Keep calm and Nollywood
I think the release of my second film was when I felt that I could say I was a Nollywood producer and not feel self-conscious. Everybody has a first film – the one that costs more than it should and makes less than you hoped. I suppose given that AY’s first film broke box office records and became the highest grossing film in Nigerian cinema history, I’m guessing he didn’t quite go through this rite of passage. So for the rest of us who aren’t AY, the first film is normally quite the sobering experience.
As a result, the decision to make a second film after going through that experience is one of the markers of a Nollywood producer. Having the gumption to know how painful it was the first time and to willingly do it again marks you as the kind of person that is a glutton for the pain that Nollywood will put you through – and that my friends is why it’s your second film rather than your first that makes you a member of Nollywood.
Another thing is that it is only after your second film that you start truly collecting your complement of stories that mark you as one of us. Stories involving being chased by area boys, generators catching fire, taking police escorts to a hospital after car accidents, etc etc. However the stories are not important in and of themselves, they are battle scars you share with your peers. You quickly learn that they don’t make you unique, but they do provide you entry into the merry band of brothers and sisters that is Nollywood.
One of the things I’ve learned in my five years of being in and around Nollywood is that it is one of the best representations of the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit. This is an industry that was built from nothing but hard work and determination to become a global powerhouse. You see this on every set you work on – the can-do spirit that forms the beating heart of Nollywood.
You need to make a film in 10 days, or all your money will finish – the film is made in ten days. You lose an actor the day you start shooting – your replacement in on set twenty-four hours later. You arrive at a location without getting the necessary permits – you know you’re convincing them to let you shoot anyway. Nobody expects to get credit for any of this, you just know it must be done and you do it.
Nollywood is also fiercely egalitarian – you get more respect for the work you do than for who you are. Like most industries in Nigeria it is easier for men, but I’d argue that Nollywood is one of the best industries for women in Nigeria. As my friend and fellow producer Uduak Oguamanam always says, women practically run Nollywood.
The thing that has most changed since I started doing this is the amount of interest I get from random people when they find out I do Nollywood. That, more than anything else, tells you that the view of Nollywood has changed in the eyes of the middle and upper class Nigerians. Here’s a few stats that bear this out:
When my first film went into production in January 2014, there were 16 cinemas in the country, when my fourth film is released in December 2016 there will likely be 30 cinemas. As at January 2014 the highest grossing Nigerian film made 60 million. As at today the highest grossing Nigerian film made N171 million. So while we have almost doubled cinema capacity, the grosses of the top Nigerian films have almost tripled. Not only that, eight of the top ten Nigerian cinema films were released in 2014 or later.
This tells you that more middle class and upper class folk are going to watch Nigerian films in the cinema. Just like when Africa Magic was the most popular channel in households that claimed they never watch Nollywood, Nigerian cinema posts record breaking grosses amongst people who claim they don’t watch Nollywood in cinema. Would I prefer that people don’t hide their Nollywood watching – yes. However as far as I’m concerned, they can say whatever they want as long as they continue to watch.
Why does this change in perception matter? Why should we care that the supposed cool-kids have finally embraced Nollywood? We should care because it makes Nollywood richer and more institutional. Richer and more institutional is good because the more money that flows in, the better the environment becomes.
I’ve heard people worry about this impending wealth – the worry is that a lot of our storytelling exuberance stems from the financial constraints in which we find ourselves. They give the examples of how the stories in the early days of Nollywood seem richer than the ones we’re telling today. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.
However, as I look to the film industries with bigger budgets – India, South Korea and of course the US – and see that one way or another they have managed to maintain the best of their traditions despite the increased commercial focus, I believe we will do the same in Nollywood. We have a rich film tradition and we will not lose it because of the invasion of the suits and the focus on profit margins.
I’m sure some of you are wondering why now? Why is Nollywood suddenly institutionalizing? After all 10 years ago we were releasing films that sold over a million VCDs, and there were credible estimates that the industry as a whole generated over a billion dollars of revenue a year. Why didn’t institutional investors come in then? The short answer is that they did and they lost pretty much all their money. The distribution in those days was run by the marketers and was conducted primarily via informal channels which sold VCD and DVD copies across Nigeria. The institutional investors had no way to track sales and to stop piracy. They got burnt and they went away.
