‘Cinema experience is unique, because it is a communal exchange’
An award-winning filmmaker, writer and photographer and a respected voice in Nigeria’s art and culture industry, Femi Odugbemi is a leading light in the African motion- picture industry. A graduate of the Montana State University, where he studied Film and TV Production, Odugbemi currently serves as jury member for different film festivals across the continent. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the CEO of DVWORX Studios and former president of Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria (IPAN) spoke on the good old days of the Nigerian cinema and what must be done to sustain the industry.
There is clearly an upsurge in cinema culture today, history shows that Nigeria once had a booming cinema culture. How was the industry then?
Well, filmmaking in Nigeria dates back to colonial times. Pa Orlando Martins was the first Nigerian to act in a 1935 film by Zoltan Korda in a movie titled Sanders of the River, which starred an international cast, including Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks and Nina Mae McKinney. Baba Hubert Ogunde, John Amata, Ade Afolayan, Francis Oladele, Jab Adu, Eddie Ugbomah and Ola Balogun were some of Nigeria’s earliest filmmakers, who shot films on celluloid.
How vibrant was cinema culture at that time?
The industry back then could be said to be vibrant, because the filmmakers came from a rich theatre background and were first and foremost artistes, who were keen to present their works on a format that was new but extended their audience. The films were an extension of their storytelling on stage and it created a local response to the films from international markets such as India and China.
However, the audience was local, the cinema distribution was community-based. And to a large extent, the films were self-funding, because the cinema audience grew and most of the filmmakers could get a return on investment. Of course, the economy of Nigeria was also vibrant enough to support a cinema-going culture. Sociological factors such as crime were at low ebb and people could go out at night and go to cinemas in their neighbourhoods to view films. So the industry grew organically.
Can you recall some of the cinemas in Lagos then and their locations?
I remember frequenting Super Cinemas in Surulere as a schoolboy. There was La Scala Cinema, Metro Cinema, Odeon Cinemas and many others in inner-city areas such as Mushin, Ebute-Metta, Agege, Isale-Eko, Race Course and such places in Lagos.
Today, Cinema is considered elitist, was that the case then?
Well, cinema is and should be a popular art form because it is accessible. Its power is that it engages the senses in sight and sound and storytelling is a language of gestures and emotions. It can be broadly understood and felt. So, by its very form it shouldn’t be elitist. Back then in Nigeria youths and students could afford to watch films almost daily, at least weekly in cinemas in their neighbourhood. The cinemas were the melting pot where groups gathered and discussed films. I wanted to become a filmmaker because I saw powerful Indian and Chinese films growing up. I also recall that Bisi Daughter of the River with Uncle Jab Adu was screened in my school and I must have seen that film over 10 times! Same with Hubert Ogunde’s Aiye and Baba Sala’s Mosebolatan. So, cinema was part and parcel of our education. As a vehicle for cultural and sociological education and discuss, film cannot be underrated. So, it can’t be elitist or else society misses a huge opportunity.
How much of local contents were shown at the cinemas then?
The cinemas screened both local and international features. The films by Baba Sala, Ade-love, Francis Oladele, Eddie Ugboma and co competed well with the popular Indian and Chinese films of the time. The domination of world cinema by American films wasn’t so pronounced then. So, there was a fairly rich tapestry of cultures at the cinemas that I believed offered cinemagoers a vibrant feel of a world beyond their geographical context; it made us more civilised, more knowledgeable and perhaps more tolerant of cultural differences.
What was responsible for the collapse of the cinema?
Principally, a shrinking economy in the military era of the 80s afforded less disposable income. Cinema became a luxury in a time of survival; fewer people went to the cinema and it became harder for the cinemas to sustain them. The cost of running the cinemas was higher with ‘NEPA’ less efficient and things like the cost of diesel to power generators had to be added to the cost of tickets. In addition to that was the fact that there was more uncertainty on the streets with crimes like armed robbery escalating; of course, the inner city communities where most of the cinemas did business were unsafe. So, people largely stayed at home and watched television, which at the time was growing its drama content with entertaining series such as Village Headmaster Masquerade, Tales by Moonlight etc.
What do think was responsible for the return of the cinema?
Cinemas have returned in a different way. It is now more elitist because it seems to cater for a more affluent segment of the society given the neighbourhood they are situated and the cost of going to see a film these days.
