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Nigerian cinema: Still a long walk to maturity

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Nigeria, with a huge population and multi-ethnic groupings ought to be a veritable market for the motion picture industry to flourish.

But while countries with similar population and multifarious cultural groupings are using the cinema to project their image to the world, tell their stories, showcase their culture, create employment opportunities and also rake in huge revenue, the Nigerian cinema is in a mishmash, with some stakeholders lamenting the decay in the industry, while government handles issues concerning the cinema with levity.

Brought into the country in 1903 at the instance of Herbert Macaulay, a foremost nationalist who invited Balboa and Company, an outfit that was then doing an exhibition tour of silent films on the West African Coast, past governments have not been able to maximise the gains of the already laid platform.

In August 1903, at the Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos, the Balboa and Company show held, and effectively opened the floodgate for other European film exhibitors to come into the country.

The coming of these exhibitors and their films engendered competition between local concerts and drama shows, which were dominant in the big cities in western Nigeria, and the cinemas.

Seeing the audience pulled by the new medium- the cinema, the colonial government took interest and brought in more films.

Though, the contents of such films were highly censored, they in a way opened a new vista that encouraged local investors to pan their investments towards that direction, and with time cinema houses began to spring up from Lagos, the hub of entertainment, then to other parts.

As society became more urbanised, there was need to establish distribution/ exhibition centres, making branches of the distribution and exhibition companies to spread all over.

However, this changed with the outbreak of World War II in September 1, 1939, as the colonial government began to take keen interest in the sector.

It then set up the Colonial Film Unit (CFU), to make films for the colonies.

The objectives of the unit included using films as a weapon of propaganda against the enemies, and to convince the colonies that they and the English had a common enemy in the Germans, and to this end, about a quartre of all the films made by the unit were war-related.

Secondly, their productions were to show to the outside world, the assumed excellent works that the colonial masters were carrying out in the colonies.

Funded through the Colonial Development Welfare Act, the films CFU made helped the spread of British imperialism.

According to Eddie Ugbomah, a notable Nigerian filmmaker, the CFU films production had two main approaches, which included, the affirmation of European culture as better than the African culture, and the negation or relegation of the colonised culture to the background.

He explained that it was part of the colonial policy to keep blacks perpetually in servitude, adding that films like A New Fire Bomb and The British Army reflected the mighty power of the colonialists, while films such as Tarzan Of The Apes showed Africans as inferior people who needed to be colonised.

With the attainment of independence in 1960, the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) metamorphosed into the Federal Film Unit (FFU). This change, however, did not have any effect on the objective of the unit, as it still retained most of its colonial heritage.

One of the good things that happened during this period for the cinema was that private individuals began to produce and exhibit feature films and this shifted the objectives of the unit, from being an appendage of meeting the needs of the colonial masters, to adding local imputs.

Black became beautiful; a thing to be explored and enjoyed, and the colonialists came to be seen as rapists of the rich culture of Nigeria and indeed Africa.

The primary function of the FFU was the production of documentaries, which were funded by the government and sometimes, international organisations like the WHO, UNICEF among others.

Owing to the nature of operation and financing, foreign film distributors and exhibitors succeeded in turning the attention of the documentaries from projecting Nigeria, to projecting themselves.

Their cinema houses were filled to the brim with eager viewers and for a long time, they made a lot of profit showcasing foreign movies.

Ugbomah disclosed that this lasted till the 1970s, when Nigeria broke the ice, by producing the first feature film, Kongi’s Harvest.

The film, though directed by an American, featured more foreigners as crewmembers, and gave Nigerians the encouragement needed to venture out.

With this breakthrough, more Nigerians, including Ugbomah, Ladi Ladebo, Ola Balogun, U.S.A. Galadima, among others, who had been trained during the CFU era and some Yoruba traveling theatres (Alarinjo and Agbegijo) practitioners, motivated by their audiences’ demand to adapt their stage plays to film, became involved in the production of indigenous movies.

All the films produced during this period were on 35mm celluloid reel. These producers were well received and the cinemas, especially in western Nigeria and areas where Yoruba language was spoken came alive, as the films were done in Yoruba.

