed through revolving sets in interiors of posh homes with HD television sets and elaborate sound systems, refrigerators, and black SUVs. Urban anxiety is conveyed through stock shots of Lagos streets and skyline, since harassment from “area boys” and authorities demanding bribes make it exceedingly difficult to shoot exterior scenes. Common fears are written and rewritten into narratives revolving around love, betrayal, greed, and the power of religious faith as a panacea for all social ills. From film to film, actors play the same roles and even repeat the same lines, like Ramsey Noah’s “Wakey, wakey, baby”–which awakens sleeping lovers in both Guilty Pleasures (2009) and A Private Storm (2010).   Even the crews remain constant as producers and directors carry them from set to set. As such, Nollywood films communicate with its African audience through a series of endless reflections intended to reinforce the shared conventions and desires of contemporary Nigerian society.

However, Nollywood is starting to defy Barber’s widely-accepted definition of popular art, which states that all commercial popular arts are produced within the African informal sector. Nigerian films are increasingly disseminated through recognized official channels, as exemplified by the box office success of recent cinema-only releases, such as Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine (2009) and Chineze Anyaene’s Ijé (2010). Nigerian films are also screened at the Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the high-brow bastion of Francophone African films that had banned Nigerian products from its line-up in the recent past. The industry has also become the subject of countless academic articles and international film festivals; its practitioners are frequently invited to participate in film panels all over the world. Formal institutions are also becoming involved in the development of the industry. In January, President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the Bank of Industry would administer the $200 million Special Entertainment Fund (which includes support from the World Bank) as low-interest loans designed to improve training, production, and distribution.

But the embrace of the mainstream often means sacrificing inventiveness to regulation and standardized expectations.  The question remains: as Nollywood begins to interact with the formal economy, will it lose its mobility and accessibility as a popular art form? Or will this new development elevate Nigerian filmmaking to the same status as other established international film cultures, to be no longer derided as a low-cost novelty in guerilla filmmaking?

Bic Leu is a US Fulbright fellow researching the social impact of Nollywood at the University of Lagos. She regularly records her observations at www.findingnollywood.com. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent those of the Fulbright program or the US Department of State.

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Go out and buy The Guardian today, everyone! My article on New Nollywood’s innovative distribution methods is published under the Friday Review section. I’ve pasted the text below, or you can read the original web version here. Many thanks to Gabe for lending his editor’s eye to this piece.
Friday, 14 January 2011 00:00 By Bic Leu 

THE domestic and international media have been buzzing about the emergence of a New Nollywood. A wave of recent features — including Kunle Afolayan’s The Figurine and Chineze Anyaene’s Ijé — flout traditional Nollywood conventions such as low budgets and poor production value and eschew the Nigerian film industry’s straight-to-video format for a theatrical run. It appears that there is a new vigour among filmmakers to tackle the rampant piracy and poor distribution linkages that have plagued the industry.

Beyond piracy
Pirates have usurped Nigerian filmmakers’ profits at the end of the distribution chain for years by replicating and distributing films within days of DVD release. According to writer and director, Amaka Igwe, “Piracy makes up 82 per cent of the Nigerian market.” However, she identifies the real problem behind revenue generation as distributors’ ignorance about market supply and demand: “If people had a choice of buying the real copy, they would buy it, but they can’t find it.”

Igwe laments that distributors often print fewer copies than what the customers demand in fear that surplus inventory will remain unsold. As a result, pirates fill the gap with illegal copies.  Despite having completed work on six films, Igwe refuses to release any until a massive distribution system that she has been working on is unveiled in March 2011: “I’m not doing any new films, because that’s like pouring water into sand; you don’t get any returns.”

Revitalizing cinemas
Other filmmakers have turned to cinemas. Kunle Afolayan’s Irapada (2007) was the first Nigerian film to be shown at Lagos’ Silverbird Galleria. Instead of relying on the traditional system in which the marketer serves as the production’s main funding source, Afolayan subsidized his budget by negotiating product placement deals — which recouped 50 per cent of expenses before the film’s release.  Irapada went on to gross over N5 million at the box office and changed the industry’s perception of cinema release, a custom that had died out in the 1980s along with celluloid filmmaking in Nigeria.  Afolayan also screened the film at small venues like the National Arts Theatre as well as campuses across the country.

