The story behind Nigerian cinemas

Mar 27, 2018|Merlin Uwalaka

The year is 2016 and Lagos is taking over the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF). For Nollywood, this is a milestone. The world is being given the opportunity to interact with Nigerian storytelling. Nigeria's brightest filmmakers are receiving recognition as the new generation to bring Nollywood to the world.

But one obstacle stands in the way: poor distribution. On one TIFF panel, industry experts asserted that the lack of viewing screens (distribution) is the biggest hindrance to the growth of New Nollywood. Why does Nigeria have such a low number of cinema screens?


History of Distribution cinema in Nigeria 

The year is 1942 and Nigeria is still a British colony. There are 11 cinema chains and 44 screens. “A new fire bomb” is showing in theatres across Lagos, a growing cosmopolitan city. British propaganda movies are produced and distributed by the Colonial Film Unit (CFU) to spread British imperialism.

The year is 1972 and “The Godfather” is showing in a cinema near you. You can experience the exciting lives of Don Vito Corleone and Al Pacino in any of the 300 film theatres (1500 screens) scattered across the country. It is the Golden age of Nigerian Cinema. Unfortunately, only American and Asian movies are allowed to show.

If you were a young anti-imperialist, you followed the works of Nigerian travel theatre groups; Agbegijo and Alarinjo. Those with a taste for Nigerian storytelling could watch stars like Duro Ladipo literally light up stages. Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria's Head of State, must have been a fan too because that year, he issued the indigenisation Decree which demanded the transfer of ownership of 300 film theatres from their foreign owners to Nigerians.

The year is 1994. Due to a fall in the value of the Naira, inadequate funding and marketing support, lack of standard film studios and inexperience on the part of the practitioners, Nigerian cinema culture is dead. The earlier oil boom had facilitated investment in film production but this dried up as the recession hit. The depreciation of the naira from ₦1=$1 to ₦22=$1 hit the industry hard as a lot of the equipment and post-production work required foreign exchange.

The oil boom had also created a middle class able to afford television sets and home video players, ushering in an era of low budget home movies. For filmmakers, a growing home movie industry was the only refugee from new economic realities. As the straight-to-video industry boomed, cinemas became obsolete, and distribution was carried out through sales/rental outlets. Nollywood was born.


New Nollywood and the need for cinemas

The year is 2016 and “New Nollywood” has truly emerged. After notable films like "The Figurine" and "The Last Flight to Abuja" that did well at the box office, Nigerian filmmakers began to take larger bets. But with movie budgets ten times more than the straight-to-video movies, the old distribution methods wouldn’t cut it. For one, piracy was a big issue. A producer of one of the first Nigerian home videos lost money to pirates! A single pirate with market visibility can slash expected revenues. The big screen can help mitigate this; as cinemas become the primary distribution platform, the influence of pirates reduces. 

But with just under 200 screens across the country, and most concentrated in Lagos, Abuja, and Ibadan, Nollywood is lagging behind. The United States has nearly 40,000 screens, India has more than 13,000. Unsurprisingly, even as Nigeria is seeing greater investment in movie theatres, there have been calls for more. Amid this, one would wonder: is there really that much demand for cinemas in Nigeria? 


Willingness to Pay and Willingness to View

Many factors affect the demand for cinemas: access and convenience, willingness to pay, the culture of home videos, etc. More movie theatres in more states across the country would solve the issue of access and convenience. That leaves willingness to pay and movie viewing culture. Research shows that a country's income affects the number of cinema admission. When compared with the average, ticket prices in developing countries are relatively high. The success of New Nollywood depends on the willingness to pay and disposable income. With a low disposable income, we can safely assume that Nigerian are not willing to spend on movie tickets. In truth, "New Nollywood" remains reliant on Nigeria's middle class – a small fraction of the country's 180 million people. That explains statistics like this

Yet, we cannot be sure that more Nigerians would go to the cinema if they were richer. This quick twitter poll suggests Nigerians do not go to the cinema for reasons beyond cost. 

The truth is, we have no reference point for when Nigerian stories were frequently viewed on the big screen. The cinematic golden age was focused on foreign content, so the brave filmmakers of "New Nollywood" are breaking new ground. The risk is that Nigeria's relative poverty and low demand for movie theatres may stall the industry. The rise in a middle class cinema culture set the foundation for "New Nollywood" to grow, and it looks like the future of the industry remains tied to the appeal of the big screen. 

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