Bigger than Hollywood: The quiet ascent of Nigerian Cinema

6 min.

It’s the second-largest film industry in the world, boasting numbers second only to Bollywood. Now, Nigerian Cinema is going big on production quality and focusing on a younger generation. We take a look at Nollywood’s rise to glory and the role that Canon has been playing in supporting a new wave of filmmakers.

When Nigerian film Half a Yellow Sun hit cinemas in 2013, no one could foresee the impact it was going to have on the local film industry and its future.

The tearful account of the country’s Biafran War through the eyes of two sisters and their different yet intersecting lives starred international stars Thandi Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Boyega.

It was an instant success. No previous Nigerian film had ever made so much money at the box office or received such critical acclaim – elevating the entire local film industry to a greater, far more global stage than ever before.

Ten years later, Nollywood (as it started being referred to around that time) is now the second largest film industry in the world, sitting right between Bollywood and Hollywood.

More than 1,000 movies released per year is testament to the incredible productivity of the local industry. And with the numbers growing, so is their production quality, which Canon has been contributing to for many years, through workshops, youth programmes, and film and production equipment. But how did we get here?

Leke Alabi-Isama, photography and film trainer for Canon’s Miraisha programme, traces the history of Nigerian cinema from its roots in the colonial era to the dream factory it’s become.

Blank tapes and a cunning plan

“I split Nigerian cinema’s history into three eras,” explains Leke. “The colonial era, the home video boom era and New Nigerian Cinema.”

It all started around the 1970s, when picture houses across the country started screening footage of recorded live performances of travelling troupes touring Nigeria. “This was Nigeria’s first taste of cinema culture,” he adds. “And it coincided with a decade of great prosperity in Nigeria, when the cinema business boomed and disposable income meant that more homes than ever owned their own TV”.

By the 1980s, families were hooked on a sitcom called ‘Papa Ajasco’, and its spin-off movie became Nigerian cinema’s first blockbuster. But its luck soon ran out, as in 1984, political shifts in Nigeria ended up disrupting the entire entertainment landscape – leaving funding for home-grown series like Papa Ajasco to dry up and making space for the arrival of South American sitcoms.

“During this period, filmmaking was almost non-existent, mostly focusing on TV shows rather than cinema,” says Leke.

“But all of that changed in 1992 when a man called Kenneth Nnebue wrote a film called Living in Bondage.”

Kenneth Nnebue had a simple, yet ingenious idea: “Instead of going through the normal process of having a movie premiere at the cinema, then when the run is done, distributing the film by VHS, Kenneth recorded straight to VHS and started the home video boom era,” says Leke.

From that moment on and for the decade that followed, thousands of movies started being produced in this same way – being shot straight to VHS and cutting out cinemas entirely. Movies were reaching homes in a matter of weeks; it wasn’t unheard of for a producer to release two movies every month. Films were generally centred around social and cultural issues, which often meant that the story was more important than its production values.

“As prolific as it was, the Nigerian film industry was clearly stuck in a rut,” he comments. “A lot of people either hated or loved it at the time. It was stuck in this phase for almost ten years, until the New Nigerian Cinema arrived in 2002/2003.”

A group of students gather round a Canon pro video camera

A group of students gather round a Canon pro video camera

New Nigerian Cinema

After years of military rule, democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, allowing many war migrants to return home and bring back with them the skills and money they had gained while outside the country.

During their absence some had worked in the film industry and learnt techniques that could be applied to home-grown movies. And though the film industry was still very much saturated with straight-to-video content, there were some forward thinkers who dared to be different.

Silverbird Cinemas, a chain which launched in 2004, showed predominantly western movies until a man named Kunle Afolayan returned from film school in New York. His debut, the supernatural thriller Irapada changed the game in Nigeria – opening eyes to the possibilities of locally produced films.

Awards followed and before long Nigerian cinema caught the world’s attention. “Nigerians were used to the quality of Hollywood movies and could see that in the quality of Nigerian cinema,” explains Leke.

“So not only was the story good, but the picture quality was also now standard. That caused a shift in the minds of Nigerian producers and directors. They realised that a lot more had to be done to get to the standard that Hollywood had.”

Nigerians were used to the quality of Hollywood movies and could see that in the quality of Nigerian cinema.”

He says that the tipping point was the release of Half a Yellow Sun in 2013. “This was the one movie that truly caught the minds of Nigerian people,” he adds. “And made local filmmakers realise that there was nothing that couldn’t be done here as long as they had funding.”

Creating new opportunities for young, ambitious Nigerian filmmakers

Things have only gotten better since Half a Yellow Sun, especially for new generations.

“Filmmakers under thirty years old have started looking for funding, the right cast and interesting locations around the country to shoot their own movies,” says Leke, mentioning 2015’s The Wedding Party as an example.

“The film became a huge hit and was the highest grossing Nigerian movie ever to be shown in cinemas,” he adds. “And what’s great is that the crew for it were predominantly under 35 years of age.”

Some had studied abroad, decided they were “done with the old guard” and wanted to take a new direction. Others saw the huge opportunities presented by DSLRs and video cameras in bringing their movie ideas to life. All of them were largely helped by the transition to digital and the birth of ‘Video on Demand’ (VoD) platforms such as Netflix, or regional services such as Nollyland or Iroko TV.

“Nigeria has less than 100 cinemas spread across its territory,” he says. “For a country of 190 million people, you can see that your audience is immediately limited.” And while initially, platforms like Netflix made filmmakers wary – many of them already being accustomed to the risk of piracy – its explosion over the past few years has now made VoD a powerhouse in its own right.

Since launching in Africa in 2016, the service has made significant investment, including the purchase of its first original Nollywood production – Lionheart – and plans to move into producing its own shows and movies for the market.

What’s next for Nollywood?

Nollywood’s contribution to the local economy cannot be overstated. The sector currently generates $600m yearly and employs more than one million people, making it second only to agriculture in the list of largest employers in Nigeria.

With education, the quality of the movies we make in Nollywood would go toe-to-toe with any industry in the world.”

The next big challenge will be keeping the talent pipeline constant in a growing industry that requires skilled people. Leke has seen this challenge first-hand. “The majority of people in the industry are self-taught,” he says. “They’ve learnt on the job, or from the internet. Education is a big deal.”

Currently, Nollywood has only two recognised government institutes offering cinematography/filmmaking as a course – the National Film Institute in Jos, Nigeria and NAFTI in Accra, Ghana.

Several privately-run film schools have emerged across the country in recent years, a testament to demand in the country. “That’s where the Miraisha programme comes in,” he says. “We partner with the Pencil Film and Television Institute and NAFTI to deliver workshops on filmmaking, and you can see just how hungry the students are for knowledge and education.”

Former Miraisha student Judith Audu is a prime example. Fresh from finishing her latest movie L.I.F.E. – which she produced – she’s established herself in the global cinema stage by writing, producing and starring in award-winning films such as Just Not Married and Not Right. And using them as a platform to speak about issues such as sexual and gender-based violence.

Her story is one of many that Leke hopes are setting a huge example for future generations of Nollywood filmmakers. “With education, the quality of the movies we make in Nollywood would go toe-to-toe with any industry in the world,” he says.

For Nollywood’s young filmmakers, supporting their vision with the technical skills needed to bring them to the screen, means they can truly shoot for the stars.

Find out more about our Miraisha Programme and how we’re supporting future generations.