It’s a different time and the cinema today isn’t as accessible to the average young person as in the previous eras in Nigeria. Maybe that’s because the economy too hasn’t improved for everybody and that seems reflected in where the cinemas are located in highbrow areas.
Certainly, the principal reason why cinemas have returned has to do with the fact that films offer a very different experience on a big screen than on television; the cinema experience is unique because it is a communal exchange. The atmosphere is more defined; it seizes your attention better. It is also a deliberate activity and has norms of behaviour that is respectful of the artistic work, though in Nigeria, we still do weird things like making phone calls while a film is screening or running stupid commentaries etc, which are habits we acquired when we could only see films on television at home.
Is there a Nollywood connection to this?
Largely, the return of the cinemas as well was the logical outgrowth of a growing Nollywood; the films and the filmmakers had simply outgrown the small screens. The ambitions of our stories and the ambitions of our filmmakers can no longer be contained on the small screens. Nollywood had become larger than life and its reach beyond just Nigeria.
Filmmaking achieves its best prosperity on that platform. We just have to expand its access to re-admit the huge swaths of our population, who are cut out of the present locations so that the cinema going culture re-emerges in neighbourhoods and less affluent communities across the country.
To what extent has it helped the movie industry?
Well it has given the industry ambition.
The technical requirements of a film going to the big screens of cinemas, is high both in photography and sound. So, it has imposed a higher remit in terms of what our technical inputs are in making film. It has also imposed a higher consideration in storytelling and performances.
Just look at the Nollywood films of the last 5-6 years and you can see the remarkable growth in creativity, performance and technical virtuosity. But more than that, we are learning important things in the marketing and promotion of films. The value chain is also expanded as competition at the cinemas is creating new energies and new ideas to leverage digital channels and expand audience reach. Finally, it is making Nigerian films accessible internationally in forums previously impossible such as international film festivals, which are beginning to take our works more seriously. The growth is ongoing and will continue to up the quality such that Nollywood as a brand is redefined for quality in the next decade globally. I’m personally very excited about the prospects.
Piracy remains a big issue in the industry; do you think cinema has helped to reduce the rate of piracy?
Cinemas won’t eliminate piracy because even in bigger film countries like America and India, piracy is still a reality because we see their films in traffic in Lagos. But cinemas redefine our respect for intellectual property, because it is not so easy for pirates as before, when the distributor of a film could also moonlight as the pirate.
Filmmakers have more options now in how to design the distribution plan of their work. It is no longer limited to a cabal in a DVD market; it’s no longer easy to just dub someone’s film off the TV screen and start replicating CDs in your backyard. Because the possibility of international distribution is now a looming reality, much bigger return on investment is also firing the ambitions of Nollywood. But what continues to be critical is the political will to punish offenders. We have more than enough laws against piracy and intellectual property theft. If our enforcement agencies like the Police treat piracy as seriously as they would treat a crime of armed robbery, we might begin to reduce the scourge.
Until the security agencies recognise pirates as armed robbers denying a rightful owner of the economic benefits of their labour, it will still be fairly difficult.
How big is the cinema economy in Nigeria?
That’s a difficult question because the cinema in Nigeria, by ratio to population, is still very small. In a country of 150 million people, cinema complexes still numbering under a hundred is not to be described as buoyant. But it is a work in progress. So, we can maybe estimate its possibilities. Without that, it is a huge prospect if we consider the numbers of employment opportunities it will create, not just for filmmaker but also for the economy of small-scale entrepreneurs. Most cinemas anywhere in the world make more money selling popcorn and fizzy drinks than they probably do selling tickets anyways. So, the intersection between cinema and commerce makes a huge economy anywhere.
As a filmmaker, what do you think is the way forward for the film industry and cinema culture to avoid another collapse?
Well, I did an article a while speaking on this very question. The ‘way forward’ to enlarge this industry into a truly global force economically, and attract real investment and funding, demands of us change in four key areas. First, we need to establish artistic and technical standards to continue to advance the film language with stronger stories that travel. Film is about the human experience and the better we understand its models the more creative brands we can create in our storytelling. Secondly, we need to improve marketing and distribution strategies, especially via emerging digital channels so that we find the crossroads of the digital convergence to reach audiences within the reach of their digital devices whether by tablets or mobile phones.