Also, apart from the challenge of weaning the viewing public from foreign films indigenous filmmakers had problems in the procurement of equipment, manpower, managerial ability, piracy, marketing among others.

These problems discouraged many, even as some of them went bankrupt and the cinema culture that was catching up suddenly waned.

To salvage the situation the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) was in 1979 set up to provide the necessary infrastructure, and a few years later, a National Film Policy was put in motion.

But neither of these was able to rescue the cinema from its problems. Consequently, by mid 1980s, it was nearly impossible for films to be made on celluloid because of the introduction of videotapes.

Film stocks were expensive to import, and celluloid was also expensive to process. Rushes had to be taken abroad for development and other processing.

This situation, coupled with the harsh economy made many local filmmakers to use videotapes, as it was less expensive and easily accessible.

Apart from this, it was easier editing works on it than on celluloid.

Recalling the cinema experience of that era, Benson Tomoloju, an art and culture activist, disclosed that by the end of the 1980s, video films had become the strongest technological medium of popular culture and entertainment in western Nigeria, adding that first to realise its immense social and economic potentials were the popular musicians and later some television stations.

According to him, owing to the fact that video cameras were relatively cheap and easy to carry and control, would-be filmmakers found a ready medium to work with.

“With this, stage actors could be called together to act out a story in imitation, in the manner of the vanishing theatre tradition and thus everybody was back in business,” he noted.

While this technology flourished, it had a telling effect on cinemas. Cinema enthusiasts, at that point found a new love ofwatching movies in videotapes in the comfort of their homes.

This thus starved cinemas of their fledgling audiences, as many, if not all, closed shops, while filmmakers look for new ways to tell their stories.

Casting a further look at the past, Ugbomah revealed that home video films were inspired by Yoruba travelling theatres, as actualised by Ade Ajiboye (Big Abass), who produced Soso Meji, in 1988, which happened to be the first Nigerian video film.

He noted that subsequently, Alade Aromire produced Ekun in 1989, and the success of these movies became an eye opener for other producers, and many movie actors and enthusiasts, mostly sought assistance from film promoters like Kenneth Nnebue of Nek Video Link, Lagos, and Sulaimon Aweda, who were both important film distributors and exhibitors.

Nnebue, capitalising on the gains of the industry, invested in a lot of low budget video films, including Aje Ni Iya Mi, Ija Eleye, Osa Eleye.

The development did not go down well with the new school of video filmmakers who termed his investments as peanuts. They left and formed their own production firms.

The Igbo language video films were silent until mid 1992, when Kenneth Nnebue produced, Living In Bondage.

This opened up the way for a new crop of professional filmmakers, especially from the East, to come into the industry.

While little or nothing was known of these new comers in stage acting, a few of them, including Zeb Ejiro, Kenneth Okonkwo and Amaka Igwe-Isaac, were known to have produced or acted in serials for television.

Their coming, however, had a positive impact on the motion picture industry, as there were more productions, even though some of them were below standard, in terms of storytelling, sound and editing.

With the entry of Igbo and English video films into the market, producers of Yoruba home videos, who before now monopolised the exposed to stiff competition.

After Living In Bondage, other Igbo video films that followed were either in Igbo or English languages or in Igbo and subtitled in English language. The films were well accepted among the Igbo and the non-Igbo audiences.

Home videos in Hausa language later followed.

While this shift favoured the home video producers and marketers, it drained the cinemas of funds and following.

Few years into the 2000s, the home video film fad began to wane with a return of cinema houses in major cities.

In 2004, the Silverbird Group launched its first series of modern cinema house with the Silverbird Galleria in Victoria Island, Lagos.

The company later opened branches across major cities. The cinemas were elitist in nature and also situated in highbrow areas of the cities.

Not long after this, Genesis Deluxe Cinemas and Ozone Cinemas came on board, and later Filmhouse Cinemas, Viva Cinemas and others came into the business.

The coming of the latter cinemas gave the business a boost, expanding the market to accommodate other classes. This made more people to begin to embrace the cinema culture.

The coming of the new generation of cinemas reignited the cinema culture, and reduced the hold of home video culture, because the new idea gave room for outdoor recreation, around shopping malls and other fun centres.

