Is the Nigerian home video model exportable ?

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The present note has been written for the french ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of an evaluation of the french cooperation policy in film. The aim here is to draw some general conclusions that will help to answer the question that the pilot committee posed when it commissioned the evaluation team to go to Nigeria – namely, is the development of home video in Nigeria a model for the rest of Africa ? Should certain elements be adopted, and are there any lessons to be learned ?

Is the Nigerian home video model exportable ?
1) Development in a specific context directly related to the economic and political environment.
The end of the oil boom, the deterioration of the balance of trade, and the dollar’s increase in value vis-à-vis the weak naira sealed the fate of Nigerian cinema. Celluloid movie production costs became prohibitive. Many filmmakers left the country to try to work in London or New York because of the military dictatorship. Finally, the rise in crime and corruption made the streets of the major towns so unsafe at night that people preferred to stay at home. The terrain was ripe for home video to emerge as the ideal, risk-free source of entertainment. In the meantime, movie theatres started to close down or were taken over by the churches that flourish in such moments of crisis and disorientation.
In this context, and given that the satellite channels, and particularly the South African channels, were flooded by American action movies, three types of productions emerged to meet public demand :
movies that evoke local cultural roots by updating legends ;
movies that play on urban fears with stories about vigilantes, for example ;
movies that explore social or emotional issues in an endogenous style.
2) A profitable but dwindling activity
When Mr. Holy Rock wondered how best to put to profit a cargo of blank video tapes that arrived at the Lagos docks from Taiwan at the end of the eighties, he heard about the profits people were making selling pre-recorded video tapes in Ghana (the first video production « Zinoba » was a big commercial hit in 1987). As there was nothing worth using on television, he had the first Yoruba-language story shot on VHS. It was an immediate hit and was immediately copied. « Living in Bondage », made by Chris Obi Rapu (under the pseudonym « Vic Mordi ») in 1992, an Ibo-language story of a man who signs a pact with the devil to get rich, was a huge hit. « Living in Bondage II » followed just a few months later. By 1994, production had taken off and the Idumota district of Lagos’ central market became devoted to home video.
Making a killing was, and remains, the main motivation behind these productions. Video production, which today supplies 15 000 video clubs around the country (only 4000 are registered, paying a tax of 45 Euros), and individual cassette sales, which can reach up to 200 000 copies of the same film, are the result of a logic by which people try to appeal simply in order to sell. Production is financed by the people who distribute the movies, who are known as « marketers » and who function without any other backing than the revenues they generate.
In the course of the first half of 2002, the marketers, who had noted a fall in sales, agreed not to produce any films for three months (from March to May 2002) in order to sell off their existing stocks (« to rehabilitate the sector »). The saturation of the market also came at a time when the profession, which had developed empirically without any kind of formal organization, was seeking a second wind and was worried about the competition that would inevitably force the country’s markets to open up. The huge rise in the number of producers (260 in 2001) and productions (2 a day on average, 1 a week in Ghana) made it harder to make a movie profitable. This in turn led to a fall in production budgets (from 5000 to 40 000 Euros, and 10 000 Euros on average) and thus a drop in quality, which was already sub-standard.
Interest has indeed flagged. Productions have grown so repetitive (always the same tired old recipes) that the public is now bored, under the impression that they are always seeing the same old thing. This confirms an old movie saying : no profits, no cinema ; but no creativity, no cinema either.
3) Video has never reached the same stature as cinema
That is not to say that there are no real artists. Filmmakers suffer from not being able to shoot real celluloid movies, or movies with budgets that guarantee even a minimum level of quality.
Contrary to what might have been hoped, the filmmakers trained in Western film schools (Sedik Balewa, Newton Aduaka, Odion P. Agboh, etc.) have not entered the home video circuits, trying instead to make movies with foreign funding (MAE, M-Net New Directions, etc.). Odion P. Agboh’s « Twins of the Rainforest », funded by M-Net and one of the best recent productions, has been screened in many foreign festivals, but has not been seen in Nigeria. Amaka Igwe has also made a movie in similar conditions, but it is hard to distribute abroad because its Nigerian English is hard to understand.
