Nollywood comes to Hollywood

This is just one of the hundreds of productions coming out of Nigeria’s Nollywood.
This is just one of the hundreds of productions coming out of Nigeria’s Nollywood.

Does Hollywood have any real competition? Do they have someone to learn from? An industry with fresh ideas and initiative? Bollywood, maybe? But it is decades old and still does not have the impact that Hollywood seems to.

What about Nollywood? Wait, what is Nollywood, you ask?

From June 13-17, 2005, Nollywood Rising: Global Perspectives On The Nigerian Film Industry will make its debut in Los Angeles as a way of recognizing the world’s third largest film industry, Nollywood, centered in Nigeria, Africa. This convention, based at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City is designed to bring the Nigerian film industry to Hollywood so that both can share information, opportunities, and perceptions.

As a way for me to really get an idea of what was going on at the convention, I sat down with Dr. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, assistant professor of Art History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Ogbechie is a major organizer behind Nollywood Rising and has understandably huge aspirations for the event. Dr. Ogbechie sees this as a way for himself and other successful Nigerians to become further involved with their country’s art and art industries.

Nigeria has experienced much strife and just as much development over the last few decades. In 1982, Dr. Ogbechie was in Nigeria watching when ground was broken at their International Airport. Just over 10 years later, he was back in the country speaking with some associates. During that trip he met an acquaintance who in the next decade made 14 feature films. In 1998, Dr. Ogbechie spent some time with Emeka, a college graduate friend who had a four-story building loaded with film and video equipment in Surulerue, Lagos.

Dr. Ogbechie has watched Nigeria and its film industry grow to become the third largest in the world. Nollywood represents many things to the good doctor and the Nigerian people, but also to the world.

Nollywood’s impact was summed up by Dr. Ogbechie when he told me that one eighth of the world’s black people are Nigerian and that one seventh of the African population is Nigerian. However, Dr. Ogbechie really put the event into perspective when he said, “This industry is completely owned and managed and controlled by Nigerians. What this convention may do is to bring attention to the fact that there is actually a film industry on this planet that is controlled by black people. Where black people green light the movie, decide on what scripts are produced, decide on production values and facilities, and handle all aspects of production and distribution… this is huge, just for that alone.”

Dr. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie
Dr. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie

For Dr. Ogbechie, the Nigerian film industry is an “international medium that expresses African ideas in a way that Africans can relate to, cutting across all backgrounds… It is a Nigerian thing, it is the way that we see the country. Since the revolution, it is what we expected of the country. There is a lot of energy setting things how we want them.” However, Dr. Ogbechie also said, “…Nollywood in general is not limiting itself, it is a melting pot. This is a global development of significant proportions… this appeals to national culture and global economies.”

Dr. Ogbechie spoke about how through the media, it is easy to see the negative stereotypes of Africa: the famine, the AIDS epidemic, and other very real tragedies. However when he returned to the subject of Nollywood, he said, “These films show an Africa that you are never able to explain to students, they show people in magnificent houses, dressed to the nines, and driving the latest luxury cars. This produced an urban identity for people in the urban environment who up till now have been marginalized in the discourse of African contemporary cultural existence.”

According to Dr. Ogbechie, the Nigerian film industry was spawned from the culture by building on established television dramas and a tradition of indigenous theatre practices. Much of the marketing is strictly word of mouth and low-level advertising. Nollywood survives on a straight-to-video market that started out using analogue equipment, but has quickly moved to modern digital media that is considered contemporary technology. In Nigeria, it is easy for filmmakers to “…shoot the video inexpensively and then immediately move it to DVD because it is already digital.”

Dr. Ogbechie did say that many of the “…money people do have a very strong hand in the industry…” and these same money people try to push their stars into roles. However, Dr. Ogbechie also said that Nollywood has “…created a star system that is comprised of people from all over Nigeria, Pan-Nigerian… you become a star based on your face recognition value. It’s American Idol in a different way… the people who become famous are the ones that have found a way to connect with a larger audience.”

Again pulling from their culture, Dr. Ogbechie said that many of the Nollywood films are “…converting prominent stories from major Nigerian writers. What they have done is found a general popular outlet for anxieties by resolving them in easily manipulated situations. These are clear morality tales. Good people are really good and bad people are really evil. The collision between these people produce a satisfactory visual experience.” Dr. Ogbechie also went on to say that with Nollywood Rising, they “…want to discuss the role of the writer in a Hollywood film and how that applies to Nollywood. The writing and the novelization of ideas will play a large role in Nollywood.”

Dr. Ogbechie said that an important aspect of the Nigerian film industry is the “…low cost of production. $50,000 will get you a reasonable film made, $100,000 will get you some of the top actors, and $1 million will buy you whatever kind of production you want.” Film turnaround is amazingly quick in Nigeria. Dr. Ogbechie said, “Films are made in 3 weeks.” About Hollywood, he then poses the question: “…if it is possible to do this, why is it taking 100 million dollars and 3-5 years to make a script from green lighting to the release of a movie?”

Obviously, Nollywood has many things to gain from hosting their first annual convention in the heart of the world’s largest film industry. As Dr. Ogbechie said “…at the end of the convention, the Internet value, the brand value of the name becomes something of value… we are not yet branded, this convention is an attempt to brand the name. The convention is an attempt to standardize Nollywood… to develop standards by which things are shot and produced. The focus on the convention is business with Hollywood directors, writers, and producers present.”

When I asked Dr. Ogbechie where he saw or wanted to see Nollywood in 10 years, he admittedly tried to dodge the question but did talk about a few things. “There was a Washington Post article on April 17th that said: Africa’s business opportunities are growing at a 60 percent return rate.” Dr. Ogbechie put this in perspective by saying, “China is only growing at a nine percent rate.”

Emotional Crack

With a smile on his face and excitement in his eyes, Dr. Ogbechie went on to say, “It’s going to be huge because it is already conceptually gargantuan. It will become professionalized, money will move in. There will be investments in the Nigerian stock market. What this thing is feeding is a mass desire for a voice. A desire for a way of doing something that is beholden only to us.”

On discussing the potential market for Nollywood, Dr. Ogbechie went on to say, “…this is the first time in the history of the world when the immigrant need not sever ties with their home country. These are not immigrants, these are bicoastal international citizens. We are talking about Nigerians in the Diaspora literally instead of talking about Nigerian expatriates.”

Not only is the Nollywood audience in Nigeria, they are spread all over the world and the potential for the same word of mouth marketing that works in Nigeria and Africa has a new potential through the internet.

Coming away from my talk with Dr. Ogbechie, I had a lot of things on my mind: Maybe Hollywood has something to learn from a fledgling film industry that is burgeoning and striving in today’s modern, mass media, global economic, Internet friendly world. Nollywood is surviving and doing very well for itself in a world where it has plenty of very strong competition from Hollywood, Bollywood, and even Asian Cinema.

I also think that this could be a huge potential for young filmmakers to make their break, to make their first movies, to establish themselves and show that they have the potential and ability to put together a film. And for the people on the street, the viewing audience, there also exists a new outlet, Nollywood films. As someone who has a huge appetite for new and interesting movies, I have a new place to look.

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