How Nigeria became the 2nd biggest film industry in the world

In 2009, the UNESCO rated the Nigerian film industry as the second-biggest film industry in the world. While this might be an unknown fact to many people in Western societies, the story behind can provide a different understanding of both the film industry itself and how different preconditions and approaches can be successful in their own ways.

It isn’t a secret that the US American culture has a strong impact on many other countries around the globe. Especially US American movie productions have dominated the film market for centuries and thereby influenced many other societies, particularly the European. In 2018, 63.2% of the films that had been distributed to the European Union were US productions, 29.4% were European films and only 2.1% were films from other countries. Within those 2.1%, there must be films of those film industries that are actually amongst the largest in the world when it comes to the number of film productions. While it might be known that India produces the largest number of films every year, much fewer people could name the country with the second-biggest film industry in the world – Nigeria.

Let’s broaden our horizons and find out how and why Nigeria became the second-biggest film industry in the world, and why probably nobody of us has ever seen a Nigerian movie before.

It is widely assumed that the starting point was an event that took place in 1992. When filmmaker Kenneth Nnebue imported a stockpile of blank videotapes from Taiwan and had some struggle in selling them, it came to his mind that it might be a good idea to put a film on them, so he could sell them easier and even for more. So instead of producing a movie for the cinema first and selling it through VHS after, Nnebue recorded the film straight to VHS. The movie was called “Living in Bondage” and was a massive success with hundreds of thousand sold copies. Inspired by this success story, many other businessmen and filmmakerssaw their chance and invested in video movie production as well – the home video film era started.

The industry was characterized by speed, low cost, and informality. Many movies were shot in only two weeks, meaning with pre-production and editing they could be produced and ready for sale in just one month of work.

In contrast to cinema productions, which were dependent on foreign funding, schooling, and inspiration, the video industry was profitable and self-sufficient. It was an industry that hasn’t originated from governmental policies or anything similar but emerged as a response to economic, social, and political struggle, developed by Nigerian entrepreneurs. It became one of the fastest-growing sectors in the Nigerian economy and has created thousands of jobs.

But all of this couldn’t have worked if there would be no audience for the movies. Since the majority of the films were shot in the shortest time with a minimal budget, their quality was comparatively much lower. Here it comes to a change in perspective and a different understanding of what ‘quality’ for the audience of those films actually means.

Even though the aesthetics and appearance of the movies were much worse compared to e.g. expensive Hollywood productions, they had something that seemed to be more valuable to the Nigerians than anything else – a local narrative.

People could identify themselves with the films, their stories, their unique cultural aspects, their languages. Even though some of the movies can be counted to genres like horror, comedy, or romantic, there were also uniquely Nigerian themes like mythic parable, witchcraft melodrama, or Christian morality tale.

Another factor that explains the success of Nigerian movies is that this local narrative actually takes a really wide spectrum. Nigeria is not just Nigeria. It has many different ethnicities and languages. The vast majority of the films were produced in one of Nigeria’s 500+ indigenous languages, making the movies even more local and distinct. On the other hand, “more general” Nigerian films didn’t solely appeal to people in Nigeria, but to Africans in general. Their stories were relatable and much closer to their own culture than the ones of movies made in Hollywood.

It didn’t take too much time until the Nigerian films dominated the African continent. Although piracy was a big issue and a threat for Nigerian Filmmakers, it cannot be denied that it was also one of the reasons why the popularity of the Nigerian film industry expanded so quickly. The movies strongly influenced cultures in many African nations, for example in the way people dressed and in the use of Nigerian slang. Several governments and public figures saw this as a threat to their own cultural heritage and tried to take measures in order to prevent the “Nigerianization” of their countries and Africa.

Even further, the popularity of Nigerian movies was not limited to the African continent only. In fact, one of the largest markets for the Nigerian film industry is the Nigerian and African diaspora. Especially for those groups of Africans living outside of Africa, the appearance of streaming websites and VoD (Video on Demand) platforms offering African and especially Nigerian films made it even easier to widen their range.

At that stage, the Nigerian film industry has already changed a lot compared toits early beginnings. Instead of low cost and low “quality” video productions, more and more films were made with higher budgets, improved in visual aesthetics, and were produced for theatrical release again. Those improvements combined with the Afro-centric made the Nigerian movies even more appealing. It was and still is a try to compete more and more with industries like e.g. Hollywood, which are still way more successful in terms of revenues. Throughout the years and due to the improvements the Nigerian film industry undertook, its importance for the Nigerian economy became even bigger.

The industry generates 600 million dollars per year and is, after agriculture, the second largest employer in Nigeria with more than one million people working in this field.

The success story goes on.

Recently, some of the big Nigerian movie productions were able to reach international success, but those are still exceptions. But if you ask me, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Since we just learn from the Nigerian example, most of the people want to get picked up where they are, meaning they want to see what they know and can relate to. For Nigerian movies to become more appealing to people in western societies, they probably would have to give up what made them successful in the first place, their local narrative. So instead of waiting for Nigerian films to become the same as US films, why not trying something new and watching an authentic Nigerian movie. Who knows, maybe you’ll like it more than you think.

Christopher Machold


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