Sunday, April 22.
“Nollywood is dead,” an entertainment lawyer told me one night over drinks at Bogobiri.
It sounded like a bold, even reckless, statement: the Nigerian film industry, after all, is still churning out close to 1,000 low-budget movies a year. The film business, however wild and unregulated, grosses hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Nollywood stars are household names across West Africa, their sexual exploits and petty beefs and formal wear scrutinized and dissected by the overzealous editors of more than a dozen weekly tabloids. I had ostensibly come to Nigeria to report on Nollywood for Variety. If one of the world’s most prolific film industries had died an untimely death – or if it were going through its death throes on my watch – it probably warranted at least a couple of column inches in the Hollywood trade rag.
“They tried to build something too fast before they really had anything,” he continued. And here he started to make his case. It wasn’t that the madly prolific Nollywood producers and directors were throwing down their HD cams and taking up profitable jobs as 419 scammers. The industry, for all its flaws, is still the creative lifeblood of sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation, a provider of tens of thousands of jobs, and a way for Nigeria to flex its cultural muscle across the continent. Nollywood isn’t going anywhere. The problem, he explained, was that filmmakers had become so caught up in their famous system of rapid-fire releases – putting out Sinner’s Love 4, for example, fast on the heels of Sinner’s Love 1, 2 and 3 – that they failed to build the proper structure to support a healthy, functioning film industry. In fact, the more I’ve spoken to people in the film business these first two weeks in Lagos, the more I get a sense of an industry in crisis, and not entirely sure which way to turn.
If you’ve read a Western news story on Nollywood in the past few years, you’ve probably come across the claim that the industry produces 2,000 films a year. This is a misleading figure for two reasons: first, because it was based on a highly flawed study conducted in 2006; second, because comparing Nollywood’s prolific output to its Holly- and Bolly- counterparts is both unbalanced and a bit unfair. Those industries’ movies are being screened in theaters from Miami to Mumbai, while Nollywood pics go straight to VCD, to be viewed in living rooms and shabby video shacks across Nigeria (and, thanks to piracy, the continent). Just 20-30 Nigerian movies are released in the country’s cinemas each year. Most are commercial flops, even by the modest local standards. (The highest grossing Nigerian film of all time, Ije, made just over N50 million – around $310,000 – at the box office in 2010.) Those that do succeed still struggle to recover their production costs, because once a movie has left the theaters, the revenue streams dry up. Piracy has killed DVD distribution in Nigeria. Many filmmakers will avoid DVD releases altogether, hoping to make back their money at private screenings – hotels, churches, universities – once their films have left the theaters. (Ije still hasn’t been released on DVD; The Figurine, a highly regarded film by the director Kunle Afolayan, was just released in January – roughly a year and a half after it left the theaters.) It seems like an odd way for a filmmaker to beat the pirates – gouging out the eyes to spite the face.
The problem that my lawyer friend was getting at is that all of this exists on a wobbly foundation. Formal financing is almost non-existent; most Nigerian producers finance their movies out of pocket, or through loans from friends. (Commercial banks charge extortionate interest rates – up to 30 percent – on loans. It’s not uncommon for a producer to put up his house as collateral.) Distribution chains are poorly organized and undermined by piracy. Copyright laws are weak, and rarely enforced.
It’s important to understand that there are two very different strains of thought in what one might loosely refer to as the “Nigerian film industry.” One still adheres to the established Nollywood model, in which a film is shot on a frantic schedule and a very low budget; released straight to VCD; and (hopefully) snatched up by enough consumers for the producer to recoup his costs. (By all accounts, this model has worked, since the budgets involved are often comically low. Donatus Chikezie, a producer and the general secretary of the Association of Core Nollywood Producers, rattled off a list of titles that had sold 700,000, even a million or more copies, through legal sales alone.) The other – what has been referred to as “New Nollywood” or “New Nigeria Cinema” – is a movement to raise the artistic bar and start producing the sorts of movies that can perform globally. “The whole point of New Nigeria Cinema is to put a proper structure in place… concentrating on distribution, on developing talent, and getting international recognition,” the actor Wale Ojo, who launched the movement in 2010, told me one morning at the Sheraton Hotel.
