The new business of African film

Jake Bright

With African and African Diaspora actors taking on prestigious roles in award winning mainstream films, the premiere of Nigerian high budget production Half of a Yellow Sun, and Nigeria’s new GDP base valuing the indigenous Nollywood film industry at over $3bn, the continent’s industry looks set to break out of its niche.

One of the more anticipated events is the May 2014 opening of Half of a Yellow Sun, a romantic drama set during Nigeria’s Biafra war, directed by Nigerian writer and playwright Biyi Bandele and based on the best-selling book of the same title by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The expectation is that it could be the African film industry’s breakout production, garnering global mainstream acclaim and revenues. With Nigeria leading the way, 2014 could prove a banner year for the African film industry

Although it did cast one of Nollywood’s most recognized actors, Genevieve Nnaji, Half a Yellow Sun’s production and scale are unique for a Nigerian film venture. Says Yewande Sadiku the executive producer:

We made this film for a global audience and global distribution channels. The financing, quality of production, and mix of cast and crew reflect that. So in that sense, it is not the traditional Nollywood production.

In addition to its impressive billing, Oscar-nominated Nigerian Diaspora actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is a lead, producers include Last King of Scotland’s Andrea Calderwood and The Constant Gardner’s Gail Egan. Half of a Yellow Sun could also serve as a fresh model for African film production financing. Shot on location in the UK and Tinapa Film Studios in Nigeria, it had a production budget of slightly over $8m from around $10m total backing, according to Ms Sadiku. A chief executive with Stanbic IBTC Capital Ltd. in Nigeria, Ms Sadiku was involved in coordinating much of Half of a Yellow Sun’s financing. Ms Sadiku told This Is Africa

A significant source of the equity funding was from the Nigerian Bank of Industry, which lent against the project. We also had over 30 investors, the bulk of them Nigerian, and some friends of Nigeria, including investors from South Africa, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and Ireland.

Ms Sadiku also pursued a US Film Finances Inc. completion guarantee bond, a common instrument used by Hollywood productions to assure investors. The film ultimately did not use it, but the possibility of leveraging these instruments represents a higher standard in Nigerian film financing and production.

She is aware of the ambivalence associated with branding the film as a Nollywood production in some circles. She explains:

If Nollywood means not so good quality production coming out of Nigeria, then this film is not” a Nollywood film If Nollywood means made in Nigeria, it is. It was largely Nigerian funded, directed by a Nigerian, and 29 of 33 days of filming were shot on location in Nigeria.

Challenges remain, however. “The Nigerian film industry is desperately in need of expert financial advice, which can help raise budgets, production values, and distribution,” she says. “But it will require better governance, accountability, and records across the industry of costs and financial performance.”

She also sees greater mainstream possibilities for African actors and movies as a result of recent Oscars exposure and the high expectations for Half a Yellow Sun’s success:

I think this recognition will certainly help the world pay attention to the fact that there is talent in this industry, that there is narrative that can be packaged in a way that they can access and sell.

Roots of Nollywood

As Half of a Yellow Sun’s high profile production indicates, Nollywood has come a long way since its origins in the early 1990s. In 1992, VCRs first became readily available in Africa for home viewing. Living in Bondage, the first Nollywood classic shot on a budget of $12,000, sold nearly a million copies in several months and launched a new African film movement. It was shot straight to video in less than two weeks using impromptu Lagos set locations. Distribution and sales came primarily through street vendors. A Lagos poet and Nollywood expert Odiun Ofemun explains:

If you really want to know what’s going on in Africa, Nollywood tells it. It is a mirror of people’s hopes and sometimes their desperation: a film culture responding directly to the needs of the people. And if for nothing else, it’s the first time that African’s are defining their own images on the screen, by themselves.

The film inspired a new creative movement, with dozens of imitating directors roving Nigeria with video recorders making their own Nollywood films.

However, the very model that allowed Nollywood to emerge as an industry is now part of its limitation. Industry critics have echoed common refrains: Nollywood has volume, but it lacks production value; African actors have yet to breakout globally; and Africa lacks proper IP protection, data collection, and monetization platforms for movie production to bring its industry to the next level.

Changing storyline

However, in 2014 three African and Diaspora actors were nominated for Oscars – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Barkhad Abdi and Lupita Nyong’o, who won best supporting actress and has become Hollywood’s new “it” girl. While none of these performers is directly related to Nollywood (Nyong’o is Kenyan, Abdi Somali-American, and Ejiofor born to Nigerian parents in London), their Oscar success has generated increased attention on homegrown African film and actors.

Then in April, the Nigerian government rebased their GDP, acknowledging Nollywood as a major sector contributing to economic growth. According to new numbers generated by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the film and music industries combined were responsible for 1.4 percent of the country’s revised $510bn economic output, representing the second largest growth sector behind the electricity and power industries.

According to the new NBS data, there were 1844 Nollywood movies produced in 2013 for an industry value of $3.3bn at an average cost of $80,000 per production. However, less than 1 percent of the industry’s value was generated by ticket sales or royalties.

Nigeria’s Statistician General Yemi Kale stressed that new figures for Nollywood’s unofficial sales are approximations using many sources. “Quantifying this industry is quite challenging because substantial populations of people involved are operating informally,” he admits.    

California-based investment manager Toyin Dawodu, a Nigerian national, is in the unique position of having funded and produced Nollywood films both in Nigeria and in the US. He has pitched Nollywood projects to US investors and Close Enemies, a film he produced, is one of the first Nollywood movies to be shot entirely on location in Hollywood.   

Mr. Dawodu points to the challenge Nollywood’s lack of official numbers presents when trying to attract greater outside collaboration and financing. “If you look for concrete business numbers there has really been nobody to call,” he says. “You need basic industry data to attract investors. They look for numbers, projections, and how they will get their money back. That kind of reliable information does not really exist for Nollywood productions. Nobody’s going to put up a million dollars for a film project with that much uncertainty about.