There was also a boost in the cinema value chain , which created jobs and, of course, brought in huge revenue for the investors.

The growth of the sector led to it being rated in 2006 as the second most valuable film industry in the world. This was based on its worth and overall revenues generated.

This, perhaps, startled the government from its deep slumber to begin to show interest in the industry.

It then conceived the “Project Nollywood” to give grants to filmmakers to produce and distribute their films across the country.

Since then, the government started investing in the sector as it could be seen in 2006 when, in conjunction with Ecobank provided US$781m; in 2010, launched a US$200m “Creative and Entertainment Industry Intervention Fund,” financed by the Bank of Industry (BOI), in conjunction with the Nigerian Export and Import (NEXIM) Bank.

One per cent of this fund went to filmmaking. In 2013, a US$20m was provided, and in 2015, the Bank of Industry (BoI) launched another “NollyFund” programme to give loans to filmmakers.

Speaking on funding, Elvis Chuks, a multiple-award filmmaker, said despite the sums of money put in by government so far, a lot still needs to be done for the sector and for filmmakers.

According to him, the few exhibitors that were privileged to get some money from the fund have used it to build cinemas, where they feature only films that their organisations or those close to their organisations produce.

He equally observed that this has in no little way demoralised filmmakers, as it encouraged some cinema houses to constitute a monopoly, which is part of the vices killing the Nigerian cinema.

Chuks further noted that producing quality films involves huge sums of money, which most times no singular individual can provide, adding that Nigerian cinema will grow and flourish again if more cinema houses cater for the growing demand of the audience, and a structure that could check sharp practices in big cinema houses that include under declaring income in order to short pay film owners.

While giving kudos to some cinema houses, including Silverbird Cinemas, which upon their establishment started screening Nigerian films with high production quality, and as a result discouraged poor film production, the filmmaker said the country’s cinema culture will further improve when filmmakers start producing quality films and also having purpose-built cinemas for people, who not only go there to watch movies, but to relax.

He urged cinema houses to desist from operating in garages and warehouses as that discourages the audience. He stressed that such facilities, most times do not protect the audience from the rains, while their interiors are usually not conducive.

He noted further that unlike the home video films era, films in the new era were generally of much improved quality, with considerably bigger budgets averaging between ₦40m and ₦300m, adding that films production periods now take months and even years, unlike the home video, which were shot in days or weeks.

Tracing the journey of the Nigerian cinema, Tomoloju said it’s a culture controlled by the times, especially security and technology.

He said that the Nigerian cinema is on a steady growth as we now have more subtle performances from actor, different from the overt melodrama, which constituted the video era, as well as more practical, logical and generally better stories.

On the need to establish more cinemas in the country, Judith Audu, an award-winning filmmaker said with a population of over 170 million, Nigeria has about 30 cinemas with less than 150 screens. This she notes is extremely inadequate to meet the cinema needs of Nigerians.

She added that having up to 1, 000 screens in the country will encourage movie lovers to go to cinemas knowing that they would not have to wait in long queues for long, just as it would also help filmmakers recoup funds expended in productions and also make profits.

As a result of the inability to make profit through tickets, many of the new filmmakers have resorted to sponsorships and product placements as a means of recouping production costs.

An example is Kunle Afolayan, who stated that sponsorship could fund about 30 to 50 per cent of a film’s budget.

Afolayan has also cultivated the habit of screening his films in public halls and theatres, especially in areas lacking cinemas.

Tunde Kelani is another notable filmmaker who employs similar method in distributing his films.

Another method filmmakers employ to recoup invested funds, according to Edun Hafeez, a film distributor, is by entering into deals with pay-TV networks, online film rights and free-to-air broadcasters across the continent.

He also revealed that some filmmakers have turned to foreign markets, by using foreign cast members.

He said some of the movies that have used this marketing strategy include, Black November (2012) by Jeta Amata, Doctor Bello (2013) by Tony Abulu, and Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) by Biyi Bandele.

If with the state of things in the country some films are still breaking even, grossing like The Wedding Party, with over N453m in 2016 and N500m in 2017 and still showing in cinemas across the country, it means hope is not lost in the sector, especially with Lagos State government due to deliver six modern cottage theatres across the state.


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