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“Either you make films or make excuses” – ICT and the Nigerian film industry

I’ve just spent two weeks giving lectures and workshops in five cities and three countries. Some were ones I’d planned for months, like the TED talk. Others were more off the cuff. And then there was our workshop on ICT and the film industry in Lagos last week.

Promotional photo for Franco Sacchi’s film, This is Nollywood

In discussing this workshop with our Nigerian partner, we’d proposed a round-table conversation between three ICT and development scholars and a dozen participants from the Nigerian film industry. Our goal was to learn more about how Nollywood (and Kanowood – turns out that “Nollywood” has become a political term in Nigeria, more associated with the South than the North) works, what the challenges the industry faces are and think about how we as academic researchers could take on questions that might help the sector move forwards. Basically, it was intended to be the first step in a process that might later lead to giving some presentations about what we’d learned.

When we arrived in Lagos, the invite list for our event had expanded to 150 people… far too many for a round table… and my colleagues and I found ourselves preparing slide decks and speeches. Those speeches began with lines like, “Please be aware that we know almost nothing about the Nigerian film industry, but…” and tried to cover topics we do know something about: social media, internet infrastructure in west Africa, intellectual property law. And we had some added constraints – our video-rich slide decks crashed the machine that had been set up to run our presentations, and we ended up scrambling to move decks onto my Mac laptop and make it run from backstage, controlled by a wireless mouse that made my machine crash every few uses.

And yet, the event went surprisingly well. As we’d hoped, no one took our presentations especially seriously – instead, the audience heard them as provocation and wondered – forcefully – why we weren’t addressing the issues that the Nigerian film industry faces… which, according to the room of producers and directors we faced, largely are about getting paid.

Nigeria’s film industry is the third largest in the world in financial terms, with revenues in the neighborhood of $200-300m a year, and it’s likely that Nigeria produces as many films per year as Bollywood. Films are made quickly and inexpensively – the budget is usually under $100,000, sometimes under $10,000 and filming rarely takes more than a month. The vast majority of these films go straight to video. Indeed, there’s almost no other market for Nigerian films – cinema operators tell us that the production quality of films isn’t high enough to allow them to be shown in theatres. As much as 70% of Indian film revenue comes from screenings, as does a substantial, though much smaller portion for Hollywood. (This whole paragraph is cribbed entirely from Dayo Ogunyemi’s excellent slide deck on Nigerian Film Financing, prepared for a 2009 WIPO meeting.)

Given that over 90% of revenue comes from home video sales, piracy is a problem in the Nigerian space. The politics of this are complicated – some producers told us off the record that the same distributors they rely on to market and sell their licensed wares are involved with pirating other producer’s movies.

It quickly became clear that the politics I and my colleagues bring to the questions of intellectual property were pretty far from those of most of the producers in the room. The Berkman Center helped bring Creative Commons to life, and we’re as strongly associated with arguments against using technology to enforce copyright as any group I know of. And many of our new friends were looking for assurances that technology could make piracy disappear, by putting strong DRM measures on their product and thwarting large-scale piracy.

This fear of piracy recently extended to seeing the Internet as a space for piracy. Nollywood legend Tunde Kelani told us that he’s become used to seeing his films clipped into short segments and posted on YouTube. He and his lawyers send copyright complaints to YouTube, who quickly remove the segments. He tells us that he recently got an email from someone who’s been posting his films, which began, “You’ve got a lot of balls” to demand these files be taken down and proceeded to tell him that any of his films would be pirated as soon as it was released and put online.

(I asked a set of Ghanaian friends about online piracy and Ghallywood films – were they using BitTorrent to download films? They laughed at me – while the level of net connectivity in Ghana is generally higher than in Nigeria, the cost of downloading a video from BitTorrent, vastly exceeds what it would cost to walk onto the street and buy a film from a local vendor. To the extent that YouTube is a threat to Nigerian and Ghanaian film, it’s a threat to expatriate audiences, not domestic ones.)

So what do a bunch of IP radicals have to say to an audience like this one? All we were able to do was try to tell the future by talking about the past, and about what’s happening elsewhere.

India’s an interesting country to use as a comparison for Nigeria. The economics of Bollywood are very different, because there’s a well-established cinema culture and that’s where much of the revenue comes from. But Indian distributors do make money from home video sales, and my friend Sunil Abraham tells me they’ve done something fasciating – they’ve tried to make it impossible to pirate by keeping prices sufficiently low. At 50 rupees for an official video (a bit more than a dollar), it’s extremely hard for a pirate to make a profit… which allows the producers to do larger production runs and keep the price low. Matt Smythe, a grad student of Mike Best at Georgia Tech, gave a fascinating short presentation about video sharing in India via Bluetooth – it’s pretty common to be able to get Bollywood videos loaded onto your smartphone from a PC at a phone shop for a small fee. Smythe wondered whether this might not lead to a different revenue model in Nigeria – distributing videos through mobile phone companies, or through the numerous informal phone stores in the country.

