Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Nollywood: is better distribution the remedy for piracy?

While my colleagues at Berkman are very good about scheduling many of the Center’s most exciting events on Tuesdays – the day I leave western MA for the wonders of Cambridge – there are lots of events too good to miss the other six days of the week that I attend virtually. In Berkman parlance, we refer to people who call into meeting as being “in the ceiling”, which reflects both where the speakers are for our conference call setup in our conference room, and makes vague allusions to the Ceiling Cat phenomenon, as an overamplified remote participant can sound like the voice of God.

I was “in the ceiling” for a lunch conversation at Berkman this past Friday about the future of the Nigerian film industry. This means that, while I know the conversation included luminaries like Ronaldo Lemos of the Center for Technology and Society at FGV Law School in Rio, business strategist Dayo Ogunyemi, filmmaker Robb Moss, film critic Shaibu Husseini, World Bank economic expert Chioma Nwagboso and Berkman’s own Yochai Benkler, I basically have no idea who said what. So rather than giving my usual blow by blow, I’ll offer my takeaways from the conversation.

Colin Maclay (who hosted this conversation), Mike Best and I met with a number of Nollywood luminaries in Lagos a few months back and got an introduction to the concerns and anxieties of the world’s second largest film industry (in terms of films produced annually, not in revenue terms.) On that trip, we learned that Nollywood’s financial structure is utterly different from that of India’s film industry. Nigerian films make virtually all their money from single-copy sales, rather than from licensing, foreign rights or theatrical screening. As a result, piracy can have a much sharper impact than in other markets. In India, some scholars refer to piracy as “a marketing expense”, as the sale of pirated films may encourage other viewers to go see the films in theatres. It’s harder to make this case in Nigeria, where over 90% of revenue comes from the actual sale of DVDs and VCDs and there’s virtually no revenue from screenings.

In our discussions at Berkman, a core idea emerged – piracy is a response to poor distribution networks. One of our participants explained that capital is so scarce within the Nigerian film industry that distributors usually produce 50,000 copies of a film in a first run – all they can afford – and hope to issue a second run using revenues from the first run. But the audience for Nollywood films is massive: one participant tells us that the least successful films sell 30,000 copies. So when a film is a hit, it’s quickly pirated. The pirate copies aren’t necessarily cheaper than the legitimate copies – often, they sell at a similar price and they’re chosen simply because they are the only copies available.

Filmmakers know they’re going to need to recover costs by selling the first 50,000 copies. As a result, some are releasing their films in two, three or four parts, hoping to sell an initial 50,000 copies of each. A few days after the film has been released, the film is likely to start appearing either as a pirated copy, or as part of a compilation. Compilations, one of our participants told us, are generally produced in China and can include up to 100 low-quality films on a DVD.

For whatever underlying reasons, the Yoruba-language film world – where the average film sells 50-100,000 copies – seems to have better distribution systems. Original films are produced in larger runs and often meet market demand before unauthorized copies enter the market. This may be a function of the fact that the Yoruba-language film industry preceded the English/pidgin market and has had more time to work through financing and distribution issues.

Filmmakers continue to look for a technical fix to their problems – there’s some enthusiasm for a copy protection solution from an Indian company (possibly Aft-India), though skepticism that any scheme can remain unbroken for long. (“The Figurine“, an extremely high-quality and much discussed film, hasn’t yet been released on DVD – one of our participants tells us the film will be copy protected before release.)

The real answer may be improving film financing, so that filmmakers are able to raise money by selling equity in their films, enabling them to invest in larger distribution runs. Financing might also help filmmakers pay the fees to the censorship board, which reviews all films before release. (Ghana, by contrast, has had very little film censorship. Perhaps in response to this, Ghanaian films have been pushing the boundaries, showing nudity, sexual situations and producing some films that are probably best characterized as soft porn. Ghana’s ministry of information has announced a new censorship board – it will be interesting to see whether this board quashes this new trend in Gollywood cinema.)