Nigerian movies were much awaited at the 2001 Fespaco (notably two shot on film by Ladi Ladepo), but proved to be a disappointment, revealing all the failings of home video (screenplays based entirely on the dialogues, highly theatrical acting styles, camera effects or dull camera work, poor sound tracks, etc.).
There is thus a clear divide between the two sectors, one of which continues to flourish, even if it is in crisis, the other which is practically inexistent and invisible, but which is crying out to exist.
4) The desire for cinema is still strong
There is no denying the dynamism of the market or audience interest in endogenous images. Every Sunday afternoon, Lagos’ Yoruba population heads off en masse to the National Theatre where Yoruba videos (« Juju videos », from the word « magic » in Yoruba) are shown from midday to nine p.m. There are screenings every three hours, and everyone meets up afterwards in the neighborhood bars (Abegi). Spectators often buy videos of the movies they see at the National Theatre so that they can watch them again at home. This proves that people still enjoy going out to the movies (that is, going to see a movie in a movie theatre with friends or family), a desire that can potentially be capitalized on once security improves.
The joint American-South African company Nu-Metro has understood this, and plans to build eight multiplex theaters in various Nigerian towns. One is already being built on Victoria Island in Lagos. The danger facing Nigerian production will then be that the American 35 mm productions distributed by Nu-Metro throughout English-speaking Africa (226 screens) will take over as they have everywhere else.
5) Several key figures stand out in this climate of self-sufficiency
Given the foreign competition, Nigerian productions will not be saved by endlessly churning out the same old successful recipes. Salvation no doubt lies in improving the quality of the way in which themes are treated, themes that are developed to meet public expectations.
In this production context, very many young people desperately want to get into film. The terrain is ripe for young artists to emerge, but they do so with no training, through capillary action, depending on connections with the financial backers.
A handful of director-producers who care about the artistic quality of their films, have taken an original path in this respect, notably Tunde Kelani, Zeb Ejiro, Femi Lassodé, Amaka Igwe, and Mahmoud Ali-Balogun.
Faced with the power of the marketers, they have developed their own production and distribution networks. Tunde Kelani, was trained as a film cameraman in television long before video was developed as ENG or EFP. He filmed newsreel, documentaries, sports, drama inserts etc. on film for use on television. Every television station had a film laboratory and processed and edited its film material in-house. He was a student of the London Film School where he did a diploma course in the Art and Technique of filmmaking, and returned to Nigeria by which time video was introduced for news coverage etc. He photographed not less than twenty feature films before he started directing. At this time Nigeria economy had collapsed and it was no longer possible to fund films. He started to use video in another way, as a story teller, and was looking for appropriate technology to film his stories. He therefore gained a lot of experience in digital filmmaking and introduced the mobile cinema using digital projector and sound equipment to take the cinema to the people. He owns an impressive plant that reproduces video-CDs, with shelf-loads of duplicating machines.
The promo methods developed by Zeb Ejiro in particular, who studied marketing in Britain, have proved to be highly effective. A video release is treated like a real event. Previews are organized, where wealthy Nigerians pay a very high price (15 to 30 Euros) to be seen (which sometimes already recoups a considerable part of the movie’s cost) ; rows of posters are billed without any authorization in the streets ; trailers of the movies are shown on video and television ; promo campaigns featuring the movie stars are organized on radio and television ; coverage is organized in the three specialist showbiz actors and movie magazines (Fame, National Encomium, and City People). Distribution works very efficiently through a network of a multitude of retail outlets (hawkers, street stalls, market stalls, hairdressers’ and other shops, etc.) before it is even possible to organize pirating the films. International distribution works via websites that distribute cassettes to Nigerian communities abroad.
