Award-winning Nigerian filmmaker Zik Zulu Okafor is one of the first speakers at today’s New Media Nollywood Conference at Georgia Tech. In conjunction with this academic gathering, Okafor is shooting a new Nollywood film at Georgia Tech this month, taking advantage of access to the campus to tell the story of a Nigerian student in the US.
While Nollywood has come to public notice in the past few years, Zik Zulu wants us to know that Nigeria has been making films for decades. In the 1990s, the military governments and economic austerity measures nearly killed the film industry. Television was tightly regulated, and there were fewer than 20 stations – now there are more than 100. But in the mid-1990s, the situation was “placid”.
At the moment of placidity, the Yoruba in southwest Nigeria were making home videos. And a group in the Southeast who spoke Ibo thought they could do something around video production around their language. They made a film called “Living in Bondage”, which Zik describes as “a little miracle”. Despite the fact that it was in Ibo, it became a hit throughout the whole country. Unemployed youth started to look for opportunities to make films and make money. At the peak of the Nollywood miracle, we saw 100 films produced in a week.
While films made in India and Hollywood were more professional, the Nigerian films were pushing them off the shelves. Why? They were films that spoke to our lives, our issues and our problems. But there were limits to how broad an audience these films could reach – questions about technical and commercial limits. Our need to consider Nollywood and new media is the chance to look at the current limits of the industry and how we could transcend those limits.
Documentarian Franco Sacchi tells us that, when you hear a story like Zik’s, want to tell a new and different story about Africa. “There is nothing more original and refreshing than a story like this one.” Sacchi was born in Africa, and knew he wanted to create a different story and narrative.
His film, This is Nollywood – made in 2005 – follows production of a Nollywood film as a window into understanding the creativity and power of this practice. The success of the film led to an invitation to speak at TED Africa, which connected him with people interested in media and social change.
Jay Winsten, public health scholar at Harvard, brought the Scandinavian concept of the “designated driver” to the US in the late 1980s, as a way of addressing death via drunk driving. To popularize the concept, he worked with the producers of the situation comedy, “Cheers”. The mentions on Cheers weren’t especially heavy-handed or paternalistic, but they generated interest in the concept. Shortly after the mentions, the Harvard initiative was able to measure a 30% fall in drunk driving fatalities.
Nigerian films reach the most rural areas, towns where there’s no electricity. He tells us about a man pushing a wooden wheelbarrow filled with films, selling in a rural area. Given this reach and power, we need to consider the possibility that these films are a tool for social good and social change.
Burkinabe cinema scholar Aboubukar Sanogo tells us that he was literally born into cinema. As his parents rushed to the hospital in Ouagadougou, his mother gave birth in taxi in a crowded downtown intersection, next to the Ciné Réal. While not a Nigerian, he’s an expert on older traditions of African cinema, the sorts of films that get shows at FESPACO, the biennial film festival in Burkina Faso that features African film and is the center of academic culture around these films.
aonogo sees Nollywood as the harbinger of a post-cinematic age. Homes, churches and other infrastructures have taken over the function of the cinema. “But some of the properties we associate with 35mm, 16mm, 8mm film are now associated with video. You can be a filmmaker with a VCR.” You can shoot, edit and create a narrative with inexpensive equipment and cameras. He offers his sense that Nollywood may be the future of cinema, and part of its creative and innovative genius.
He references Chidum Okwe, a young Nigerian who has started an alternative distribution channel called Izogn Movies. The website offers subscription-based access to Nigerian films, and builds a community around review snd and comments. Izogn represents a way that media that has powerful domestic reach can influence the diaspora and anyone else excited about Nigerian culture. “We’re shifting to a moment when the content consumed in a country is the content created in that country,” which is the dream of the people who began making cinema in Nigeria.
Jade Miller, a postdoc student at Tulane, wrote her PhD dissertation on the structure of Nollywood while at USC. Her academic interest is in media policy and the development of creative industries. Nollywood, as an industry, developed without any policy interventions from the government, and she notes that it’s possible that the government may not be able to influence Nollywood in positive ways.
She urges us to talk about monetization strategies that work within the current structure of Nollywood distribution. We can’t just talk about piracy – we need to think about models like product placement which could support our work. She wants to hear more about international distribution: are rumors that international distributors offering $5k a film true? She’s heard that satellite channel Africa Magic is commissioning and paying for movies – is that true?
The audience expresses some skepticism about Izogn Movies and other streaming models – are producers actually seeing any money from these services. Sanogo tells us that the site has registered 80,000 subscribers, registers personal data for subscribers, and tracks precisely what is being watched. He notes that one lady had watched 700 films in a year. There’s active spectatorship outside of Nigeria, with 35% of the audience is in the UK, 30% in the US.
What about syndication on airplanes? The revenue from one airplane for 3 months, Sacchi argues, represents 10% of a Nollywood film’s budget. The problem at present, he argues, is the lack of good curation.