Nollywood Shows No Sign of Slowing, as Nigeria Leads African Film Production
Nigeria's film industry continues to put out material at breakneck pace.
The Nigerian film industry, or Nollywood, has always been notable for being wildly prolific. For years, the country’s film expanse was seen as being only second to the Indian film industry, Bollywood, in terms of sheer output. According to the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Nigeria produced 2,599 films in 2021 and releases an average of 2,500 films every year.
This large number may seem unsustainable, but Nigeria has a large population, majority of whom watch locally-made films religiously. The wide tribal variance also means that a lot of non-English films are made and released every year, specifically targeted at a particular tribe. Yoruba films are a major segment of Nollywood, birthing stars such as Jide Kosoko and Funke Akindele, but films also exist in primarily Hausa, Igbo, and even smaller regional languages such as Efik and Tiv.
Despite the widespread movie-watching tradition, there is not such an abundance of movie-goers. An important distinction, as one may watch a movie on a variety of platforms from cable television to DVD players, but one must go to the cinema to see a film. Nigeria is not awash with cinema screens. According to UNESCO, there are only 237 cinema screens in the country, with a per capita estimate of 1 screen to every 843,881 people. By comparison, South Africa, a country with a much smaller film output, has 1 screen per 88,325 people.
There are several hindrances to the movie-going tradition in Nigeria. One is access: the most popular films among working- and lower-class Nigerians do not get a cinematic release. They were not even made for the cinema in the first place. Historically, Nollywood is built on the straight-to-video system, a characteristic it shares with Bollywood. Ask any Nigerian younger than 30 about their first experience of movies, and it was most likely a video cassette tape, often rented from the store, playing through the family DVR. The straight-to-video model has served Nollywood well and can be credited with growing the industry. We all watched Living in Bondage, Most Wanted, Igodo, Magun, Egg of Life, and other well-known films on video.
The re-emergence of cinema screens and filmhouses was driven by a desire of middle-class Nigerians to watch contemporary American movies. I use the word “re-emergence” because cinemas have existed in Nigeria since the early 20th century. Silent films screened in the Glover Memorial Hall in 1903 and the “golden age” of cinema-going in Nigeria was probably between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, when everyone went to the movies at least once a week. There were multiple cinema chains, movie-going was affordable, and the country’s middle-class was rapidly expanding.
An economic downturn in the late 1980s quickly made the cinema an oft-unaffordable luxury. As people stopped going, the filmhouses closed down, prompting the emergence of home video and the straight-to-video system. Without the need or budget for fancy equipment for feature-scale moviemaking, Nigerian directors and producers embraced shooting on cheaper video cameras. This allowed for quick and flexible shoots which ensured that movies could be made from start to finish within weeks, thus unleashing the film-making virility which Nollywood still possesses.
The return of Nigeria’s middle-class has seen a renewed desire for the pasttime of cinema-going. The return of the cinema was, as in its previous setting, targeted at supplying audiences with the films of Hollywood. However, a fresh affinity for home-made feature films have seen Nollywood’s cinema-scale output greatly expand in recent years, a movement that has shown no sign of abating since the smash romantic comedy, The Wedding Party.
The wave of streaming has also been to Nollywood’s benefit. The giant network, Netflix, has invested in developing original Nigerian movies for their streaming service. This is building on the gradual shift young Nigerians are making towards on-demand video in place of cable subscriptions. It also builds on the popularity of Nigerian films abroad, watched by both Nigerians in diaspora and foreign enthusiasts. After all, foreign interest in Nigerian movies have grown exponentially since films from the straight-to-video began to make it onto YouTube.
Nollywood’s film industry will only continue to grow. The directors and producers are younger, often graduates of film schools from New York to Lagos; theatre Arts departments in universities all over the country continue to produce acting talent at a rapid rate; there is increased investment in the industry, with amount of capital devoted to film and media rising every year.
Better-trained directors armed with more money will make better films (think Hollywood’s New Wave of the 1970s), but the home video directors will continue to churn out films at a rapid rate. After all, Nigeria is still a poor country and a lot of Nigerians will still see themselves and their circumstances better represented there than on the big screen. In addition, cinema-going is once again becoming a luxury, with rising ticket prices coupled with growing economic struggles nationwide prompting many, even those from the middle class, to stay away.
Marshall McLuhan’s often-quoted words can be seen to apply to Nigeria and its film industry: the medium is also often the message. Nollywood would continue to thrive off the fact that the country remains awash with messages and audiences.