Loud music blares from speakers perched just feet away from a main road, covering the busy marketplaces of Ajah, Lagos in sound. Passersby stroll past dozens of clothing stalls, fresh produce stands, and shops with CDs and DVDs in bright paper sleeves strewn along the ground and arranged on crowded wooden walls. This particular shop falls in a line of similar-looking stalls, selling pirated versions of popular American television shows, movies, and, of course, Nollywood films. It has a large selection of local films and a few chatty customers, so I walk in.
I’ve come searching for the 1992 Nollywood classic Living in Bondage starring Kanayo O. Kanayo and Francis Agu. After voicing my request to Chidi, the attendant, just about every head turns in my direction, responding with variations of, “Wow! What an old film,” or, “That was a great film, I’d forgotten all about it.” Movie shoppers share this camaraderie, engaging vendors and browsers in bits of celebrity gossip while haggling down the price of the movies. Across the highway, jam-packed buses pass by buildings plastered with posters of the same films.
Nollywood poster art reveals the same cost-effective production as the movies they advertise: a no-frills, cut-pasted, and photoshopped effort resulting in surrealist collages of comedy, tragedy, and love. On one tattered poster, lightning bolts shoot across a man in traditional Nigerian clothes holding a machete next to a snake, a distressed looking midget, and a crying woman with palms pressed against her head. Another, for Calabar Girls, features a topless woman cupping her breasts in front of men in singlets and voluptuous bikini-clad girls.
This is Nollywood’s distribution center.
Marketers and Pirates
By volume, Nollywood ranks as the second largest film producer behind Bollywood in India and ahead of Hollywood in America. While even low-level productions in Hollywood start in the tens of millions (USD) and can take years to produce, the average Nollywood film gets churned out in 10 days for roughly USD 15,000. Ingenuity and hyper-efficiency replace the luxuries of time and budgets.
Directors learn to think on their feet about how to solve problems and get the work done under difficult circumstances. Actors are not always officially trained. Budgets not always clear. And sets often get improvised quickly with whatever materials are available, forcing all crew members to creatively manage limitations. The result is more than 1,000 feature-length films per year.
After a whirlwind few days of shooting and editing, copies generally get distributed through an underground network of pirates who copy and sell the movies to the masses of eager movie-watchers within Nigeria and globally. It is here that the disagreement begins.
“These pirates also happen to be marketers, or so we are told. It’s an open secret,” explains Ego Boyo, a veteran Nollywood actor, producer, and household name. “They sell and reproduce these movies without permission. The legal way would be for a filmmaker or producer to sell the rights of their movie to a marketer for a certain amount of time.
After a period of time, the rights should go back to the owners, but it doesn’t happen that way.”
Movies are copied by the thousands in homemade dubbing facilities and packaged for distribution through the established network of pirates nationally. Some, reports show, produce up to 300,000 copies a year. In an interview with Channels Television Station in Lagos back in July of this year, Paul Obazele, veteran actor and President of the Edo Filmmakers Association, revealed that some government officials are the major sponsors of these pirating operations, including their export to other nations.
With a USD 250 million a year industry on the line, the debate over who has stolen how much money remains a prickly one. On one hand, a massive number of people depend on the copied DVDs to make a living; Nollywood is the country’s second- largest employer after agriculture. On the other, a film industry still struggles to find its feet despite massive international appeal, and a generation of filmmakers and actors often never receive a dime for the reproduction of their work.
The pirates make far too much money to simply be stamped out: they own the keys to the massive distribution market and are able to price the product to the average local paycheck. The producers can create the films on the slimmest budget and rarely make money themselves, though they need the copiers to maintain their popularity.
“We need to have a strong formal distribution system in place. We have an informal system now and that is not enough,” says Joke Silva, a Nollywood screen and theater veteran and Director at the Lufodo Academy of Performing Arts. “There are licensed distributors quite okay, but the formal distribution system is lacking. It is about enforcing the laws. Anti-piracy laws do exist in Nigeria, but
the enforcing agencies are not well equipped or funded to enforce the laws. Other countries need to be a part of [an overall change] too because Nollywood is the main source of content for television stations all over Africa.”
Ego Boyo’s rise in Nollywood has seen her spend much of her 23- year career behind the camera as a filmmaker and producer of Nollywood’s best known films. In 2008, her Lagos-based production company, Temple Productions, produced 30 Days with a Nollywood all-star cast of Genevieve Nnaji, Joke Silva, and Segun Arinze. Boyo screened the film to excited viewers in London, Lagos, and Houston—then shelved it, keeping the masters hidden from potential pirates. To date, no copies are available on Nigeria’s streets, and there are no clips on YouTube.
“I can’t say anything good about the pirates because they steal property that does not belong to them. Reducing them or eliminating them completely will give the industry a fighting chance to survive and where the films made can actually make money.”