Afolayan expanded Irapada’s distribution model when The Figurine premiered in 2009. On top of the cinema release and product placement, The Figurine was one of the first Nigerian films to tour the international festival circuit, gathering critical acclaim in Berlin, New York, Rotterdam, Tarifa, and Kampala.

Afolayan’s equal mix of the artistic and the commercial attracted audiences to theatres in record numbers. He claims, “Many people who weren’t cinema-goers started going to the cinema because they were interested in seeing the film”.

It raked in N30 million during its eight-week theatrical run and was recognized as the most successful Nigerian cinema release at the time. On the back end, Afolayan has experimented with new distribution schemes.  When Irapada was distributed on DVD, Afolayan enlisted the help of a China-based disc replication firm for the encryption, which he believed “cut out piracy by 80 per cent”. He has big plans for The Figurine’s DVD release in February 2011: a subsidiary of the satellite TV service HiTV will distribute one million copies domestically and more abroad via website sales.

If Kunle Afolayan re-introduced cinema culture to the Nigerian audience, then Chineze Anyaene cemented its viability with her directorial debut, Ijé (2010). The film made N50 million at the box office last year, thus displacing The Figurine as the highest grossing Nigerian cinema release of all time. Next, Anyaene plans to distribute Ijé in Kenya, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

A grassroots approach
Veteran director, Tunde Kelani is thinking beyond cinemas. Recognizing that most Nigerians cannot afford the average N1,000-N1,500 cinema ticket price in the only nine functioning multiplexes in the country, Kelani is looking for more accessible alternatives. On top of the regular cinema circuit, he is working with the Lagos State Viewing Sports Center Association to use their 700-1,000 viewing centers to show his next feature, Ma’ami (2011), whenever there is a free slot in the programming schedule.

Kelani’s team, which includes Production Manager Jamiu Shoyode, is currently reviewing the locations. With an average capacity of 100 seats per center, Kelani hopes to reach at least 70,000 Lagosians by the end of Ma’ami’s release — although this conservative estimate doesn’t account for multiple screenings per center.

Kelani plans to charge N150 per ticket, hoping that the low price will encourage whole communities to see his film. The egalitarian approach also extends to the series of free open-air screenings that he is planning in conjunction with the viewing center release.  Kelani already proved the success of this method in 2009 when he reached over 2,500 people in 57 local councils at free outdoor viewings of his last film, Arugbá. He hopes to attract another sponsor to cover the costs for Ma’ami and to help him accomplish his goal of capturing “the masses”.

A high-tech distribution solution?
The Internet is also becoming a viable option for distributing Nollywood movies. In December 2010, telecommunications giant Glo joined its counterpart MTN in giving their subscribers access to DStv Mobile, a service that enables users to watch DStv live on their mobile devices. Available programming includes the Africa Magic movie channels that broadcast a never-ending rotation of Nollywood films.

Supporting this new Internet platform are two international submarine cables that were landed in Nigeria in 2009: Main One, operated by privately-owned Main One Cable Company, and Glo 1, operated by Globacom. The cables link Lagos to Europe and other West African countries with the goal of providing affordable and high-speed Internet services across the continent (though the author has yet to notice any improvement in Internet bandwidth).  Main One commenced commercial services in July 2010 and Glo 1 followed suit in October 2010.

The World Wide Web has the potential to become a virtual Idumota Market, though with a more manageable distribution chain than the real Lagos bazaar. The New Nollywood may not need to look beyond its laptop to reach the masses both near and far. Ultimately, the defining trait is innovation since piracy has become a catalyst for reinvention. Rather than fight in the trenches, filmmakers are sharpening their business sense, creating models for exhibition and distribution that demand rebranding the industry precisely because up-and-coming Nollywood fits in a future that, for now, is still running to meet itself.