While people in our group expressed concern about distribution, no one seems especially worried about Nigeria’s ability to churn out appealing and crowd-pleasing films, and for those films to compete with Hollywood. One of our discussants noted that the James Bond film Quantum of Solace grossed $280,000 in theatrical release in Nigeria, and that many top Nigerian films gross above $200,000. Those numbers sound small, but they reflect the fact that there are five official cinemas in a country of over 130 million people. If Nigeria had the cinema infrastructure of a country like India, some speculate, we’d see a shift in the economics of Nollywood. We might see the emergence of a model like that used for music in Jamaica, where musicians are shifting from trying to sell records to trying to sell concert tickets. Films like The Figurine launch with “yellow carpet” premieres and expensive ticket prices – those who attend on opening night are paying a premium for the experience and the exclusivity.

Not all these big-budget films are artistic successes. “Kajola” was billed as Nollywood’s first great sci-fi flick. It had a production budget nearing a million dollars – huge by Nollywood standards, where “big films” are usually made for less than $100,000. Set in a totalitarian future Nigeria of 2059, the film uses a combination of live action and computer graphics… and turns out something that looks a lot like a bad video game. (The reviews I’ve read inevitably conclude with the reviewer walking out of the film.)

On the other hand, films that are predictable and fairly low-tech are sometimes going viral. Yoruba comedy Jenifa tells the story of a country girl come to Lagos to go to college… and laughed at for her backwards ways. So she recreates herself as a new woman, “Jenifa”, and shows up her mates up. One of our panelists suggested that this film was the first in Nigeria to be promoted successfully online, where stills, quotes and reviews circulated widely amongst the ~ 2 million Nigerian Facebook users. (You can watch Jenifa on YouTube, though it’s an unauthorized copy. It’s subtitled, which is good for us non-Yoruba speakers out there. This points to a long-term challenge for the industry – filmmakers would like to make money from audiences in the diaspora, which is hard to do, as many movies get chopped into ten minute chunks and posted on YouTube. This tends not to affect the domestic market, because connectivity in Nigeria is so expensive, it would be insane to try to watch this film online in West Africa rather than buying a legit or pirated copy.)

The best market for Nigerian culture may be outside Nigeria, the problems of YouTube distribution aside. One discussant tells us about Nigerian hiphop group P-Square recently sold several million copies of their latest album. A distributor purchased and sent six million copies to the East African market. Not only has the record succeeded, it has allowed the group to demand $100,000 – $150,000 for live performances. Perhaps, some of our group speculated, this is the future for Nigerian cinema – live screenings of new films across the continent and film stars demanding appearance fees similar to those of hiphop stars.


This earlier post on the Nigerian film industry may be interesting to you as well.

2 Responses to “Nollywood: is better distribution the remedy for piracy?”

  1. I’ve been very interested in Nollywood cinema ever since I heard about it in Good Copy, Bad Copy. I wonder if there is a future trend of building more cinemas, and what that would depend on. When it comes to overseas audiences (which are so important for Bollywood movies), there’s no point in blaming YouTube piracy when there is no good legitimate way of obtaining these movies.

    I have been interested in watching Nollywood movies for a long time, and have still not found a good place to watch them online. Why don’t they set up a deal with Netflix, I am sure they would be happy to have them. Or set up something themselves – if there was a place where I could pay 2$ through PayPal to download high-quality subtitled Nollywood movies (with reviews etc), I’d probably buy a bunch. Maybe I’d even organize a small Nollywood film festival in my living room :)

  2. Ethan says:

    Stian, there are several sites where you can watch Nollywood films. Some are clearly violating copyrights and posting films to YouTube, then selling ads on the embedded content – nollywoodlove.com is one example of this. Afrovision.tv seems to do the same thing using Vimeo to store video. A few firms are trying to license content – i.e., actually pay the producers! – and distribute online, often via subscription models. One is izognmovies.com

    I hope you have your Nollywood film festival soon – sounds like good fun.

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