These directors above all stand out for their cinematic approach, however. They combine a desire to raise public awareness of a variety of social issues (prostitution, Aids, corruption, urban violence, etc.) and the desire not to alienate their audiences, hence the inclusion of action scenes, special effects, and stars. They class their movies somewhere between auteur and popular film. Working independently of the marketers, they control their own movie content and the duration of the shoots. Whereas most movies are shot in under a week and then very quickly completed, Tunde Kelani spends about twenty days shooting, between eight to ten weeks editing, and four weeks on the soundtrack.
6) The video sector represents a real economic force
With average sales since the crisis of 10 to 12 000 copies per film (compared to 60 to 70 000 at the start of the home video boom) and a declared production of nearly 700 films, Nigerian home video turnover appears, despite the lack of reliable figures, to represent over 65 million Euros according to the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB). The sector is thought to have created nearly 3000 to 4000 jobs in the space of ten years. Home video exports represent a turnover of over 750 000 Euros. Hausa movies produced in Kano are very popular in traveling video clubs in Niger, as are Yoruba films in Benin and Togo. Cassettes dubbed into French are sold in various French-speaking African countries, and cassettes in English have invaded markets in neighboring countries and as far afield as Zambia and South Africa. Distribution on the Internet has opened up access to the diaspora.
7) The Nigerian home video model is not exportable
The Nigerian home video boom has its roots in a very specific local context, notably : high insecurity levels that forced people to stay at home in the evenings ; the collapse of the naira vis-à-vis the dollar, making production costs prohibitive ; local businessmen’s pragmatism ; a strong local culture and the importance of the ethnic factor (Yoruba theater, urban Ibo themes, local languages) ; a traditional Nigerian cinema that already paved the way ; the sharp rise in the number of VCRs and video-CD players in homes.
Home video has developed almost completely free of any regulations or organization of the profession. It’s a case of the survival of the fittest. Exploitation and all kinds of deviances are widespread (underpaid professionals, recycling of unsold cassettes causing images to jump, colors to fade, etc.).
Nigerian home video has developed on the back of existing markets. Cheaply made Nigerian productions have invaded markets in neighboring countries (Ghana, Cameroon, Niger, Benin, and the entire African market in general) thanks to dumping and aggressive sales practices. Pirating (of Ghanaian productions, for example) is rife. A unique model of cinematic production has thus emerged which risks undermining cinema for a long time. The mercantile sex and violence contained in the Nigerian videos that are exported and broadcast without carrying any warnings undermine the cultural values of the countries concerned (Ghana has thus been swamped by videos that shock local moral values whereas its own video productions respect them).
The need to produce at a low cost depreciates the artists who are forced to associate their names with mediocre products to survive.
The movies only recoup their costs if copies sell well. As sales have slowed down, investors are showing less interest and are starting to lose faith in the sector, looking for other fields in which to make profits. Such are the shortcomings of a system based solely on business and which so cruelly lacks structures and regulations.
8) The Nigerian model nonetheless offers some undeniable assets worth reflecting upon
Video is part of a movie’s commercial lifespan (in the following order : theatre release, video release, broadcast on fee-paying television, on public television, on planes and in hotels). In South Africa, video distribution doubles or triples a movie’s revenues. Video’s success in Nigeria suggests that there is the potential to distribute film products profitably.
There is a great deal to be learnt from the promo methods developed by the Nigerians, including their poster campaigns, trailers, specialist magazine coverage, radio and television coverage, etc. The same goes for their original selling methods which are truly in touch with their audiences, notably the many street stalls, hawkers, sales in hairdressers’, the multiplication of video clubs, promo events such as those in Ghana where floats go round, their teams offering cassettes to passer-bys, etc.).
Sponsoring by car firms, drinks companies, hotels, etc. is very common too.
Nigerian productions offer a popular film form that is close to the audience’s preoccupations and reflects their daily lives (comedies of manners), fears (urban violence), legends (Yoruba myths), and supernatural realm (witchcraft).
The organized star system means that the actors are a real promo asset for the movies. This is fuelled by purely sensationalist media coverage that may well be superficial (often focusing on their private lives), but which is also effective.