The primary difference between then and now is the growth of the cinema chains. Unlike the vcd/dvd distribution, the cinema chains were run by corporate entities, which gave investors the confidence to build their revenue models on expected cinema grosses. The growth of the alternative distribution channels from video on demand to African and international television rights and other such rights also played a part, but the pull of the silver screen was dominant even though cinema revenue is significantly smaller than the revenue from the others. In fact, I can comfortably argue that the existence of the cinema served as a legitimizing factor in the eyes of the institutional investor over the last five years.
The other thing that has happened is that there is also a lot more interest in working in Nollywood. People are beginning to realise that Nollywood pays more than most of the other sectors in Nigeria. So, every so often, people ask me about how to break into Nollywood. I generally tell them the same thing:
The first piece of advice I can give people is, work behind the camera. There is a severe shortage of people to work in many of the departments necessary to produce a successful film – from production design, to costume, to sound – the list goes on and on. You want to break into Nollywood? Go below the line.
However, most people don’t want to hear that; they want to be stars – they want to be actors or directors. They want to call the shots. They want their name in lights. The honest truth is that it is almost impossible to break into the industry even at our stage of development. As they say in Hollywood, it takes ten years to become an overnight success. In Nigeria since we’re still a bit more welcoming, I’d put that number at five to seven years. I’ve argued that the time it takes to make a living wage as an actor is why we have fewer male stars than female stars. The reasons why men are more easily discouraged are debatable, but I think that is what happens.
So there are two other above-the-line positions I haven’t mentioned yet – the writer and the producer. They don’t make you household names, you don’t get the glory, but you do influence – and in some cases, determine – the creative direction of the projects. Let’s start with the writer. It’s easier to become a writer than it is to become a leading actor or director. As compensation for that, your upside is generally lower. That means the average leading writer makes less than the average leading actor or director.
Unfortunately there is no one way to become a professional writer. It’s entirely relationship based – you need to know producers who are willing to contract writers to do stuff. However the one thing you can do is become good enough that when a producer is willing to hire you, you don’t suck. My recommended way to do that is to read scripts, watch movies and write pages. Now there are almost no Nollywood scripts available so that means you would likely read Hollywood scripts. There are advantages and disadvantages to that, but on the whole it doesn’t hurt. You should watch as many Nollywood films as you can. A lot of writers make the mistake of watching only Hollywood films.
You are not a Hollywood writer, you are a Nollywood writer – you need to understand Nollywood films. The last thing is write pages. Your first scripts will suck. Keep writing, they’ll get better.
Despite Nollywood’s reputation, we truly appreciate good writing. All we have is our stories, no special effects, no razzle-dazzle, just good old-fashioned story telling. Which is why the good writers – the ones who can wring character and conflict out of the most ordinary situations – are worth their weight in gold.
The last career is the producer – where I ended up. The easiest way to become a producer is to either have money or have people give you money. There are tons of producers who started like this, myself included. The second way is for you to work your way up from other departments – usually production manager or assistant director. The saying is that the producer gets all the responsibility and none of the glory – unless of course you’re a super producer like a Mo Abudu. The producer doesn’t really have to do anything, but has to be able to understand something of everything. At the end of the day being a producer is more an apprenticeship than anything else. The more things you produce, the better you become.
So there you have it, my not-really-good advice for breaking into Nollywood. For the enterprising young man and woman, this is truly the place to be. However, do not expect for the path to be quick or easy. It will be hard, but ultimately very rewarding if you stick with it.
I believe that as great as Nollywood is and has been, it is truly on the cusp of something transformational. Nollywood in five will be unrecognizable from what it looks like today. It’s going to be a wild ride and I invite you to sit back and enjoy.
Leaders of No-Morrow: The Hopes, Possibilities and Realities of Nigeria is a special series brought to you by The Naked Convos in partnership with The Guardian.