This idea didn’t go over especially well – one member of our audience intervened to tell us that Indians were better educated and more literate than Nigerians and could handle such complicated technology as Bluetooth, while they couldn’t. I happen to keep a copy of the UN’s Human Development Report on my laptop and was able to check – actually, Nigeria’s literacy level is higher than India’s… I found myself wondering whether this objection was a version of the “it can’t work here” argument that plagues international development, or whether there’s a confidence problem Nigeria faces when looking at other models in developing nations either close or far away – examples from Ghana and Kenya were met with similar skepticism that these ideas could work in Nigeria’s “unique” environment.

But there was near universal agreement that Nigerian cinema was looking at a transition not dissimilar to the one the US music industry faced with the rise of technologies like Napster. We made the case that the record industry wasted a decade by sitting on their hands, suing companies like Napster out of existence rather than developing alternative models. Now, we’re starting to see models – iTunes, streaming audio, consumer-choice pricing – that seem to be working in some markets for music.

One aspect of alternative music models that might make sense for Nigerian film is an appearance model. In Lebanon, pop stars routinely make most of their money through performing at weddings, a lucrative gig that can yield as much as $40,000 for a top performer. With alternative revenue models like this, piracy starts being seen as advertising, not as an obstacle. It’s harder to perform live as a cast of actors… but there’s a culture of “appearance fees” in Nigeria where famous people, including film stars, demand significant sums to appear in person at events like weddings and political rallies. It’s not hard to imagine films starting to make money off premieres, where Nigeria’s (substantial, wealthy) elite pay large sums to watch the film in a grand launch and mingle with the stars.

Like many of the models we discussed, this requires the quality of Nigerian cinema to improve. I watched a few films during this trip and have watched dozens of others previously (my street vendors assure me that every film I’ve bought for 200 naira is genuine, licensed and top quality… :-) and have gotten used to bad lighting and terrible sound. It’s too much work to record audio separately from video performances and sync them later, so nothing is close mic’d… and when Nigerian actors begin to argue (as is mandatory in all Nollywood films) the sound clips. If quality improved, perhaps cinemas would start showing the films, and TV companies would buy and broadcast more.

(Or maybe not. One producer told me that television stations don’t pay producers for content – instead, a producer buys air time from a station and is on the hook for selling ad time to support the film.)

Quality, in turn, requires better financing. Most Nigerian films are financed by family and friends. While this can work for films up to $100,000, it’s very hard to raise the multi-million dollar sums that might be necessary to produce a Nollywood film that gains international attention and audience. Banks are reluctant to lend even to established producers, for fear that the books aren’t transparent… or perhaps this is simply a reflection that it’s hard to get risk capital anywhere in West Africa at present. A representative from the World Bank tells us that the Bank is putting $30 million into the “cultural space” in Nigeria. This includes a $5 million fund to take equity stakes in producing films, making investments of up to $200,000 into films.

Exciting as this idea was, there seemed to be more enthusiasm for two ideas that came up at the discussion. One involved partnering with the mobile phone networks, which are rapidly dominating the Nigerian ISP space, and selling films to handset users via the 3g networks that have come online in the country. While mobile money transfer hasn’t hit Nigeria yet, it has come online in Ghana and seems to be just a matter of time before we see it in Nigeria – once people get used to paying for services with phones, it becomes a reasonable assumption that they might pay for appropriately priced content.

The second idea that attracted widespread enthusiasm was the establishment of a film studio in Lagos that rented equipment and provided space for production. I mentioned this to friends who pointed out that a large studio had been built and never used in Cross Rivers State – I don’t know that story, but I got the strong sense that at least some of the producers in Lagos would be willing to try to patronize a studio they’d been involved with helping to design and build.

As with most discussions, the good stuff came up when I and my colleagues shut up and listened. Zik Zulu Okafor led a fascinating panel of stars, directors, producers and lawyers, who went a long way towards educating us towards what has worked and what hasn’t thus far. I came away with a strong sense for the understandable pride Nigerian filmmakers have for the industry they’ve built. Producer Ralph Nwadike told us a wonderful story about traveling to South Africa in 2000 to give a pitch for his film. The filmmakers who preceded him all asked for two to five million US dollars – Nwadike’s films were being made for less than $10,000 each. When he finally got up to pitch, he chose the highest pricetag he could imagine himself saying with a straight face – a million US dollars. None of the South Africans had a sense for how inexpensively made these films were – they simply knew they were watched and loved across the continent.

There’s one unambiguous blessing to the digitization of Nigerian cinema, Tunde Kelani tells us – at least we’ll have a record. The history of Nigerian film in an analog era has disappeared as those videocassettes wore out.

There are no easy solutions to the future of Nigerian cinema and no guarantees that new ideas – building cinema houses, selling extremely cheap copies, distributing via mobile phone networks or bluetooth – will move the industry forwards. But as Kelani concluded his remarks: “Either you make films or you make excuses – Nollywood decided to make films.”

6 thoughts on ““Either you make films or make excuses” – ICT and the Nigerian film industry”

  1. Pingback: Morning Links – Commonly Known « Arresting Development

  2. Pingback: Global Voices in English » Nigeria: ICT and the Nigerian film industry

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  4. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Nollywood: is better distribution the remedy for piracy?

  5. There was a workshop on ICT and the film industry organised in Lagos last week and this is a welcome idea , is for beterment of our people.

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