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Yesterday, 234NEXT ran an article about the phenomenon of “New Nollywood, which refers to recent film releases (like The Figurine and Ije) that represent a turning point in the development of the industry through their defiance of such Nollywood characteristics as low budgets and production values. What do you think? Will “New Nollywood” become the standard or is it just the exception to the rule?

I’m also interested in the etymology of “New Nollywood“. Through a Google search, it seems that the earliest usage of term was this Variety article published on June 5, 2010 about the rare international critical recognition of Kunle Afolayan‘s The Figurine. Does anyone know if there is an earlier source for the term?

I’ve pasted the photo and text below, or you can read the original online version here.

Cast and Crew on the set of ‘The Figurine’ . Photo: COURTESY GOLDEN EFFECTS

Nollywood and the new cinema

By Mike Ekunno 

January 2, 2011 08:00AM

Nollywood is at the threshold of a paradigm shift which may have started in 2010. Just as 1992 is credited with the birth of Nollywood with ‘Living In Bondage’, a modest cache of offerings on the big screen (The Figurine, Inale, Ije, and Anchor Baby) may have started the rebirth of Nollywood. But as to the nature of this change, it is still morning yet on creation day.

Time will tell whether the change is an ecdysis of the snake merely shedding its skin or a mutation that goes down to the genes. If it is the former, there may be nothing to cheer except the fact of the different platform – cinema – that the movies are coming out on. But if it is the latter, there will be lots to cheer, because it means we will be seeing changes in the very characteristics that define (and malign) Nollywood. What are these characteristics?

Low budgets

Budget and gestation period are top on the list of Nollywood’s defining parameters. Nollywood movies are low budget movies. With two million naira, a producer can cobble together a flick. Also, the gestation period from pre-production to marketing can be of the order of few weeks. Somehow, the questions of budget and gestation period are inter-connected, like an engine head and its trailer.

Low budget means that the script cannot be properly researched or a good scriptwriter hired. Many a time, some hare-brained storyteller is engaged and gifted character actors are invited to listen to the story and ad-lib their parts. Casting, set making, props and the shooting proper, all suffer from this paucity of funding.

In contrast, ‘Inale’, one of the new films whose release signposts the new era, reportedly cost $2.8 million (N300m) to produce. By Hollywood standards, this figure is chicken change but in Nollywood, it is a king’s ransom. The difference is visible in the quality of the film, to confirm our Nigerian saying that “better soup, na money kill am.”

As for duration, ‘Ije’ took 18 months for shooting alone, with locations in Jos and the US. This contrasts with the fortnight average duration of a shoot for Nollywood movies.

Craft

Another parameter to be used in evaluating how much of Nollywood is to be found in the new cinema is in the craft. I use craft here as an omnibus word that encompasses directing, acting, the storyline, and its treatment. As far as acting goes, Nollywood’s best can hold the candle to the best in the world. What is lacking is the directorial capacity to lift their game.

In many star roles of the quartet under review, it is the self-same Nollywood actors that put up stellar performances. Whether one is talking about ‘The Figurine’ (Ramsey Noah, Kunle Afolayan, Omoni Oboli, etc) or ‘Ije’ (Genevieve Nnaji, Omotola Jalade Ekeinde), the story is the same. One can, therefore, posit that the problem with Nollywood is not in the actors but the acting (excuse the pun). This is true, especially of the A-list actors.

Storylines

As for the storylines, those of our normative quartet are no different from the regular Nollywood fare. Nollywood has countless stories of mysterious jinxes to rival ‘The Figurine’. It has done too many epics to make ‘Inale’ special just on that score. What is missing from the Nollywood equivalents is treatment that is suspenseful and filmic. Kunle Afolayan’s ‘The Figurine’ allows you to conjecture what is happening with the serial prosperity followed by serial tragedies as happened in the film.

Up until the end, the attribution of the mystery to the figurine remains debatable. The scientific minded would say they are mere coincidences. If the film is watched in the downtown cinema of our growing up days which had more rowdy audiences, you could picture the hot arguments that will erupt between teenage friends on their way out as the lights come on. That is the purpose of art: engendering debate.