Here is the conundrum for a Nigerian filmmaker: a low-budget film released straight to VCD will in all likelihood make back its production costs, but will be too technically low-rent to receive that sort of international recognition; but a big-budget film with high production values – something shot on 35mm that will screen at the local Silverbird multiplex and look like, you know, an actual movie – will struggle to break even. Last month, the director Afolayan – generally regarded as Nigerian cinema’s leading light – released his third feature, Phone Swap, a romantic comedy involving the sort of fish-out-of-water hilarity that ensues when two characters from very different backgrounds swap BlackBerries during an airport mishap and, by a series of marginally plausible coincidences, end up swapping lives. I caught Phone Swap at the Palms shopping center last week, and it was a pleasant surprise: well shot, well scripted, briskly paced, and marred by only one embarrassing scene in a Glo shop which almost played as a straight advertisement for the mobile phone provider, one of the pic’s biggest corporate sponsors. All things considered, it was a solid film, one that I could even imagine playing to Western audiences. But after five weeks in the theaters, Phone Swap had grossed just N21 million – not even a third of the $400,000 it cost to produce. What’s popularly referred to as “Nollywood” can in all likelihood continue on ad infinitum. But to make movies that can compete at Cannes or Tribeca or Berlin – something that all the top Nigerian talents aspire to – requires the sort of growth that hasn’t happened yet.
Everyone I speak to believes it’s coming. Part of the reason that movies make so little in box office receipts is that there are so few theaters to show their films. The first Nigerian multiplex was built in 2005; today there are just nine in a country of more than 160 million. That’s likely to change dramatically in the coming years, as commercial growth in Nigeria keeps pace with a rapidly growing middle class with increased spending power. More shopping malls are coming to Lagos and Abuja and Port Harcourt and Ibadan, and they’re going to build around the anchor tenants – Shoprite, Game, a Silverbird or Genesis cinema – that bring in foot traffic. Ten new theaters means a filmmaker will suddenly be able to double his box-office revenue. I’ve been given conservative estimates of another 30 movie theaters in the next five years. Kene Mkparu, a veteran of Britain’s Odeon cinema chain, and managing director of Filmhouse, says his company alone should be able to roll out 20-25 theaters in that same timeframe. “We haven’t even begun to scratch the potential of cinemas in Nigeria,” he told me. Afolayan was also optimistic. “With the rate at which cinemas are beginning to develop, if your budget is 50 million (around $310,000), and your film is good…I believe strongly that it can actually gross $1 million,” he said.
Set against this backdrop of cautious optimism – a sentiment you rarely encounter in this swaggering nation – the Nigerian film world is gearing up to host the eighth annual Africa Movie Academy Awards. The organizers have been relentlessly touting this as the most prestigious award ceremony on the continent, despite the fact that Burkina Faso’s biannual FESPACO film festival – a far grander pageant – has been doling out its prestigious golden stallions to African filmmakers for fifty-some-odd years. The AMAAs have been, up until just a few years ago, a largely Nigerian affair. (They also seem to exist in their own hermetic world of self-congratulation: in the days leading up to the ceremony, about one in five Nigerians that I spoke to – at most – had heard of the awards, outside of people working in the film industry.) Only recently have the AMAAs become more inclusive; last year’s big winner, the wildly entertaining noir thriller Viva Riva!, was a co-production between South Africa and the Congo shot in Kinshasa. Looking over this year’s list of nominees, though, which almost entirely ignore the traditional cinematic powerhouses of Francophone West Africa and the Maghreb, it’s hard not to get the sense that the AMAAs are largely being propped up as an Anglophone counterweight to the awards in Ouagadougou.
