Rising African Film Industries: The Nollywood-South Africa Axis

Written by Veronica Pamoukaghlian

Africa’s movie industry has grown tremendously in recent years led by increased commercial production in Nigeria and South Africa. While South Africa boasts more dynamic relationships with the world’s top film markets than Nigeria, the west African country has one of the most vibrant local audiences.

With more than 1 million people employed in the film industry in Nigeria, the sector is the second largest employer after agriculture in a country that relies mainly on oil and gas to fuel its economy. South Africa’s film sector on the other hand employs more than 35,000 people.

The rest of the continent remains largely a consumers market of films from these two countries. Film makers in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania are still struggling to make productions profitable.

The answer to boosting film production around the continent seems to lie with the Nollywood model that focuses on low-budget films financed locally rather than the South African model which depends largely on foreign funding and partnerships.

The financial crises in Europe and U.S. crippled many small film companies in recent years, making them less reliable as sources of financing and expertise.

In other words, African countries with non-existent film industries perhaps need to focus more on finding and nurturing local audiences than trying to get into the Cannes Film Festival.

Nigeria’s film industry, better known as Nollywood, had played a key role in helping the country’s economy become the largest on the continent with a GDP of more than $522 billion, according to Michael Ekenyerengozi, a Nigerian media expert and consultant for Canada-based IMAX Corp. and Johns Hopkins University.

Films that can stop wars…for a few hours

Northern Nigeria has more than 1,000 screening centers or community cinemas, many of them, informal, even in someone’s living room. Armed groups such as Boko Haram terrorists and Ivorian rebels have been known to stop fighting to watch new film releases — not a bad reason to scale up local film funds, Ekenyerengozi said in a U.N. report.

Counting both professional and amateur films, Nollywood produces about 2,500 films a year. Over the years, it has consistently been ahead of other film industries in the world except for India’s Bollywood.

The Nigeria Bureau of Statistics estimates the industry’s share of Nigeria’s GDP at 1.4 percent. With budgets often less than $30,000, $1-video CD releases, and in spite of rampant piracy, Nollywood has managed to create countless media jobs, while offering Nigerians the chance to see their own people and cultures portrayed on the big screen.

So far, Nigerian film has not fared as well outside the country.

Initiatives such as the 2014 EAVE Lagos workshop help bridge the gap between local productions and the global film market. EAVE is a Europe-based film networking organization that holds workshops around the world to create opportunities for emerging talent.

Mariam Adams, an EAVE Lagos participant and a former child presenter on a local Nigerian TV station, told AFKInsider her interest in film sparked after she saw Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in a Bollywood movie. She has since been passionate about film making, and she dreams of bringing the Indian star to shoot in Nigeria, connecting the worlds of Nollywood and Bollywood.

“There are many points in common between Indian culture and the Hausa tribes,” Adams said.

“Nollywood is talentopia,” she told AFKInsider, “a world full of natural talents, and it aspires to be the best from the actors to the production crews. A world that never sleeps or fails to showcase our rich culture and stories for a better understanding, against all odds, especially when it comes to funding.”

Not enough films from Africa?

Stakeholders interested in funding movie productions in Africa complained that they do not get enough projects from Africa, according to South African producer Elias Ribeiro of Urucu Films.

Initiatives like the EAVE Workshop, which bring foreign experts to African soil in order to help African talent tell their own stories, may, in the long run, provide the platform necessary to bring African films to a wider international audience, stakeholders say.

“Since Nigeria is one of the biggest film industries in the world, we were very curious,” said Roshanak Nedjad, the production tutor at the EAVE Lagos event. “We found Nigerian producers to be very well prepared, much more than their European equivalents. Nigerian producers do have a business; they have an audience, they know their audience and they want to serve (it).”

But Nigeria is not representative of the film industry in Africa, Nedjad said. In just 35 years, Nollywood grew from zero local production to become one of the top three local film markets in the world. Nollywood is more the exception than the norm.

South and North African film have had a slightly easier path to international distribution. Egyptian productions are some of the key players in North Africa.

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