Nigerian professionals unanimously insist on the sense of pride the success of the sector gives them. They see the phenomenon as the proof that Africa has the potential to produce its own images without foreign backing. They would like to represent Nigeria at international film festivals and are conscious that this can help them to improve Nigeria’s image around the world.
Home video professionals are anxious to make the most of the advantages of digital technology on shoots and in broadcasting to improve quality (video-CD players are affordable in Nigeria, costing around 45 Euros). Efforts to develop new markets have encouraged people to experiment with movie dubbing in order to be able to distribute further afield. Dubbing is hindered, however, by the lack of an international version at the shooting stage, which makes it impossible to dub the original sound track.
Having a social message opens up additional distribution circuits, such as public screenings in universities, traveling movie buses (Zeb Ejiro’s « Domitilla », a film about prostitution, was such a hit that the term is now commonly used to refer to prostitutes ; Kelani screened the Zimbabwean film « Yellow Card » in 200 schools, even in Benin, thanks to a regional grant).
The professional milieu is beginning to organize itself, especially the actors (the National Association of Nigerian Theater Arts Practitioners (NANTAP) and the Nigerian Actors Guild (NAG). Marketers are also becoming more organized (more concentrated around several dynamic companies, such as Infinity and Kas-video), and together agreed on a voluntary production recess. Trade seminars have been held, such as the Onitsha seminar in June 2002, where basic rules were adopted to supervise the recovery of video club takings, and to negotiate with the Video Club Owners Association of Nigeria (VCOAN). The sector’s dynamism has enabled centripetal forces to emerge, notably bodies that are looking for quality, such as the « Committee for Relevant Arts », which edits the City Art Guide, a free cultural magazine, and organizes a Cinema Carnival in Lagos every September. Media influence, which gives widespread coverage to new video releases, is growing, thereby enabling film critics to emerge. Dailies such as « The Guardian » or « The Comet » publish long articles on the sector and its new productions. As the sector becomes more organized, it is able to offer local answers to the advertisers’ and NGO’s commissions. Following the American model, sequels of hit movies are shot, such as « Issakaba » 1, 2, 3 and 4.
Intense video production is formative. Instead of waiting for a hypothetical shoot to happen, people get out there and make films. If professionals were given access to the training programs they ask for, they could considerably improve the quality of their productions.
The sector’s development has facilitated the democratization of image production and the emergence of young filmmakers and film technicians.
9) From celluloid to digital
Although there is a desire to return to shooting on celluloid again – « Amazons of Afrika’s » 30 million naira budget (1.5 million French Francs) will enable the director to shoot on celluloid film and « Shango » was shot on both film and video, even though the 15 million naira budget was insufficient to complete the film version – for practical reasons the future will clearly be digital (closure of movie theaters, lack of equipment and means, zero public backing). Digital indeed offers a way of combining both film and video approaches.
Digital screenings are a possibility for the future, especially as there is already a perceptible tendency to re-open movie theaters as security gradually improves. Nu-Metro is building a chain of multiplexes in Nigeria, but simply to put on Hollywood, and occasionally South African, productions (« Harry Potter » was a big hit in the new movie theater opened in Nairobi, for example).
10) The difficulties posed by pirating still need to be resolved
Video pirating is rampant. The Ghanaian director Socrate Safo has described how the Nigerians even go as far as changing the credits and adding scenes with their own actors in order to give the movies greater commercial appeal when they pirate Ghanaian films !
It is the very people who sell videos who are responsible for the pirating. They do not respect the contracts and print their own cassette covers for the movies they distribute, instead of using covers supplied by the producers, which serve as a basis for calculating the royalties owed. Pirating is also rampant in the video stalls, but the marketers sometimes carry out harsh punitive raids to punish the guilty parties.
Despite the importance of the Nigerian television network (70 regional channels), television does not yet represent a way of financing movies. Movies are either pirated (unauthorized programs with no broadcasting contracts), or traded for advertising space for the next production (three minute spots for a feature film). There are hardly any documentaries. Yet there is great potential. The Nigerian answer to pirating is above all to massively release a movie on all circuits at the same time to beat the pirates to it.

///Article N° : 5666


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