It is a stroke of good fortune that I’ve come to Lagos in time for the ceremony, which is being held here for the first time after a puzzling seven-year run in Port Harcourt. (On the surface, Nigeria’s oil capital would seem like an odd venue for the awards, given the logistical challenges of more or less packing up the whole entertainment industry and flying it in from Lagos, not to mention the general unrest in the Delta, and the fact that more than one prominent Nigerian actor has been kidnapped and held for ransom in the past. I am told, though, that some under-the-table quid pro quo between festival organizers and the local government had something to do with it, an understanding which no doubt owed to a very baroque series of promises and back-scratches.) On the afternoon of the ceremony Lagos is putting its best foot forward as host. The scene at the Eko Hotel on Victoria Island is both splashy and ad hoc. Warnings that the formal red-carpet ceremony will begin, according to the invites, at “4pm prompt” are misleading: at half-past four, the red carpet is still being rolled into place. Dozens of attendees are gathered by the reception area, looking resplendent: jaunty men dressed for magazine covers; women in elaborate aso-egi with the pouty hauteur of royalty. “Nigerians are really into the whole see-and-be-seen thing,” a magazine editor once told me. I would perhaps go a step further to say that they treat formal wear with the sort of gravity the rest of us show colon cancer. It is hardly surprising that Lagos society has spawned dozens of tabloid rags and websites dedicated to celebrity style and the weekly calendar of red-carpet events. You can pass an enjoyable afternoon trolling through the catty comments sections on blogs like Bella Naija and Linda Ikeji, where the veil of respect and deference draped across daily life in Nigerian is rent to pieces by what one imagines to be long, red, manicured nails. (“Nigerians are so bitchy,” said my editor friend. “They’re so hypocritical because they have to be over-complimentary.”)
By 5pm there is a parade of long-legged, immaculately coiffed girls struggling to negotiate the stairs from the lobby to the pool bar in their impossibly high heels. Watching them is entertaining sport for the many single men clustered around the bar. In the crowd I notice some dimly remembered faces from film festivals past. A Kenyan friend, a high-powered MBA, suddenly materializes from the thicket in a cocktail dress, looking unsurprised to see me here. We make breezy talk, as if bumping into each other in Lagos were the most logical thing for a Kenyan and American living in Nairobi and Joburg, respectively. Africa can be small like that. After a few minutes her attention is drawn away by a man by the pool. “Isn’t that a real actor?” she asks her friend. (The actor, it turns out, is Isaiah Washington.) They flit off. I finish my drink and return to the reception area to watch the new arrivals. Everyone is either taking pictures with their camera phones or waiting for their pictures to be taken. The paparazzi – a formidable force in Lagos – are everywhere. I spot a Nigerian friend, Nonny, an entertainment journalist, decked out as if she were planning to collect a few trophies herself. We watch a young starlet vamping for the photographers. “Is she famous?” I ask.
Nonny gives her a dismissive once-over. “No.”
“Well,” I say, “she’s sure trying to be.”
Toni Kan arrives at half-past six in a blazer and a shirt unbuttoned at the collar. All weekend he’s been assuring me that the AMAA invitation’s dire warnings – “Door closes at 6pm prompt!” – should be taken as little more than suggestions, gentle prods. He shows up looking unhurried, perhaps just arriving from a previous engagement. There aren’t enough boxes on the social calendar for Toni Kan to fill. We have drinks by the pool with a couple of young filmmakers, waiting for the slow, casual migration that will mark the general consensus that the show is about to begin. Sitting at a nearby table is a beautiful young Nigerian couple; only later, after he’s taken the stage, will I recognize the man as 2Face Idibia, one of the country’s biggest pop stars. The trees are being rocked by a gentle sea breeze. An athletic, middle-aged man is doing laps in the pool, his face submerging and then coming up, gasping for air.