Boyo’s case is not rare. The lack of a formal distribution network since Nollywood came into its own in the early 1990s is impossible to ignore. Street economies emerged to fill the holes the regulated economy couldn’t. The political situation was tense, and the nation mostly stayed indoors to avoid ongoing political crises playing out on the streets. The situation has changed over the last decade, with large-scale shopping-mall cinemas springing up in major cities across Nigeria. Today, pirates and cinemas compete for the same clientele. And with the Internet, pirates can expand their business ventures overseas.
But the pirate product keeps a massive swath of Nigeria employed. Reports estimate an average of 30 new illegally released movie titles are delivered to stalls and marketplaces every week. Their vendors set up shop in residential communities, weave through snarls of traffic, and flood the numerous open-air markets. With each illegally sold DVD for approximately USD 1 and thousands of stalls across every city in the country, the pirate industry is massive.
Music CDs are pirated too. Any artist with a hit record in Nigeria is forced to negotiate with the Alaba Boys, the largest and most well-known illegal reproducers of everything in Nigeria from fake designer clothing to gadgets and films. Their informal Alaba market distribution network could be considered the street equivalent of iTunes. When an album launches, musicians—whether they agree or not—bring the masters to the Alaba Boys: they are the distributors. Based on the artist’s popularity and projected number of street stall sales, they cut a deal and push the CDs out to vendors.
Too often, the story goes, a marketer makes an official deal with the moviemaker for rights to distribute the movie throughout a particular region for a certain amount of money. The marketer agrees yet produces threefold the number of DVDs previously agreed upon. Unsold copies are sent back to the filmmakers, while the marketer continues to profit off the illegal surplus.
Historically, Nigeria has battled with intellectual property enforcement— and Nollywood feels the unfortunate side effects as hard as any other industry. This, it seems, is on the road to change.
The 2013 Project ACT, an initiative spearheaded by the Nigerian government, seeks to bridge the formal and informal worlds of film production and distribution. The program will allow the Nollywood film industry to access approximately USD 200,000 in grants to support distribution, film production, and capacity building.
Ego Boyo is optimistic about the project. “Piracy thrives where there is a huge demand yet no supply,” she says. “These new developments, we hope, will put the true pirates out of business; everyone will now be able to access these distribution shops even in the small cities.”
The initiative contains guidelines for distributors to become legitimate in order to receive the money from the grants for setting up their own legal shops for sale or
wholesale. In theory, both sides win. But will Project ACT change anything?
Tosin Olubunmi, a local Nollywood movie street vendor sells her own pirated movies at gas stations during peak traffic times in the largely residential area of Gbagada. On an average day, she carts a series of the latest Nollywood DVDs and Nigerian pop CDs, trying to attract drivers. She has not heard of the new proposed regulations.
“If the government can help us so that we can do our work, that is no problem,” says Olubunmi. “We want to make money. Even if the filmmakers say we are stealing, it is not true. We are all helping each other to make a living and survive.”
Even the poorest of Nollywood actors tend to earn significantly more than third-party street sellers like Olubunmi. Ultimately, blame lands on the pirate middlemen. Nollywood theater actress and star of this year’s psychological thriller Torn, Iretiola Doyle, explains, “Implementation is key, because we don’t just have leaks, our gates are wide open for the pirates this way. Our industry needs strong structures in place to checkmate them.”
With Love to Hollywood
Paradoxically, Nollywood movies copy Western material too, even though what Hollywood and Bollywood provide for Nigerians in content is often not directly pertinent to the life in African towns and villages. Nollywood stars are almost exclusively native Nigerians, sometimes cast off the streets as walk-ons. Their job, at times, involves putting an African touch on themes from the blockbusters abroad.
Nollywood’s notable style ranges from the wildly fantastical to the tragic and comedic. Based off strong supernatural and esoteric beliefs, witches and spells make for popular plot twists, as does the never-ending search for quick wealth amidst abject poverty, prostitution, and HIV/AIDS.
Proponents believe a more robust and funded industry would give writers, producers, and directors more room to develop these themes and give actors the chance to make their roles shine.
“It is now time to move forward and make the entire business viable again. Nollywood is a platform for us to show Nigeria in a good light,” explains Boyo. For her, this means using the diverse resources available to push all those in the industry to improve Nigeria’s storytelling capacity. “It will make a huge difference in the quality of stories being put forward and better films being made. Nollywood is not just movies about wizards and witches; we are more than that.”
Witchcraft and wizardry aside, many Nigerians look to the day when pirates, actors, high-ranking officials, and throngs of street vendors share a victory for a new wave of cinema. It would indeed be a magical ending worthy of Nollywood’s celluloid vaults.