At the end of the Living in Bondage sequel premiere last year, the audience erupted in an applause in a packed Lagos cinema. Lights came on, and in minutes revealed celebrities shuffling in goth glam and imperious horrorcore outfits (think Dracula, but a little more DIY-looking). Themes have become a mainstay in Nollywood movie premieres, filtered through the rose-tinted lens of Instagram, red carpets thrusting cast members into Chardonnay-soaked stardom.
For Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, it was dark chic, with lots of black – bodies draped in organza and organdie, silhouettes twirling in sequins and tulle. Ramsey Nouah’s directorial debut was a high-water mark for the actor’s long-spanning career, and a curveball for horror movies trickling back into public consciousness. Up until then, no mainstream horror had been made to have a theatrical premiere of that scale.
The film projects the origins of Nollywood, this very film but as the 1992, straight-to-video original about a man joining a blood-thirsty occult group in exchange for wealth. The industry took off after that, from the early 90’s, Nollywood filmmakers putting their films on VHS tapes which became a booming market, producing cheap-looking, lo-fi pictures from femme fatale horror (Nneka the Pretty Serpent, Karishika) to action thrillers (Rattlesnake).
Until media behemoth Silverbird Group opened its first Lagos cinema in 2004, and began the reign of a film distribution monopoly with subsequent cinema outlets. Today, Nollywood is the third-largest film industry in the world after Hollywood and Bollywood. Films are predominately made in English, with skeletal productions in indigenous languages like Yoruba or Hausa depending on cinema location. Audiences span the African continent and the globe.
As industries adapt in a world severely altered by coronavirus, so has Nollywood since lockdown measures led to the shuttering of cinemas back in March.
Lagos: the epicenter
In the value chain of Nigeria’s film industry, the cinema occupies a critical place, generating a yearly revenue between $500m and 1bn. Weekends in a pulsating city like Lagos would have young moviegoers filling up seats.
Lagos is the epicenter of Nollywood, holding up to 65% of movie productions and out of 58 cinemas and 200 screens across the country, the city has the highest number of cinemas.
The film industry employs 300,000 people directly and over one million indirectly, making It the country’s second-largest employer after agriculture. Nollywood reportedly received a N420m grant in 2017 to support practitioners from the government, but these financial provisions don’t come regularly and there’s hardly any transparency in how they are distributed. Besides, these funds aren’t enough so filmmakers are left to personal fund movie themselves or seek out investors.
But the coronavirus outbreak may be its biggest threat yet aside financial constraints, a seismic event that saw ticket sales decimated and cinema chains going dark altogether. Cinemas have been losing as much as 30% of their weekend revenue since January, which is not odd because the beginning of the year is usually slow and sterile for movies.
In the wake of the pandemic though, Nollywood saw a decline in revenue from 75.9 million naira at the start of January to 45 million naira in March. These days, tentpole productions (often comedies) can cost up to 300 million naira. This is the calling card of commercial Nollywood – star-studded extravaganzas like The Wedding Party (2017) and capers like Merry Men (2018) made to bring Nigerians to the theatre.
The failure to recoup maximum profits on movies is one of the blights from the pandemic, forcing filmmakers into the reality where they can’t finance unannounced projects. Others involved in productions like costume and makeup may be owed remunerations, depending on whatever agreement was made, but it also meant that they weren’t contracted or commissioned for further projects because of production shut downs. Movies due to be released were postponed indefinitely, further disrupting planned schedules.
The indie scene
Indie filmmaker Abba Makama, whose films are situated outside the orbit of commercial Nollywood, still receives some residual revenue from putting his first feature film Green White Green on Netflix, and licensing to international airlines. These options of distribution, including showing at film festivals, have afforded Abba’s films considerable level of exposure.
The indie scene exist on the other end of the filmmaking spectrum, and best exemplified through the Surreal 16 collective, a trio of anti-Nollywood filmmakers which Abba belongs to. Green White Green, a satire about what It means to be Nigerian, didn’t have a theatrical run because it was deemed ‘’unfit’’ by film distributors. Other projects like the 2015 Al Jazeera feature on Nollywood shows another axis of Abba’s skill as a documentarist.
His second film The Lost Okoroshi, which demystifies masquerades, is smart as it is profoundly off-kilter.
‘’I wrapped filming my third project Juju Stories right at the beginning of the pandemic,’’ Abba says via email, ”Myself and the Surreal 16 collective have been supervising post production remotely. However, a lot of trips and festivals had to be cancelled and the pandemic slowed down the development of future projects.’’
In these difficult times, Abba is of the opinion that the time is right for drive-in cinemas. There has been sprouts of this novelty in Abuja, a collaboration between Genesis Cinemas and Charles Okpaleke’s Play Network Africa, but it hasn’t taken roots in the larger public imagination and especially in a place like Lagos. ‘’I can’t imagine Lagosians wanting to burn petrol for 90 mins,’’ actor Michael Ejoor says, ‘’I don’t know how well it would do post-pandemic but I can imagine with the right marketing it could be a thing.’’
At best, drive-in cinemas are functioning as escape pods for some moviegoers, those that want to disentangle from the crashing, apocalyptic nature of the pandemic.
‘’Drive-in has never been our culture as far as I know,’’ Olu Yomi Ososanya says, an essayist on film culture, ‘’It’s not even present in the US at it was in the 50’s and 60’s where it was popular with teenagers and Bmovie fans. If it’s done well enough with good marketing, and a place with good security and services, it could catch on. But really also depends on people’s motivations to go to the cinema. Some dress up and go to socialize or pass time so it’s not about the film for them. And considering most 15-25 year olds in Nigeria don’t own a car, they are cut out of that demographic. This leaves the 25 and above who may not be bothered and just wait for it on Netflix. The hard core cinephiles in Nigeria who appreciate a big screen experience is not a large enough percentage to keep them profitable.’’
Caution on location
Cinemas are now open but under strict adherence to safety measures. In the era of social distancing where Nollywood productions are resumed with a stripped down crew, Ososanya predicts that scheduling and crewing will be the biggest changes post-pandemic. ‘’Cut down crew to the barest minimum. No unnecessary PA or assistants if someone else can double up on that job. Tighter schedules and more disciplined approach to shoot. Probably less locations in the stories. Minimize characters to fewer cast.’’
Chado Eyitayo, a PR representative for a movie studio, has begun to see a strict, military-style approach to productions from four set locations he’s monitored. Each department for production had to shrink to prevent crowding, allowing only key crew members and actors to undergo COVID-19 tests. ‘’Once they are declared negative, they are moved to base camp and external visitors are barred from entering, only accessible to crew members. Movement is restricted from base camp to set and vice versa and everyone has to be in face masks, except shooting scenes with actors.’’
Nollywood is more than just the movies it churns out. It’s a cultural identity for Nigerians and those in the diaspora.
‘’Nollywood is second only to music in exporting Nigerian culture,’’ says Damola Layonu, a film enthusiast and founder of MovieForte Limited. ”After music, no cultural export is as widely popular as Nigerian films. Thus, its total loss would be crippling not just to our economy but to our position in global community conversations.’’
While Netflix, back in February, officially launching its presence in Nigeria has been lauded by critics and commentators and has seen more Nollywood titles picked up by the streamer, the coronavirus pandemic is still very much present.
‘’The virus will pass,’’ Damola says, ”We will rebuild the industry. Hopefully stronger than before.’’
When Bernard Dayo isn’t writing about pop culture, he’s watching horror movies, anime and trying to pretend his addiction to Netflix isn’t a serious condition.