The red carpet has finally been fitted into place. Half a dozen TV crews are swarming, corralling the stars. “I’m hoping for some fun, I’m hoping for spontaneity,” a bubbly young actress tells a TV presenter. It is impossible to tell who is famous and who is just phototropically straining toward the Klieg lights. The paparazzi are mostly young men in their early 20s with a look of Dickensian toil and misery about them. Their eyes hungrily prowl the crowd for famous faces. It is not uncommon for a photographer to snap a few pics of a woman striking elaborate poses before asking, “Can you spell your name for me?” There is something seedy and pent-up and sexual about the whole thing, a cocktail of high expectation and imminent disappointment. “Why not smile into my camera, sweetheart?” oozes one photographer. “That’s how to do it.”
The reception hall is large and festooned and full of handsome people making airy small talk. The buzz is low-energy, diffuse; no one seems to be in a hurry to find their seats. Technicians are still testing the lights and running cables between the tables, though the show was supposed to have kicked off an hour ago. Toni steers us toward a row of seats in the back of the hall and then sits there, looking fidgety, eyeing the VIP tables. Behind the stylish glasses his eyes are making rapid calculations, perhaps feeding past promises and favors owed into some complex social algorithm. He gets up and moves briskly to a nearby table and has a few words with a couple of doughty young women frowning into their BlackBerries. After a brief exchange he beckons me over. Just like that, I’m VIP. The women are unanimously uncurious about my presence at their table. Introductions are curt; no mention of their connection to Toni is ever made. No matter. A few minutes later I’m uncorking the bottle of red that is the sole alcoholic concession to the tens of thousands of naira they’ve spent for this table. Toni sits back in his chair, grinning marvelously at how things have turned out. Every few minutes a beautiful young woman will approach like a supplicant at a royal court. I realize how awfully good it must be to be Toni Kan.
It is almost half-past nine when the lights finally dim and the music kicks up and the night’s emcee, the Haitian actor Jimmy Jean Louis, takes the stage. His monologue is undistinguished, greeted with feeble laughter and tepid applause. Distinguished guests are paraded out and trotted around like show ponies. A few minutes are set aside for Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, the festival’s doyenne – a short, stolid, formidable woman who is largely responsible for midwiving the AMAAs into being. She trundles to the podium to sustained applause. Her face, even from the hundred or so dimly lit paces that separate us, seems to be fixed in a way that is determined, defiant. By way of reminder as to why we are all gathered here this evening in our formal finery for a ceremony that’s kicked off at just about two hours past the appointed hour, she announces in a very theatrical voice, “Our objective is to tell African stories in our own words, and in our own way.”
More applause, and not without feeling. Filmmakers anywhere in the world are, I suspect, a species accustomed to crouching in defensive postures, but nowhere is that more readily the case than in Africa. And not without good reason: nowhere else do images feel so politicized and burdened and freighted with meaning. I have perhaps spoken to a few hundred African filmmakers since I began writing for Variety nearly three years ago, and I have learned, across borders and languages, that a determination to act as a counterbalance to Western images of the continent – whether it’s Blood Diamond or the latest bloodbath on CNN – is nearly a universal mission. It is a powerful yearning for audiences, too, despite the ready availability – and, admittedly, rabid popularity – of Hollywood movies across the continent. I often wonder if this is why African viewers are still drawn to their low-budget local melodramas, in spite of their shoddy production values. Even when a boom mic suddenly lowers itself into a scene, or a character’s wardrobe seems to have changed between jump cuts, or the lead actor fumbles his way through the denouement in a way that really never should have left the cutting room floor, African audiences will put up with all manner of technical hijinx because they want to see themselves and their stories onscreen.
“A new wave of African filmmakers has emerged across the continent,” says Anyiam-Osigwe. She gives an impassioned plea for African nations to tear down their borders to allow for the free movement of people, ideas and capital – a concession to the fact that a number of filmmakers aren’t in attendance tonight because of visa hurdles. Finally she calls for greater investment in African film, which she says “cannot be done without the infrastructure support of corporate Nigeria and corporate Africa.” Here she receives her finest ovation: nothing quite stirs the Nigerian heart like the potential of a solid investment promising appreciable returns. Then the lights dim, the music strikes up, and the show finally begins.