Also the false ending or twist in the tale of ‘Anchor Baby’ is totally unpredictable from the beginning, unlike in Nollywood where any eight-year-old aficionado will tell you what is to happen by merely seeing Patience Ozokwor, Kanayo Kanayo, or Jim Iyke’s character.

Being too loquacious, as if one were using an audio medium, has been the bane of Nollywood. In the quartet under review, one could see glimpses of how it should be done without the need to preach too much.

Directing

In directing, our quartet is many notches above Nollywood standard. This is notwithstanding the limited experience of Lonzo Nzekwe (‘Anchor Baby’). Only in ‘Inale’ could one see a bit of the corruptive influence of Nollywood in the perfunctorily executed wrestling scenes.

Also, the dialogues and romantic scene featuring Odeh (Hakeem Kae Kazim) and Inale (Caroline Chikezie) before the wrestling seem to kill the suspense and make the outcome of the contest predictable – more like working towards the answer. The director, Jeta Amata, cannot be excused his playful treatment of the wrestling scenes on account of the film being a musical. His approach seems to be that of merely dramatising the story being told by Cameron Prozman’s character to his granddaughter. This is faulty.

In ‘Titanic’, which uses the same technique of flashback, the film takes a life of its own and sucks the audience so much into the “now” as to forget it is only a flashback. Notwithstanding this minor flaw, ‘Inale’ still blazes a quality trail in its genre with the fragrance of Bongos Ikwue’s songwriting prowess redolent throughout it.

Across borders

With the exception of ‘The Figurine’, the other members of the quartet all benefited from cross border collaborations in set design, location, cast, crew and post-production. If they are that good, it stands to reason that collaboration is the way to go. There has to be a trans-Atlantic handshake for Nollywood to up its game. Nollywood collabos have been too fixated on merely showing that an Oyinbo face or London street was captured. The budgets obviously could not carry quality actors in the collaborating countries.

As for the Ghanaian actors in Nollywood, they cannot uplift any standards because they don’t have any higher or better film culture to draw from. Those of them that have broken into Nollywood’s A-list have no choice but to conform to Nollywood. Inale’s casting of Hakeem Kae Kazim and Caroline Chikezie in lead roles was a well-executed move that surely rubbed off on the musical’s overall rating. Though Nigerians by birth, both had made their marks in advanced film cultures and were known faces internationally. ‘Anchor Baby’ also had Terri Oliver. Nollywood’s casting directors must in future cast their nets wide enough to incorporate off-shore, top-rated actors to enhance the universal acceptance of their stories and movies.

In this, maybe they could borrow a leaf from national football where being foreign-based has its benefits; but film has no laws against the nationality of the players you can use.

Offshore, onshore

However, off-shore collaboration in acting roles should not be confused with feeding our inferiority complex. It is not necessarily because our A-list actors are not good enough. Neither is it about having a white face or American accent. Film is a worldwide medium and these off-shore actors bring cross-cultural credibility to the story.

But apart from shopping off-shore, there is a slew of talents waiting to be challenged in the nascent Nigerian theatre and Nigerian non-Nollywood constituencies, including Kannywood, the Northern movie market. Nollywood and the Nigerian stage have had only limited symbiosis. Nothing prevents the new cinema from going a-fishing in the stage pond. Dede Mabiaku gave a good account of himself in ‘Inale’.

Before the ink on this piece could dry, two other big screen flicks with Nigerian, nay Nollywood, inputs hit the cinemas. ‘Between Kings And Queens’ was made by ex-Nollywood practitioner, Joy Dickson, and stars Jim Iyke while ‘Champion of our Time’ comes with a full cast of Nollywood stars including Joke Silva, Segun Arinze, Ejike Asiegbu, etc. Given our zest for following trends, one should expect a hurricane in Nigerian cinema films in 2011. It remains to be seen whether Nollywood is merely re-inventing itself or a totally different movement is being born.

Tighten your seat belts everybody!

Mike Ekunno is a staff of the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB).

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