Enough column inches have been wasted through the years on awards ceremonies dragging their Louboutin heels into the wee hours. And Nigerians, especially, are not known for brevity. (To paraphrase an old saying: a Nigerian speaker’s oratorical powers are measured by the strength of his legs.) Suffice it to say that the ceremony moves along with the briskness of rush-hour traffic on the Third Mainland Bridge; that the awards – which feature an endless procession of “Best Film” statuettes, including the categories of Best Diaspora Feature, Best Film by an African Living Abroad, Best Nigerian Film, Best Film in an African Language, and Best Film, full-stop – could perhaps, like a number of Nollywood films, use a bit of editing; that for most of the ceremony’s four-plus hours of self-congratulation, my tablemates seem less interested in the onstage presentations than in the Twitter feeds scrolling across their BlackBerry screens; that the celebrated Nigerian songstress Asa – who belts out a few songs in a fierce, soulful voice – should be famous everywhere, immediately; that my friend Kwame Nyong’o, who wins the Best Animation award for his pic The Legend of Ngong Hills, fills me with a brief burst of Kenyan pride; that the choice of midget leading man Chinedu Ikedieze to hand out the award for Best Child Actor makes you almost pine for the good ol’ days of military rule, when wrong-doers would be lined up on Bar Beach and shot in front of a crowd of spectators; that the technical dominance of the South African film industry affords a couple of brilliant moments of goofy white guys high-fiving and fumbling with the mic at the podium; that, vis-à-vis technical achievements, when the sound cuts out in the middle of 2Face Idibia’s performance – the musical apex of the show – it seems to surprise absolutely no one, and affords everyone in attendance a chance to shake their heads and mutter the familiar refrain, “That’s Nigeria for you”; that the presentation of the night’s biggest awards by such low-rent black American entertainers as Maya Gilbert and Rockmond Dunbar seems like a not ungentle slap in the face to the many assembled filmmakers who have labored for years, if not decades, to develop their own film industries; that after announcing “Maya Gilbert!” in a delighted squeal while handing out the award for Best Actress – a joke that fell flat on its face, and that Maya Gilbert wouldn’t have even briefly considered attempting at, say, the Oscars, and that lends further credence to my belief that Americans, whether white or black, will engage in all manner of self-aggrandizing nonsense on African soil, simply because they can – that Maya Gilbert should have all Africa travel privileges indefinitely revoked; that by the time South African filmmaker Charlie Vundla collects the Best Director and Best Film awards for How 2 Steal 2 Million, the banquet hall is roughly 1/3 full, and the greater part of the audience’s energy is being directed toward the lithe young ushers handing out swag bags; that amid the general hubbub and cheerful commotion following the ceremony, there is some disagreement over which of the Eko Hotel’s nightlife venues will be hosting the after-party; that after some elevator-related confusion, a delegation of South African filmmakers confirms that the rooftop bar is verily and indisputably closed; that the AMAAs have apparently blown their entire budget on putting up foreign filmmakers in the $300-and-up-a-night Eko, an act of generosity which is lost on at least one second-rate American movie star, who appeared in all the local tabloids shortly after arrival, complaining that the supposedly four-star Eko wasn’t up to his exacting standards; that much milling around the lobby commences, putting a slight damper on the high mood of just a few minutes earlier; that after a spirited debate on the likelihood of finding a suitable nightclub in Lagos at half-past one on a Sunday night, the whole raucous lot of us repair to the pool bar, which grudgingly decides to stay open past its usual 1am closing time; that this beneficence proves to be short-lasting, as it takes less than 15 minutes for the thirsty celebrants to empty the fridges of every last bottle of Star and Gulder and Guinness, and even the Johnny Walker Black begins to move briskly at some one hundred U.S. bucks a bottle; that despite our general disappointment and sobriety, the mood is festive, even inspired, with past festivals and filmic triumphs recalled; that New York, too, is fondly remembered; that dawn can sneak up on you, suddenly arriving in equatorial Africa like someone’s snapped open the curtains; and that a certain amount of fleecing by a Lagos cab driver is acceptable at the tail end of a good night.